Half a century ago, Interstate 94 sliced through St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and scarring the close-knit community. Now there’s a vision for repairing that damage.
For about two years, a nonprofit called ReConnect Rondo has been pursuing the idea of building a “land bridge” that would cover a portion of the interstate and add land for housing, businesses, parkland and other amenities while cars drove through a tunnel below. On Thursday evening, in a packed room at the Rondo Community Outreach Library, residents gathered to learn about that idea and ask questions about what it would mean for them.
A land bridge would be the first for St. Paul, following one built over Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis in 2003. Other cities, from Seattle to Duluth, have land bridges. In Dallas, the 5-acre, $110 million Klyde Warren Park over Hwy. Spur 366 has triggered more than $1 billion in new development.
Mayor Melvin Carter, who grew up in Rondo, stopped by the meeting briefly and reiterated one of his campaign themes: the notion that St. Paul residents should dream up what they want their city to be and pursue that vision, no matter how ambitious it might be.
“The thing we need in our community is people who look at what isn’t and see what should be,” Carter said.
ReConnect Rondo is partnering with the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Design Center, and Tom Fisher, the center’s director, unveiled three possible designs Thursday ranging from development along the state-owned land that lines the freeway to a massive land bridge spanning five blocks.
Building costs have not yet been estimated, but funding would likely come from a variety of sources including state and federal government grants and private donations.
The Rondo project fits into state and national conversations about rethinking urban freeways. During the Obama administration, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx expressed support for reconnecting communities, like Rondo, that were split apart by freeways. Since 2016, MnDOT has been working on a project called Rethinking I-94 to plan for the corridor’s future, with input from people who live along it.
On Thursday, representatives from ReConnect Rondo stressed that, at this point, the land bridge designs are just ideas. More community input sessions are planned, and surveys and studies are being conducted to collect ideas from residents and gauge what would fit best in the neighborhood.
“It’s not a done deal — it’s not even anything yet,” Melvin Giles, the nonprofit’s community liaison, told the crowd at the library. “Because what we would like to do is do it as a community.”
About 30,000 people live in Rondo. Many trace their roots back generations and tell stories of what their families lost when the freeway was built.
“Few, if any, Rondo families were spared,” said ReConnect Rondo board chairman Marvin Anderson, whose own family lost their house and business when the freeway came through.
ReConnect Rondo surveyed 191 people about the land bridge idea, and while most respondents were interested, many were also wary. They said they’re worried the project will attract developers who don’t care about the neighborhood or that the project would make the area unaffordable — or that it would simply not happen.
Those same concerns came up on Thursday from attendees wondering if the land bridge will live up to its promises and benefit the people who have made the neighborhood what it is.
Pang Foua Xiong, who attended the meeting with her young children, belongs to a family of small business owners and owns two businesses herself. As she left, she said she still had questions about whether small and local businesses will be prioritized if the bridge is developed — though overall, she said, she thinks the project is “a really good idea.”
ReConnect Rondo staff assured the group the land bridge won’t move forward without community input and consent. Representatives from the city, Ramsey County, MnDOT, Urban Land Institute Minnesota and St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health who attended the nearly three-hour meeting expressed support.
City Council Member Dai Thao, whose ward includes Rondo, told the crowd that the project will require everyone in the community to get involved.
“Stay strong. Stay excited,” he said. “Tell your neighbors all about it.”