Advocates for the construction of a massive land bridge over Interstate 94 that would reconnect and rebuild St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood pitched their ambitious vision to state lawmakers on Thursday.

Their proposal would create 15 to 21 acres of buildable land above the interstate for an "African American cultural enterprise district," according to the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo, which founded and is now shepherding the project.

"The big idea is to build back what was lost for African Americans and to be forward-thinking about how to build a bridge to better — for Rondo and all residents of the city of St. Paul, the region and the state," said ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to right the wrong."

ReConnect Rondo is asking the state for $6.2 million to pay for master planning and predevelopment for the land bridge, which could cost nearly $460 million to build. Advocates are also hopeful the project will be in line for federal aid from the Biden administration, which has signaled its receptiveness to infrastructure improvements and transportation projects centered on racial equity.

Land bridges, also called "freeway lids," cover a portion of roadway with usable land while cars drive through a tunnel below. Other cities, including Seattle and Dallas, already have them; Baker pointed to a land bridge project in Duluth and Minneapolis' Lowry Tunnel as proof of concept.

In Rondo, the cultural enterprise district built on the land bridge could include more than 500 housing units, office space for businesses and nonprofits and public green space. It would also be a step toward healing and revitalizing the surrounding community, a once-thriving, middle-class Black neighborhood that in the 1960s lost more than 700 homes, 300 businesses and 60% of its residents when I-94 split it in two.

Families were not justly compensated for their lost property, said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, author of the bill seeking the $6.2 million in state funding. Those families struggled to find new housing and rebuild the generational wealth correlated with business and homeownership, she said.

"This land bridge is not only an opportunity to physically reconnect but could stand as a monument to restorative justice and to begin the healing of what was lost," Richardson said.

ReConnect Rondo leaders say they are embracing an "equitable development" model that will prioritize families and descendants of those displaced Rondo residents when homes and business are built atop the land bridge.

Board Chairman Marvin Anderson, whose parents lost their home in Rondo when I-94 was built, said the project is so much more than infrastructure. He said he hopes to reknit the fabric of the community.

"It's as much about the culture of Rondo as it is about the physical space itself," Anderson said. "What gave Rondo its special flair is the exuberance in which people lived together, which we hope to capture there."

Anderson said the land bridge would also be a model for innovation, where vehicle emissions could be contained and potentially reused as an energy source.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, whose family was also displaced by I-94, has expressed support for the land bridge concept.

"My grandfather lost over half a dozen commercial properties that he owned there. Our family inheritance was gutted," said Carter, who testified at a previous Minnesota House committee hearing.

"We are offered an incredible opportunity to reimagine the relationship between a freeway and the neighborhood it passes through."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037