DULUTH — The ribbons of freeway that cleave downtown Duluth and Canal Park in two have for decades acted as physical obstacles, keeping walkers and bikers of each area — both vital to economic growth — from exploring the other.

As state transportation agencies make plans to improve a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 35 that begins south of Proctor and ends in eastern Duluth, advocates for a redesign of a mile-long downtown segment worry their vision has been cast aside.

"That bigger, more robust, more transformative vision is not there," said Alice Tibbetts, part of We Walk in Duluth, an advocacy group. "It just feels very status-quo. And that's really disappointing."

Two overpasses with two sets of stoplights each are the only obvious ways people can travel between downtown and Canal Park. The bridges — seas of concrete — span several lanes of freeway.

The Duluth Waterfront Collective, a group of planners, designers and activists, launched in 2020 to promote "Highway 61 Revisited," a reimagined downtown corridor that hinged on the dismantling of the interstate there. The idea is to replace it with a narrower, ground-level parkway that uses roundabouts. It would be filled with green space and new residential and commercial development, linking downtown and the city's waterfront in a more accessible way.

Another vision for the space also has emerged, one that mimics the park and tree-covered tunnels that, several blocks north, funnel drivers to the end of the interstate in eastern Duluth — an idea from the same person who designed that covered-tunnel concept decades ago.

The people behind these ideas aren't happy with what the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council [MIC], a regional transportation planning organization, has presented in recent days as it asks for feedback on a plan to be finalized by the end of the year.

"Nothing they have shown or proposed right now is of interest to us, and [it] doesn't accomplish nearly enough," said Kent Worley, the landscape architect who worked on the tunnel project.

A major downtown interstate rethink has the support of Mayor Emily Larson and the Duluth City Council, especially now that passenger train service to the city is becoming closer to reality.

The idea is rife with "tremendous opportunity," Larson said, because it would create sorely-needed space for new development as well as improved connectivity.

"I also know that this is really difficult and complicated," she said, because it involves rail lines and part of the interstate that isn't at the end of its life cycle. "I still think it's the right vision for this community."

'Not saying no'

The MIC, together with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is studying improvements to make over the next couple of decades. The final segment of the interstate, which begins in Laredo, Texas, isn't due for replacement for several more years.

The work unveiled this week showed three potential concepts for downtown, using some of the ideas shared by community groups: one with roundabouts on the Fifth and Lake avenue overpasses; one with improvements to the overpasses; and a version where greenery covers the overpasses, similar to the tunnel concept.

The project aims to address problems along the entire 14-mile segment, not just downtown, said Rondi Watson, a spokeswoman for the MIC.

But because community groups have laid out ideas, she said, they were considered. And challenges were pointed out as part of advancing the conversation.

The parkway idea poses safety and technical problems related to the railroad that travels through the area, along with slope issues, said Angie Bershaw, a consultant with Bolton & Menk, conducting the study.

"As drawn from a technical and safety standpoint it doesn't work," Bershaw said. "Does it mean we can't achieve their goals in a different way? No. It's not saying no to the idea of what the community wants."

Bershaw said a plan needs to work with the freight industry moving through the region and port just as much as it needs to work with bikers, walkers and vehicles.

But transportation officials agree that the bisection of downtown and Canal Park is a barrier, noting in a condition report of the roadway there that it makes a cohesive blending impossible.

"The few hundred feet separating the two may as well be miles," it says.

A national movement

The hope is the spirit of what these groups offer will go further as transportation officials study the issue, said Jordan van der Hagen, a landscape designer and spokesman for the Highway 61 Revisited project.

Duluth has a housing crisis and the planet has a climate crisis, he said, and the parkway concept is a chance to both build new housing without demolishing existing homes and businesses and a more climate-resilient city.

"What crisis is maintaining a freeway addressing?" he said. "A traffic crisis?"

Duluth city officials are looking into new federal grants aimed at bolstering projects meant to reconnect communities struggling with past transportation infrastructure decisions. ReConnect Rondo in St. Paul received one earlier this year as it studies a land bridge over Interstate 94.

A recent University of Minnesota Duluth study explored the economic effects of a downtown interstate redesign. It has the potential to infuse between $500 million and $4.5 billion into the city's economy through land reuse, said Monica Haynes, director of the university's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Researchers looked to freeway conversion projects throughout the country and, while many of them are new enough to not yet show long-term effects, they found mostly benefits to cities.

"New commercial space, more green space, more place for tourist activity," Haynes said.

Vacancy rates in downtown continue to be high, while Canal Park rarely struggles with empty storefronts. Rethinking the freeway would not only help downtown thrive, but it would align with a national movement to reduce the impact of freeways, said Karl Schuettler, vice president of Northspan, a business development nonprofit in Duluth.

"A lot of them were built to steamroll through neighborhoods that were people of color or low income neighborhoods," Schuettler said. "It seems like we have this opportunity here."

Residents who live on the hillside near downtown consistently ask for a more walkable city, a third of whom don't have a vehicle, said Andrea Crouse of Zeitgeist, a community development nonprofit in Duluth.

Duluthian Rachel McGill, who attended an open house held by the MIC this week, said her daughter goes to a downtown charter high school, with its back facing the interstate. She doesn't like having her so close to so much vehicle pollution, she said, and the interstate itself acts as a moat, blocking people from crossing, especially from Canal Park.

"We have all these tourists," she said, "but we have a dying downtown."