What If Interstate 94 Was a Park?

I’ve always wondered what life would be like if we did away with highway infrastructure. Television shows such as Life After Humans depict infrastructure eventually succumbing to the forces of nature, overbearing with moss and exotic animals.  What if this happened while humans still inhabited this world? While only the fantasy of some urban designers, this dream has become a reality for some metropolitan areas.

Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project, before and after river improvements

Specifically, the city of Seoul, South Korea has set high standards of urban design to accommodate shifting away from automobile-centered transit, and making way for ecology to flourish in the city. Upon first coming upon Seoul’s urban revitalization project, I simply did not believe it.  Since the 1940’s, the Cheonggyecheon River has been filled with cement, and in 1976, the river was fully converted into the Cheonggyecheon Highway.  While considered a modern marvel of the time, 27 years later, the city recognized the need for more environmental solutions to rising pollution and traffic issues.  The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project both resorted the underlying river, and implemented a walkable park for residents in the center of the city, similar to projects of New York’s Highline, and even the Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Pedestrian Bridge.

Plan of Cheonggyecheon Restoration
Cheonggyecheon Stream in pedestrian use

I could not help but think after seeing this, what would happen if the Twin Cities’ Interstate 94 was converted into a walkable parkway? Although, a very far stretch, I contemplated how St Paul communities once broken by the intersecting highway would interact without the presence of surrounding massive automobile infrastructure.

I-94 Corridor Entering Minneapolis

With the metro transit green line soon to serve as uninterrupted transit mode between Minneapolis-St Paul, this leaves the Twin Cities in a unique position to dream of new uses of once solely automobile-usable infrastructure.  Although possibly a fanciful thought, the designer in me can only imagine a metropolitan environment where the street car serves as the mass transit between the two urban cores of the Twin Cities, and transit infrastructure such as I-94, would instead be used as walkable park space, mixed used residential and business space, or even an indoor bicycle facility.

Rendering of future lightrail at St Paul’s Union Depot.

For many Twin Cities residents, the automobile serves as the main means of transportation between our two cities. Likewise for myself, every weekend driving from SE Minneapolis, to my serving job in downtown St Paul, I find myself caught in traffic along the congested I-94. With the opening of accessible public transportation, I not only see the opportunity to restore a better connection between our two cities, and communities within St Paul, but also the challenge for designers and planners to discover innovate uses of existing infrastructure.

What opportunities does new transit-connection offer the Twin Cities? What innovative ways should we investigate to reuse once strictly automobile spaces?

Images from Abbey Seitz, wwf.panda.org, lafoundation, and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group. Data linked to sources.

Abbey Seitz

About Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz, Minnesota native, is a professional urban and regional planner based in Honolulu. Her experience in planning and community organizing in Hawai’i has played a distinct role in her writing, leading her to question why and how places, cities, and regions came to be as they are. She recently released her first book, Perseverance Flooded the Streets.

26 thoughts on “What If Interstate 94 Was a Park?

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    It would change everything. On his excellent podcast, Scott Shaffer recently said that if given an unlimited budget and a magic wand, the one change he’d make would be to bury our inner city freeways. That would create a ton of new land along the corridors for development while also connecting neighborhoods that are today very isolated by freeway trenches.

    All of this would be crazy expensive, but would be less so if we compare it to the annual costs of maintaining and expanding the system…

  2. Steve Prince

    These notions are not as far-fetched as they might seem.

    When I studied planning at Berkeley in the early ’80s one of my professors was Alan Jacobs, who had been the director of planning for SF. He was always enthusiastic to discuss the efforts that prevented completion of the Embarcadero in SF – an elevated highway along the City’s waterfront connecting the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge. It was constructed part-way in the 50’s and stood a little more than a mile-short of the Golden-Gate bridge for 30 years. Jccobs was convinced that it would get finished some day, if for no other reason than in some office in Sacramento some engineer had a map on his wall of the state freeway system and there was this little gap in SF that was going to drive him crazy until it got connected.

    In the 80’s the was a campaign to tear it down, but the traffic engineers said doing so would cause City gridlock. They were wrong. The elevated freeway was badly damaged in the ’89 earthquake and taken out of service. That proved the City could live without it and it was torn down – creating access from the downtown to the Bay without having to walk under a freeway.

    Could it happen here?

