Minneapolis could fix its neighborhoods with interstate lids

Constructing bridge lids that contain parks or retail over highways will help build better-looking neighborhoods.

Chris Iverson

The interstate highways around the country are known for moving vehicles at a fast pace over formidable distances. However, from the urban perspective, we don’t recognize interstate highways’ long-lasting impact on pre-existing neighborhoods in dense cities. However, features known as interstate lids could revolutionize the look of Minneapolis and the University district.

Construction on the wide roadways began after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. These highways helped connect major cities and increase commerce in a similar fashion to railroads in the 19th century. However, the highways within urban areas destroyed city street grids and severed diverse and established neighborhoods. The construction of Interstate 94 near the Capitol destroyed the Rondo area in St. Paul, which was once Minnesota’s largest African-American neighborhood.

Now in 2014, drivers can see the consequences of the interstate highways within cities every time they drive. Regionally, interstate highways surround both Minneapolis and St. Paul and create man-made barriers to the rest of the city. Interstate 35W and Interstate 94 plowed through full city blocks en route to the Twin Cities’ commercial cores, disregarding long-term neighborhood consequences.

Near campus, I-35W split the more traditional Marcy-Holmes and Dinkytown neighborhoods. Despite I-35W’s divide in the late 1960s, Marcy-Holmes is still technically one collective.

In fact, Marcy-Holmes was lucky when the highway plunged through the landscape because four separate bridges and one underpass were built to connect the two neighborhood areas. The many connections within a five-block span are generous compared to some areas of south Minneapolis where there are few connections over highways.

However, in the case of I-35W, the bridges that traverse over highways often lack basic elements of urban areas.

Take the University Avenue and Fourth Street bridge pairs over I-35W. These two crossings were both built in 1967, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Both crossings forgo any element of pedestrian amenity. Seriously, have you walked or biked over them recently? Driving over them might only take a few seconds, but strolling across them is truly a drag. Both bridges are noisy, dangerous and ugly. Most importantly, the bridges pay no homage to the fact they exist in the oldest and arguably most historic neighborhood in Minneapolis.

The question remains: How do we fix this? Enter a relatively new and urban-friendly concept: Interstate caps.

Instead of replacing an ordinary bridge with another simple bridge, the city could create space along each side of the road to hold retail or park space. Instead of just building a bridge deck to hold road traffic, we could extend the deck outward over the interstate. Interstate caps are supposed to make a traveler feel like they are not actually crossing over a busy highway but are instead still in the city landscape.

This may seem like an idealistic and unrealistic goal, but these highway caps exist and thrive in other areas around the country. The first highway cap ever built is in Seattle. Seattleites built Freeway Park in1976 to help mend two divided sections of downtown Seattle.

In Columbus, Ohio, The Cap at Union Station was the first retail segment built over an interstate in 2004. At a reasonable project cost of $7.8 million, The Cap was able to connect two previously disjointed city activity centers, which Interstate 670 split. The Cap helped businesses on the other side of the highway attract foot traffic from the Columbus Convention Center. The Cap has been successful financially and socially because it fixed an important divide in a now-thriving commercial corridor.

The city of Minneapolis could easily build an interstate cap in conjunction with regular bridge replacement. According to a recent MnDOT traffic study, the city could add MnPASS toll lanes like those on Interstate 394 along I-35W, near campus. The city will reconstruct the University Avenue and Fourth Street bridges as part of the project.

When the MnPASS project begins, the city should require interstate caps on the two new bridges. Since there is a large pedestrian and biking population in and around campus, retail spaces along University Avenue could help make the area more pedestrian-friendly and better looking.

In the meantime, the city could build a park between the bridges to add another amenity to the neighborhood. If the city executes the project correctly, any express bus running on I-35W could include a stop underneath the interstate cap, easily connecting the freeway with the neighborhood above.

If a success, the city could construct caps in other high-pedestrian areas, such as the bridge on Washington Avenue over I-35W near the Seven Corners neighborhood or Nicollet Avenue over I-94 near the Minneapolis Convention Center.

An interstate cap could capture the best of both worlds. On top of optimizing interstate performance, the cap could create a profitable project while fixing divided urban development.