Freeway fighter: A vision to replace I-35 in Duluth gains momentum
One day nearly five years ago, when Jordan van der Hagen was in college studying landscape architecture, he was walking across the Lake Avenue Bridge in Duluth, where he had a summer internship.
The overpass crosses Interstate 35, which separates downtown from Canal Park, Duluth's booming tourist district along Lake Superior.
“I was just kind of walking across trying to think of something to do for my thesis,” he recalled, when suddenly a car cut right in front of him on the crosswalk.
Luckily, it missed him. But at that moment he was hit with an idea, to come up with a new design plan to make it easier, and safer, to walk or bike from downtown to the lake.
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"It's really just about getting rid of this barrier [I-35] and replacing it with a space for people to take ownership of and come together as a community,” he said.
The basic idea is to condense the freeway and all its related infrastructure — which right now stretches about 14 lanes across — into a lower-speed, six-lane urban parkway.
That would allow for more streets and sidewalks and bike paths to cross between downtown and the lakefront. Standing on the overpass where he once almost got hit, van der Hagen argues it would also free up nearly 20 acres of land that could be converted to parks, housing and space for businesses.
"The exciting thing about that is, you're not getting rid of buildings or houses, you're just getting rid of concrete,” he said. “All of this stuff that we're looking at is 44 acres of space. And so we're just trying to find what the best use for it is. And we don't think that it should all be covered in concrete for cars to drive on."
Van der Hagen's idea started out as a thesis. But it slowly grew. He moved to Duluth, formed a loose-knit group with other supporters called the Duluth Waterfront Collective and developed a website and a project name — Highway 61 Revisited, an homage to the Bob Dylan tune and the highway that I-35 replaced decades ago.
He helped design before and after visions of the project, showing people what the area looks like now, and what it could look like — an attractive, urban-scale street with trees and shops and bike lanes and people congregating, rather than a wide, foreboding stretch of concrete and cars zooming past.
Van der Hagen’s idea may sound like a pipe dream to some, but he’s part of a larger group of “freeway fighters” around the country who are pushing plans to replace freeways with urban boulevards. The Congress for the New Urbanism counts more than 30 such projects.
And in some places they’re more than mere proposals. Freeways have been ripped out in more than a dozen cities from San Francisco to Milwaukee, and dozens more projects are proposed in other cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“So what we've been trying to do as a group is showing people that it doesn't have to look like what we're looking at right now,” van der Hagen said. “It could be something completely different. And we're trying to inspire that sort of change and getting people to think about that."
‘My mind blew’
When van der Hagen first started advocating for the project, he pitched the concept to anyone who would listen. He figures he's hosted well over 100 Zoom meetings with businesses, community groups and local leaders.
One of the first people he contacted was Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who said she’s genuinely excited to be a supporter.
“I’m grateful for the leadership Jordan and advocates are bringing to this and will continue to support their efforts to broaden stakeholders and pursue planning dollars,” Larson said.
He also reached out to city council member Roz Randorf, who represents Canal Park and downtown on the Duluth City Council.
"He changed my mind on how things are to how things could be, and could be better,” Randorf said. “It was almost like my mind blew. Who knew we didn't need 14 lanes of highway cutting through and splitting our city right down the middle?”
Randorf says she supports more "people-powered" transportation, especially in her district, where many of her constituents don't own vehicles. She said I-35 "is not inclusive to all of the people who live right next to it."
This past summer, Randorf co-sponsored a resolution declaring the council's support of the project, and encouraged the city to pursue the vision. It passed unanimously.
But van der Hagen has also encountered plenty of naysayers. Most people, he said, just want to know how their commute will be impacted. He argues that the current freeway only carries about half the traffic it was designed to handle and that his proposal would only increase drive times by a couple minutes at most.
Van der Hagen said people also want to know what local businesses think about the idea. The reaction he’s heard from the business community has been mixed, he said.
“I would say that it is an exciting and aspirational idea to reimagine that I-35 corridor,” said Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Baumgartner, adding that he supports the prospect of freeing up more land for development and better connecting Canal Park to downtown and the burgeoning Lincoln Park craft district.
“The questions that kind of remain are the logistics of it. How long would something like this take? How would it be paid for? What kind of disruption to traffic would take place?” he asked, saying that businesses have already had to contend with reconstructions to Superior Street through downtown and the Duluth Lakewalk.
Those are the kinds of questions that would have to get answered in a more formal study that van der Hagen and others are pushing for. Minnesota Department of Transportation district engineer Duane Hill says the department has secured funding to develop an I-35 corridor plan. He says a first step would be figuring out goals and possible alternatives.
“That corridor is the lifeline of our community right now,” Hill said. “There's a lot of traffic that uses that corridor, and our mission is to try to offer a safe, efficient movement of people and goods.”
Hill admits it's been challenging for a government agency to figure out how to interact with a grassroots group. But he said public input would play an important role in determining the freeway's future.
“I think that the decisions that get made are led by our agency, but we’re very sensitive to the public input that we get. We're expected to do extensive public engagement. And so that guides our decision-making,” Hill said.
‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’
In the Twin Cities, the Transportation Department launched a project several years ago to “rethink” Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, a stretch of freeway that was infamously constructed directly through the historically Black Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul.
The community group Our Streets Minneapolis has been talking to local residents to gather input for an alternative vision for the interstate that splits their neighborhoods.
“We really have this once in a lifetime opportunity to re-envision this segment of freeway,” said program coordinator Alex Burns, adding that the group will soon unveil what its vision to replace the freeway with looks like.
The group is also working with neighborhood groups on a proposal to convert the Olson Memorial Highway in north Minneapolis to an urban boulevard, similar to what is being proposed in Duluth.
When the highway was built in the 1930s, it replaced 6th Avenue, which at the time was a thriving business corridor for the Minneapolis Black community and one of the hearts of the Twin Cities jazz scene, often compared to Beale Street in Memphis.
“We're advocating for changes to prioritize the people who have always been ignored or overlooked, or already have suffered from what's happened before,” said José Antonio Zayas Cabán, advocacy director for Our Streets Minneapolis.
As he talks to people about the Twin Cities, Burns argues that removing freeways isn’t a radical idea — what’s “truly radical,” he claims, was building these freeways through communities in the first place, what he calls a “uniquely American” phenomenon.
And like van der Hagen, he tells people that there are many examples of places where freeways have been replaced with smaller-scale infrastructure.
“There’s never been a highway removal or boulevard conversion in America or abroad that hasn't been immensely successful,” Burns said.
In Duluth, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Minnesota Duluth has secured funding to study the economic impact that converting I-35 could have on the local community.
The center is partnering with University of Minnesota Extension to analyze the types of businesses that would be most desirable to add to newly available space downtown.
Director Monica Haynes said the project has a lot of exciting potential to better connect business districts within the city, while at the same time adding green space and improving walkability.
“The biggest challenge right now is that there's no champion for the project who's being paid to be that champion,” she said. “I think, if the project were to be successful, some entity, whether that’s the city or MnDOT, would have to step up and say, ‘Yes, we really want this to happen.’”
Jordan van der Hagen has stepped back from the project he started as a volunteer advocate nearly five years ago. He recently relocated to the Twin Cities for a new job.
But he’s still committed to the vision, even if it would likely take years, even decades, to come to fruition. "Duluth, to me, has so much obvious potential,” van der Hagen said. “Having this massive roadway that disconnects the city from its greatest asset — Lake Superior — makes absolutely no sense.”
“So I think it's absolutely possible, but only as possible as the powers that be are willing to make it.”