University students design lid to connect communities over I-35W

The lid would offer development and green space and connect the Minneapolis’ West Bank and downtown communities.

Jessie Bekker

The University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center and students in the School of Architecture have a plan to seamlessly connect downtown Minneapolis to the West Bank.

The project idea, which some city leaders are calling a lofty developmental endeavor, would plop a lid over a section of I-35W that would extend outward to span 17 acres.

The freeway cap would serve to lessen noise pollution from traffic, increase green space and create an area for development and business growth. While some transportation officials see the project as a great opportunity, some neighborhood leaders are concerned it could disrupt the community.

Mic Johnson, interim director of the University’s Metropolitan Design Center, said he sees the freeway as a barrier to resolving major issues like pollution, health, climate change and equity in the area.

“I think it’s important that [the lid] happens in the future,” Johnson said, adding that he’s excited to see if developers bite into the idea.

While the proposal is intriguing to officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the model remains in preliminary design stages without funding and a step-by-step implementation plan, said Scott McBride, a MnDOT metro district engineer.

“If you look at all of the land that MnDOT actually owns … we have a lot of land, and that land [like I-35W] does serve as a barrier from one side of the freeway to the other,” he said. “[A] proposal like this, what it tries to do is re-stitch the fabric of the community back together.”

One of the University’s biggest supporters is the Minneapolis Downtown Council, which released a 2025 plan mentioning the need for a better connection between downtown Minneapolis and the University.

The creation of a linking lid is one of the ways to make a more “seamless physical connection,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.

Cramer said the council hopes to see the project formulate in the next decade or so, though it’s still up in the air.

Other cities have seen developments like the proposed lid, Cramer said, keeping proponents hopeful that the plan might take shape in Minneapolis.

Calculating the lid’s potential economic benefit will be a key next step toward execution, Cramer said.

“It’s captured the imagination of a lot of important people,” he said.

Concerns in the community

Positives aside, some are wary of connecting the two communities.

AJ Siddiqui, president of the West Bank Community Coalition, said he’s concerned that residents of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood could face negative change from a project as large as the lid.

“There are so many pressures coming to this area,” he said, noting that community members fear new development could increase the cost of living and drive out East African businesses in the area.

Siddiqui said his main concern isn’t just about a downtown to Cedar-Riverside connection, but other large city projects that he says have threatened the neighborhood. These include the new Minnesota Vikings stadium and a year-old announcement that the city plans to build a pedestrian bridge to connect downtown to Cedar-Riverside.

With the three projects combined, Siddiqui said, he fears the predominantly Somali community filled with young families could become the “tailgating headquarters” for Vikings fans once the stadium is opened in 2016.

Other concerns include potential traffic issues and air ownership rights over the section of I-35W, said McBride from MnDOT.

“We have to be mindful of what we can and can’t do with federal rules,” he said, adding that developers would have to consider future maintenance obligations as well.

Siddiqui said an undertaking of this scale could bring significant change, especially in one of the lowest-income housing neighborhoods in the area.

“When you do this kind of huge project, obviously there is going to be gentrification in the area,” he said.

Siddiqui said he’d be happy to see this project come to fruition if developers could accomplish the task without altering the character of the East African neighborhood.

But with the pedestrian walkway, the new Vikings stadium and now a potential community-connecting freeway lid, Siddiqui said change is already flooding the district.

“This avalanche is coming down on this neighborhood,” he said.