    1. Monte

      A few comments:
      Because San Francisco doesn’t have connections to the Golden Gate Bridge, through traffic has to use US 101 and CA 1, which aren’t particularly good places to drive with 6 lanes of very heavy traffic, or likely to be a pedestrian. I think SF would be better served with freeways in trenches with caps on them, which could be done for I-94

      When the tore down Central Freeway, the traffic didn’t all disappear like the anti-car people predicted and everyone didn’t ditch their car to run to take public transit like they were “supposed” to do. Now Octavia is a traffic nightmare to the point that people were trying to bypass it on the outer parking lanes so they had to install traffic calming to prevent it. Central freeway was a key connection to the western part of the city, just like I-94 is a key connection between our downtowns. Since Embarcadero never was finished it never really went anyplace useful. Most of the victories the anti-car people claim lately are freeways that were either marginally useful or were actually replaced with other freeways.

      I experienced San Francisco both as a motorist and a pedestrian. Driving from my hotel in Livermore, stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge and the Tea Garden, and heading up the Redwood Highway toward the national park I obviously had no other option. Later, back in the bay area, I took BART from my hotel in Walnut Creek into the city to see Alcatraz, the cable cars, and Borderlands Books. Embarcadero is very pleasant now, and definately the wrong place for a viaduct, but as I-35 in downtown Duluth proves an interstate can exist near a pleasant place.

  3. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    You could say that about 35W, that it is too wide. We were prepared for utter gridlock when it fell, but instead it worked. A smaller bridge would have been entirely usable and effective, narrowing the freeway in Marcy-Holmes, reducing yearly maintenance budgets, etc. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to see the opportunity in front of us.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Fanciful? I don’t think so. I can’t think of any cities in Europe that have motorways within the ring. In Europe, 94, 35E, 35W, 52, 394, 100, and others would stop at 694/494. Everything within would be surface streets.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Sometimes they come in a bit further than that (just looking at a map, the M36 seems to go right into Birmingham and the M602 fairly far into Manchester). The M3 comes pretty close to the center of Belfast, running between it and the old shipyards (where the Titanic was built). But yeah, I can’t think of any European cities I know where you can cross through the urban core on a freeway.

      Of course, I can’t think of any that built them and then took them away either. It’s not fanciful to set up a city that way, but it might be fanciful to hope that we will soon get rid of ours.

    2. Joe

      That is the way it ought to be here. We already have a ring around the twin cities completed. Now we need excellent public transit/protected bike lanes WITHIN the cities: More Central Corridor and NOT SOUTHWEST. If we had a realistic plan and real investment, a small area like Minneapolis or St. Paul could be effectively covered with several intracity light rail lines in a decade. Then we should start dismantling the highways within the ring. Yes that would also require commuter rail to give people from the suburbs an alternative to driving, but I think it would make living in Minneapolis and St. Paul considerably more enjoyable. It seems like the policy makers here often discuss public transit as if though it was some sort of novel idea that has never been attempted.

  5. John

    The irony here is that the author shows why this wouldn’t work. Despite being a blogger on a decidedly pro-transit blog she still drives from SE Mpls to downtown St. Paul with many available bike/transit options. I-94 carries almost 200,000 cars a day. Many of these drivers are far less amenable to taking transit or biking. Where do they go?

    Also, that picture is not I-94. It looks like 394 to me but I can’t be sure (I hope that picture wasn’t taken while driving). Third, what kind of congestion are you experiencing on I-94 on the weekend?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      “she still drives from SE Mpls to downtown St. Paul with many available bike/transit options”

      Really? As a bicycling enthusiast I don’t think I’d ride between these with the infrastructure currently in place. Transit? I don’t know her exact start/end points, but I’d guess there’s a reasonable chance this could be a 2+ hr journey each way. For most people, 80% of our population perhaps?, I think a car quickly wins this one until we have much better bicycling and transit infrastructure.

      1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

        The photo above showing I-94 is in fact, I394 near Dunwoody Blvd.

        Secondly, transit is usually double or triple a car trip in terms of time. I work 5 miles from work. The 4 will get me there in 45 minutes most of the time. That or I could drive 35W to 94 in about 15 min. I could drive Central Avenue through downtown in about 25 min. Transit as an idea is great. Transit in the field currently sucks donkey butt.

