Utilizing the Space Beneath Bridges

Last week, David wrote about whether we should consider making better use of the space above our many depressed freeways. Today, I want to consider the opposite scenario: are we making the best use of the space beneath our elevated freeways and roadways?

When freeways are constructed, it’s always cheapest to build them at-grade whenever possible. We inevitably end up building bridges and ramps, usually because we want to go over something that we don’t want the freeway to destroy, be it another roadway, a wetland, water, a railroad, or some other feature. However, in some cases, we construct elevated freeway sections just because it’s necessary for all the freeway segments to fit together, or because designers decide that filling in beneath the freeway would be cost-prohibitive, or generally unattractive for some other reason.

The result is a piece of real-estate beneath a freeway that could potentially be used. Often, it is not.

The best example I can think of locally of space beneath elevated freeways being used is the surface parking located beneath the 3rd/4th Street Viaduct through the North Loop neighborhood in Minneapolis. This elevated roadway is over 3,00o feet long, and most of the resulting space beneath is used for surface parking. Surface parking lots are unsightly, but so are the undersides of freeways, so this might be a perfect fit. There is a similar situation happening with the space beneath I-94 near Glenwood Avenue.

Parking below 3rd/4th Street viaduct.

Parking below 3rd/4th Street viaduct.

Another nearby example is the section of I-394 between the freight railroad and I-94, including the elevated MnPass lanes. In total, there is quite a bit of space beneath all of those ramps, though there is not always a lot of height to this space. It’s currently being used as a public works boneyard, storing various piles of construction materials, pieces of traffic signals & street lights, and a lot of the space is simply fenced off and not being used for anything. The city also uses a lot of this space for snow storage in the winter. Cities need space somewhere for this sort of thing, so underneath a freeway isn’t necessarily a bad choice.


Construction Materials below I-394 at Dunwoody.

But still, just for the sake of discussion, is this the highest and best use of space beneath freeways? Can this space be used for something a bit more attractive?

One popular use for space beneath freeways has been for the development of skate parks. Burnside Skate Park in Portland, Oregon is one of the most well-known, though our own Hopkins, MN has done something similar beneath US-169. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of cities doing something similar beneath their freeways.

Burnside Skate Park, Portland, Oregon.

Burnside Skate Park, Portland, Oregon.

Depending on the height of the bridge deck, some of this space has been used for parks as well. Local examples include Riverfront Regional Park along the Mississippi beneath I-694 in Fridley, the Bohemian Flats area beneath the Washington Avenue Bridge on the West Bank, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary beneath Kellogg Boulevard, and whatever happens on Raspberry Island beneath the Wabasha St. Bridge. Similarly with most of the bridges crossing the Minnesota River.

The space beneath bridges does have some inherent value, in that it is at least somewhat sheltered from the elements. Drawback to actively using the space beneath freeways is increased maintenance costs on the bridges, and the proximity to noise and pollution from the vehicles on the bridge.

The biggest roadblock to making more active use of this space is that agencies just generally don’t always like the idea of encouraging people to hang out beneath bridges. The underside of bridges already has a reputation for being dark and unattractive places for people with unclear intentions to lurk (Cedar Lake Trail under I-394 at 3:00 AM anybody?). Encouraging more people to hang out down there is counter-intuitive, though perhaps more “eyes on the underside of bridges” is part of the solution. There are also liability and safety concerns. Imagine kids playing below a freeway deciding it would be fun to punt a football up onto the road just to see what happens. Or imagine when one of the skater kids decides it will be fun to scale a bridge pier and crawl around like spiderman on the underside of a bridge deck. Of course this happens anyway, but agencies don’t want to encourage the behavior. I guess the question is whether inviting more people to hang out under bridges increases or decreases the likelihood of bad behavior.

Ok, now it’s your turn. Is it a good idea to encourage active use of this space? What’s the most underutilized space beneath freeways in Minnesota? Do you have any specific proposals? Are there any existing examples of actively using the space beneath freeways that I didn’t mention? 

9 thoughts on “Utilizing the Space Beneath Bridges

  1. Alex

    It might be possible and/or appropriate for retail to go in these spaces a la the shops and cafes under the Guertel elevated urban railway in Vienna. Presumably there would need to be some extensive insulation to cut out the noise, so I would think this would only work in high-rent districts. A couple locations that may work for this someday in the Twin Cities would be the space under I-94 next to the Basilica or under 394 next to Ridgedale (if it weren't an embankment).

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Don't forget: great place to put dead bodies.

    The pre-big dig Interstate in Boston, or the BQE in NYC always come to mind as just unsalvagably horrid under-freeway spaces.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I really despite that N 3rd/4th viaduct, and the I-94 viaduct adjacent to the Basilica is even worse. The space underneath bridges is pretty inevitably dingy, creepy, and unpleasant — which is why I much prefer that highways be depressed, rather than raised.

    In situations where the local street passes under the highway (like Franklin at Hiawatha), by all means, make the best of the actual underpass area. But for the rest of it, I think we’re much better off just filling the space in, or at least enclosing it in decorative walls. What they did for the Crosstown Highway a few years ago seems like about as good as it gets — a reasonably aesthetic decorative retaining wall, extending upwards enough to be a slight sound barrier for traffic on the highway. I see no reason why the same style couldn’t be used even if the inside were parking, rather than dirt.

    1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

      Sean, I don’t necessarily disagree. I don’t mind the look of those walls either. But one thing that is nice about not filling in the space beneath is that it doesn’t limit movement. The 3rd/4th viaduct isn’t really a great place to hang out, but you can walk beneath it anywhere you want (rather than having to walk, say, a half mile to the nearest ped bridge or tunnel).

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        That’s true, it can limit mobility — but ironically, that’s more an issue for Crosstown Highway than it is for that viaduct to 94. While Crosstown blocks a lot of local streets, the 3rd/4th viaduct could easily retain openings for 6th and 10th Aves N, while significantly improving the aesthetic for the residential development on the east/north side of 4th St. For cost savings, you could even really leave the side closer to 5th Ave open, since that faces only backs of businesses.

  4. David Greene

    Retail under 394 at the Van White station could work quite well given the Bassett Creek Valley Master Plan.

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