Then & Now: Downtown Duluth

I just spent the weekend in Duluth, which is a fascinating city for anyone interested in urban design and Minnesota history. Walking along the riverfront always makes me wonder how to better connect the city to the lake. It turns out I’m not the first person to have thought about that topic. The history of how we designed and built a freeway through downtown Duluth is long and compelling.

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful chapter on the Duluth I-35 process from a planning grad student in Texas:

The moral of the Duluth freeway story is that the urban freeway does not have to be a destructive influence on the inner city. In fact, it can have the exact opposite effect. Says Duluth I-35 Citizens Advisory Panel member Bill Abalan, “I-35 led to a renaissance of Duluth’s downtown.” This is because the city and its citizens took the opportunity to turn something potentially destructive into something that added value to and improved the quality of life of the entire community. Says Worley of his creation (Lake Place) “I like going down to the lakefront and seeing people enjoy it” (Rekela 1995: 5-9).

The Duluth story in many ways typifies the dynamics of the urban freeway in America, and there is a lot from the Duluth experience that can be learned. Architects, city planners, engineers, politicians and anyone else who are concerned about the urban environment must see to it that solutions such as those reached in Duluth – cooperative methods of planning and such “pro-urban” methods of freeway design – are commonplace, so that the conflicts and delays experienced by Duluth before the freeway’s construction are avoided. As Kent Worley states, the design of freeways is a “people problem – not a car or highway problem. We are not treating the real problem – only putting on bandages” (Worley 1998).







In my opinion, the way the freeway was built had good and bad effects. On one hand, it created a connection to the lake from the East (North) part of the city. On the other hand, many buildings were torn down to complete the extension. Duluth has a lot of geographic and demographic challenges, but is Minnesota’s most unique and beautiful city.




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6 thoughts on “Then & Now: Downtown Duluth

  1. David Baur

    Spent three days in Duluth last summer for All Pints North. I have thought about this a lot since then because I was staying at the Radisson downtown which was the first time I really walked around the city a lot. If you forgive my ignorance on the history of how this was built or what it was like before, I’ll say that my reaction was that I was baffled as to why we have an interstate run through the city and then immediately stop. Connecting Duluth to the MSP area via I-35 makes a ton of sense, but I would have loved to see it stop near Grand in West Duluth or not much further. Crossing into the harbor area from downtown was, in general, not very pleasant. It felt like WAY more lanes of traffic than could possibly be necessary. It felt like a missed opportunity to have something much more engaging in a city that serves as a major jumping off point for tourism. Why should we encourage people to speed through the city when we could encourage them to spend a little time there on the way to the BWCA or wherever? I felt like there could be a solid 5-6 miles that would make an excellent teardown candidate to be replaced by a boulevard.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      That’s how I always felt too, and then you read this history and realize that it wasn’t constructed very long ago, and involved a huge fight with many constiencies (including the “don’t build it at all” group) and you also realize that it could have been much worse.

      Three questions:

      1) In hindsight looking back from 2014, did they make the right decisions?
      2) How does one’s opinion of this project change when you actually live in Duluth 24/7/365 (as opposed to just visiting / vacationing there)?
      3) How much did obviously wrong-headed population and traffic growth projections shape this project?

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        I wish they had those tunnels in the last portion of I-35 in the central portion as well so downtown and Canal Park have better pedestrian and bike connectivity.

    2. Monte

      I and probably most of the motorists along I-35 have zero interest in being needlessly delayed by having to drive through downtown Duluth. If we wanted to we could exit off onto local streets and do it. If I want to stop in Duluth it’s either Canal Park for a few hours, or the McDonalds and the gasoline station on Boundary Ave.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Not sure if a bypass was feasible due to the topography of the region. Maybe they could have done a really wide arc around Duluth, up Hwy 33 and then across north of the airport and over to the Two Harbors expressway. That would have had the added benefit of inducing less sprawl than an in-town alternative.

          But ultimately there’s not a lot of traffic heading up the North Shore outside of peak vacation times. The Two Harbors expressway drops off to 7600 vehicles per day on the northern end of Duluth. The northern part of London Rd only has 11-14k AADT.

          Maybe the solution is congestion pricing of vacation routes! Free most of the time, and increasing in expense during peak vacation commute times to ensure a level of service.

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