      2. John

        If she means SE Mpls as in Dinkytown, then it is very easy by bus (3,16,50). If she means SE Mpls as in Longfellow then it’ll take a little bit longer but still not nearly that long (21, blue line to 94). From here there are great bike options as well.

        Your last sentence just makes my point for me. I-94 as a park will never happen because people won’t (or can’t) take a longer transit trip over a shorter car trip.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          John, are you taking in to account all the different factors? Time spent walking to the bus, average wait, time waiting at a xfer (if there is one), time spent walking from the bus to work? What if you get off work, walk to the bus, and the next bus is not for 20 minutes? You get off work a little late and have to walk a considerable distance because your normal bus doesn’t run then?

          I’m very pro transit, but we have to make it work for people.

          Cycling between SE Mpls and St Paul ain’t going to happen for most rational people. It does not feel safe enough nor do most want to deal with getting slushed by passing cars all winter. If we want to see more people ride, we have to make it work for them.

          1. hokan

            Not rational?

            I wanted to learn how to bike in urban traffic so I took a class. I learned how to claim my space on the road. I don’t get splashed (or slushed) and motorists give me loads of room.

            Training helped me. Perhaps it can help you.

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

              I’m old and beyond help 🙂

              You can give people all the training you want, it will not make much difference. Most people do not like being tailgated or nearly sideswiped by cars, school buses, step vans, or trucks every other minute when they’re on a bicycle (or having a dozen pass by with more than the required 3′ every minute). They don’t like trying to move left across 2 lanes of traffic traveling 45 mph to get in the left turn lane to make a left turn, they don’t like riding in the door zone nor taking the lane when it means a long line of angry drivers stacked up behind them.

              1. hokan

                Old and beyond help? Huh.

                I do give people training and it does make a difference.

                I’m not saying that everyone will love riding in dense traffic but, with training, it can be done with safety and reasonable comfort. Quiet roads and special facilities can be great, but sometimes people biking for transportation need to use bigger or faster roads. There are tools, strategies for dealing with those roads. That’s what training is for.

  6. Doug TrummDoug

    John, it seems rather condescending to assume you can plan someone else’s commute better than she can for the realities of her life. Let’s focus on the issues. (Unless you’d rather go over every trip you take on a daily basis so we can hold your choices up to the same scrutiny.). Yes trips on 94 are very speedy and convenient when its not rush hour, but that convenience comes at a huge cost to the neighborhoods the freeway runs through, the environment and our government’s budget. Redeveloping the land that makes up the 94 corridor, though a terribly tough.sell admittedly, would repair these neighborhoods, reduce our bloated freeway budget, and suddenly public transit would look much more attractive to a wide swath of people.

  7. Sean Fahey

    Here’s another example, from Hamburg where they are both expanding the highway and covering it with park. http://www.hamburg.de/a7-deckel/ (use Chrome to translate) There are lot of good pictures there under the different sections near the middle of the page.

    Handling noise is a big reason for the project. This blog says the entire project costs about $1 billion. http://thecityfix.com/blog/hamburg-germany-to-cover-expanded-highway-with-public-park/ It’s not science fiction! We should do it here.

  8. Heyden

    We are trying to do something similar in Austin. Since the highway is I-35 and a NAFTA interstate, we propose a cut and cap. Put high speed, long distance traffic in the cut, then reconnect our urban grid and cityscape at the surface with a boulevard. You can see more and lots of resources about similar projects at http://www.reconnectaustin.com.

    1. Heyden

      Dallas has a volunteer team, much like Austin’s, working to tear down IH345 where it cuts through the Deep Ellum neighborhood. TxDOT wants to spend millions to replace it, but civic minded people want the urban fabric restored. Patrick Kennedy and his crew has a great website at http://www.anewdallas.com

    2. Adam MillerAdam

      Capping does not strike me as at all fanciful, especially in places where the freeway is already in a trench.

      Okay, maybe it is fanciful, but I still have some hope that we will give it a try in a few places around town eventually.

  9. David

    Freeways are a blight to the areas they occupy. When 35W was built in Minneapolis, one of the original promises was to cover it. Of course that never happened. What a difference that would make! Seattle is another example of a city that has gone underground with an urban freeway. As a matter of planning, freeways do not come near the urban cores in most northern European countries, they have ample public transit options and understand that freeways are a blight. In Minnesota, too often the idea is that a bigger freeway means a shorter commute. Yuck.

  10. Pingback: Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism | streets.mn

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