Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism

Abbey Seitz recently asked What If Interstate 94 Was a Park?. This is an excellent thought experiment. The history of I-94 is well-documented, Matt Reicher vividly described the Birth of a Metro Highway. My own version of the history is below.

A brief history of I-94

Between 1947 and 1950 vehicle registrations in the Twin Cities increased 58 percent. St. Paul officials realized that they needed to solve congestion and other transportation problems. Previously, city officials dealt with increased congestion by widening existing links. This option was becoming increasingly expensive as the city grew. Freeway plans were developed connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, but it wasn’t until the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was implemented that it became certain a freeway would be constructed. The Federal Aid Highway Act ensured there would be funds available (90 percent federal to be matched by 10 percent state). With the construction of some freeway ensured, the next step was to determine which route it should follow.

St. Paul and state officials recommended that the route follow St. Anthony Avenue, a largely residential city street parallel to the busiest route between the two cities (University Avenue), which happened to run through a minority neighborhood (The Rondo).

George Herrold, St. Paul’s Chief Planning Engineer until 1952, argued against the construction of a freeway along this route. He proposed a plan dubbed the “Northern Route” about a mile to the north of the St. Anthony Route. The Northern Route, because of its use of existing railroad right of way and industrial land, would not displace many residents or sever neighborhoods. In St. Paul, the St. Anthony Route divided the state capitol and government buildings from the central business district. Despite Herrold’s advice, St. Paul and state officials would not deviate from the proposed St. Anthony Route.

With the St. Anthony route all but built, concerned residents began speak out. The St. Anthony Route would displace nearly one in seven of St. Paul’s African-American residents. African-American community leaders quickly concluded that it would be nearly impossible to divert the freeway, so they devised a list of actions they requested government officials to comply with: Help displaced residents find adequate housing, Provide proper compensation, Construct a depressed (below grade) freeway to enhance aesthetics. The displacement of the African-American community members was especially significant because there were few options available to them. At the time (the 1950s, before fair housing laws were enacted), most white communities would neither sell homes to them nor rent property to them. For this reason, officials feared that the African-American community would become over-crowded. In the end, only the second and third actions were followed through.

The Prospect Park Neighborhood in Minneapolis was also severed by the St. Anthony alignment, and residents were worried the freeway would turn this diverse upper middle class neighborhood into a low income one. Residents claimed that having a low-class neighborhood within close proximity to the University of Minnesota would make the University unappealing to students and faculty. The community had one request: that the freeway be placed over an existing railroad spur; however, limited funding disallowed this idea. The freeway did however skirt the Malcolm E. Willey House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite the freeway separating the neighborhood from the Mississippi River, the neighborhood did not deteriorate. The freeway was completed in the late 1960s.

Aesthetically, the I-94 freeway is a scar across the surface of the city, which in addition to having displaced residents, disconnected local streets, moved traffic from a relatively even distribution to a more hierarchical one, so that movement depends on fewer, now more critical links. While certainly more people are moving longer distances everyday on the urban freeway, congestion has far from disappeared. One can ask in retrospect whether building the road was the right thing, or whether building it there was the right thing, but there is no real “control” for this experiment. Asking whatifs are easy, answering them is harder. But no-one seriously is calling for the removal of this element of the Interstate system, suggesting the collective intuition of those who think about the road daily suggest that “sunk costs are sunk,” and while in retrospect not everything was done perfectly, leaving it in place is better than removing it.

Can we make it better?

The question then, is, if we can’t live with it, and can’t live without it, can we make it better? From the point of view of drivers, creating a giant tunnel is unattractive, though this is clearly better for the neighbors. From the perspective of the community, it is also extremely expensive. Barney Frank once quipped about Boston’s Big Dig “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than depress the artery?” Indeed it would have. The good fortune the Twin Cities has is that I-94 is already depressed (not to say depressing). Thus bridging over it is relatively straight-forward (not cheap or trivial, but nothing like Boston had to do).

Why so Flat?

Popular Science image of modal separation.

Popular Science image of modal separation.

3-D Urbanism, thinking about the city not just from a 2-Dimensional plan view, but in multiple dimensions, where each elevation does something different, would be progress. Early 20th century visions of the future thought about 3-dimensions, not just of buildings, but of travel. We seemed to have lost many of those visions in present-day urbanism, which proposes to tear down skyways and put people on the street with cars. We should think carefully about where cars and people mix, and where they don’t. If you are going to continue to have cars and cities, why must they mix with pedestrians and bicyclists.

We seldom built such things as shown in the accompanying pictures, but we have opportunities to take advantage of 3-dimensions to benefit all travelers. First, it increases capacity per unit space. There is more density to the transportation infrastructure in these 3D rendering then our current flat-land. This is only worthwhile if density is high and crowding occurs. Second it increases pedestrian safety by eliminating pedestrian/vehicle conflicts.

Popular Science Image of Congestion Solutions - The City of 1950

Popular Science Image of Congestion Solutions – The City of 1950

3-D on 94

The solution I still like best is Air Rights / Land Bridges / Freeway Caps.

Land is not so scarce in the Twin Cities that the market feels the need to go creating much new real estate over the freeway system. The examples we have in Minnesota were publicly financed (parking ramps and a stadium in Minneapolis, Parks in Duluth. However, if we did bridge over the freeway, in addition to creating more real estate to defray some of the cost, we also have potential spillovers raising the value of nearby land by some amount (i.e. some capturable value from both Air Rights and appreciation). How much more would you pay to be one block from a park or a freeway cap with some street frontage than one block from a freeway. This is quantifiable. Whether this is sufficient benefit to pay for the costs is an empirical question (for which I don’t have the answer, but know that it is possible). There are further benefits possible from noise reduction, better pollution control, and the like which are also quantifiable.


As with anything, this has to be done somewhere before it can be done everywhere. Previous discussion suggested I-94/I-35W at Nicollet Avenue (rather than I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul) was a good place to start. So as part of the rebuild Nicollet discussion (ranging from the project downtown, to Streetcars, through K-Mart and Lake Street), let’s put a Freeway Cap into the mix.

A hypothetical cross-section of Snelling at I-94 from a student Land Bridge project, 2004

A hypothetical cross-section of Snelling at I-94 from a student Land Bridge project, 2004

And of course, there is the Iron Law of the Twin Cities: if Minneapolis gets it, St. Paul wants it.

The busiest street crossing I-94 in St. Paul is Snelling, which is complicated by a freeway interchange. But with new (walkable?) development nodes at Snelby and University, the A-line BRT, potential freeway BRT/HOT lanes on I-94, and a fix to Ayd Mill Road, Snelling could be reclaimed from its current state as a pedestrian hell with good design. Pedestrians will still presumably be crossing freeway entrance ramps (hence the site is not as easily implemented as Nicollet), but this need not be “at grade”  pedestrians elevated above the fray in a skywalk carved out of  buildings in an air rights configuration as someone might have dreamt of in an 1920s issue of Popular Science, or other creative designs can enhance safety, experience, and throughput.

Instead of thinking of Midway as a Big Box Mecca, a plan running into the buzz-saw of modern shopping behavior, we should think about Midway City, a high density urban amalgamation with some of the highest transit and freeway (and eventually pedestrian) accessibility in the region, running from University to Selby along Snelling and from Snelling to Lexington along University and I-94.

The area is as close to a blank slate now as it ever will be. Some imagination is in order.


Brief History section adapted from Garrison, W and Levinson, D (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

15 thoughts on “Making I-94 Better: Or Toward 3-D Urbanism

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Actually, in St Paul there’s sometimes a lot of resistance to doing things that Minneapolis is doing. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction: “If Minneapolis is doing it, we don’t want it.”

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    PS I like this idea for Snelling. In StP I was always thinking about where the freeway runs in a trench b/w the Capitol and downtown, but the stakes at Snelling might be even higher. There is a lot of land here that could (in theory) be walkable.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I more and more love the idea of freeway caps. With Snelling over 94 I don’t know that residential as in the drawing would be appropriate due to noise and poor air, but retail could work well. It’d be our own Ponte Veccio.

  4. Jeff Klein

    “The Northern Route, because of its use of existing railroad right of way and industrial land, would not displace many residents or sever neighborhoods. In St. Paul, the St. Anthony Route divided the state capitol and government buildings from the central business district. Despite Herrold’s advice, St. Paul and state officials would not deviate from the proposed St. Anthony Route.”

    That is some Moses shit right there. I can’t begin to imagine what arguments were made for *not* using that route.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

      “That is some Moses shit right there.”

      “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the motorists to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the city to divide the neighborhoods so that the motorists can go through the city on smooth pavement.'” Exodus 14:15-16.


  5. Matt Brillhart

    I do love the idea of essentially copying Columbus’ “Cap at Union Station” for Nicollet Avenue over I-94 in Stevens Square / Loring Park. I’d love to join forces with others that are interested and actually start advocating for it. This is probably something we want to get ahead of the ball. I assume that the current Nicollet Ave bridge over I-94 would need to be replaced to carry a streetcar anyways, as it dates to the 1960s.

    Cap at Union Station info:

    Aside from that pet project, I feel like Hennepin County missed an opportunity when redecking the Park and Portland Avenue bridges over I-94 last summer. They stripped everything except the bridge piers, built all new decks, and widened sidewalks. Perhaps it was well beyond the scope of the project, but that site (between the two bridges) is the perfect location for a park cap. Even just rebuilding with extra wide bridges that could support some greenery would have made a huge improvement.

    1. John

      You bring up the key point. This needs to be timed with bridge projects. Once a bridge gets replaced, it’s too late. MnDOT and others program their bridges up to four years in advance. Someone (likely not MnDOT) would need to come up with the additional funds for a bridge cap or expansion. Then, MnDOT and FHWA would need to agree. Ultimately, I think it is doable if money can be found somewhere

  6. Jim

    I love the idea of capping over I-94. But I wonder about maintenance and such of the spans and “bridges” over the freeway. What about repairs, future replacement needs? Could you really build multi-story buildings on top of the new land? That part seems risky. I’d be happy with greenery if nothing else. It would still greatly improve land values adjacent to it.

    Years ago I mentioned on another neighborhood forum the idea of planting more trees along the outskirt of the I-94 trench in St. Paul. I was told that the effort was tried previously, but the trees died off easily. That’s a shame. If capping is too costly. Just simple greenery added to the trench area would be a big improvement. Alas that doesn’t sound too feasible either. Unless you try some really hardy tough trees I guess.

      1. Jim

        That looks incredible. Thanks for the link. That could compliment the redevelopment of the bus barn site on Snelling Ave really well.

  7. Andy S

    “We seemed to have lost many of those visions in present-day urbanism, which proposes to tear down skyways and put people on the street with cars.”

    Thank you! We argue and push for grade separation on all our major transit projects (It still amazes me how many people push for subways in MSP) yet at the same time propose tearing down skyways.

  8. Adam MillerAdam

    Interesting timing. Just yesterday I crossed 94 on Nicollet to get to the hardware store and back, and the idea of putting a cap there just jumps out at you. Those three bridges are already so close to each other, and the potential for improving the neighborhoods on both sides by insulating them from the freeway is obvious.

  9. Andy S

    If this ever happens, the lessons of Lowry Hill need to be remembered. What you put on top of the cap is just as important as building it.

  10. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Rather than just widening a bridge, I would hope to see space between two bridges get capped to make more space and capture more value.

  11. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Living in the Midway, I can attest to its current state as a big box Mecca and pedestrian hell hole. About once a month, my wife and I walk with our 3 year old daughter from Lafond down Snelling to Concordia to catch the 53 to have pizza night at Dulono’s at Lyn-Lake. We walk at about 4:30 during the peak commute time and it’s easily the most unpleasant pedestrian experience I can think of in MSP proper.

    David’s idea for Snelling between University and Snelby reminds me of a happy hour conversation I had with Dan Burden of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute a few years ago while he was in town for a Bike Walk TC event. Our conversation took place at the time when the University Avenue design was being debated and proposals for a clover leaf type interchange that would have taken out buildings at all four corners were being made to accommodate as much auto traffic as possible at Snelling and University. I told Dan about Snelling and it’s connection to I94 and the high numbers of daily auto trips using the two routes to pass through the neighborhood. Dan pulled out a pen and began to drawn on a bar napkin. He said something along the lines of, why don’t you make that traffic disappear? He then finished his drawing of a tunnel under University Avenue for the through traffic looking to get to and from the freeway with a single lane roundabout at grade to circulate local traffic looking to connect between University and Snelling.

    Perhaps we could combine Dan and David’s ideas and instead of putting pedestrians and people above grade we put the non local auto traffic below grade on Snelling between University and Snelby? The freeway interchange could happen at current freeway grade with a tunnel under I94 to connect movements across the freeway after exiting. This seems like a more attractive design than the elevated walkways of the 1920s which people would insist to be enclosed à la the skyway system.

    Anyway, I though of this while trying to get back to sleep after my daughter jumped into my bed for the second time at 3:15am this morning. Is it a beautiful dream or just a crazy nightmare?

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