Minneapolis’ North Loop Viaducts Offer A Unique Opportunity

Some weeks ago, Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat and a team of architects unveiled a bold and expensive new idea for Minneapolis’ Mississippi riverfront. The plan received a warm reception from Chamber of Commerce and Editorial Board types, but a more lukewarm response among the two groups of people whose opinions I most often seek: twitter urbanists and Star Tribune comment-writers.

There are two big problems with the “Wishbone” bridge idea. The first is that it doesn’t seem to fill a true need. Instead, it would duplicate an experience that is already available in various flavors on the Stone Arch Bridge, the Central Avenue Bridge, Nicollet Island, and Water Power Park. The second is the cost. Estimates have run from $50-100 million, and even that wide a range is unreliable. At a time when so many other priorities remain underfunded (and new priorities are emerging in the wake of a global pandemic), it seems obscene to spend so much on a rather obvious attempt to get publicity from tourist publications.

All of this being said, I don’t think that the impulse behind this scheme should be entirely dismissed. While there is a weary familiarity when yet another politician proposes a local version of New York’s High Line, some of the components are sound. Minneapolis and St. Paul are wonderful cities that have struggled to establish an identity, or earn the kind of national attention that helps draw tourist dollars and attract talented workers. When a family with airline miles or a job seeker with an offer imagines themselves in Minneapolis, the image of the city that rises to mind is more likely to be Jerry Lundegaard struggling to scrape ice off his window than a leisurely summer stroll across the stone arches. Maybe it would or maybe it wouldn’t succeed, but the underlying yearning behind the “Wishbone” is to build something Of Note, something that will make a new image of the city. (A really close parallel is the “Floating Bridge” in Moscow’s new Zaryadye Park). People keep proposing takes on the High Line, because it’s a deservedly world-famous urban space. A handful of weeks ago, I wrote about the potential to build a world class linear park in St. Paul, and I don’t think that’s exactly a bad idea for Minneapolis to shoot for something similar—this just isn’t it.

But I can think of a different concept that’s more novel than the Wishbone, would cost a lot less money, and would accomplish the same goals with broader benefits.

Curtain Call For The North Loop Viaducts

Viaduct Under

This sucks, but it doesn’t have to.

Here and now in 2020, the entrance and exit ramps that connect 3rd and 4th Streets to I-94 by crossing the North Loop on viaducts do not exactly make a whole lot of sense. When the viaducts were built, the North Loop wasn’t even known by that name, and it was a mostly derelict area that few had second thoughts about crossing over. But today, they form a tough edge that hems in the most dynamic neighborhood in the city, stymieing development west of N 4th Street. Only the few blocks surrounding Target Field Station make for an exception. It’s one of the Twin Cities’ cleanest examples of how unsightly and inactive highway infrastructure can divide neighborhoods—or more accurately in this case, depress their ability to ever grow.

While the area around the North Loop viaducts transforms, the transportation justification of the viaducts continues to erode. When white collar offices were tightly clustered between Hennepin and 4th Avenues, it surely made a good bit of sense to whisk suburban workers to this area via an elevated shortcut. Yet the geography of jobs in downtown is increasingly different. Last year, one business headquartered in the North Loop achieved a $1 billion valuation. A brand new ten-story office building recently opened in the area and a fourteen story tower is proposed. Instead of making a direct connection between highway and jobs in the CBD, the North Loop viaducts now seem somewhat of an overshoot.

Then there’s the problem of the land that the viaducts sit on themselves. Highways occupy some of the most valuable urban land in America. While it wasn’t the case when they were built, the North Loop viaducts now make a strong claim for the piece of highway infrastructure with the biggest opportunity cost in the Twin Cities. According to Hennepin County, the assessed value of 725 3rd St N, a parking lot east of the viaduct on which an apartment building recently started construction, is $65 per square foot. The assessed value of 800 5th St N, a parking lot and junkyard west of the viaduct, is $35 per square foot. It would be well worth computing the value that Minneapolis and Hennepin County could unlock from the viaduct right-of-way itself and adjacent properties, if they were to disappear.

Plenty of people have been calling for years for exactly that outcome. Certainly the easiest and cleanest solution to the problems caused by this relic is to tear it down and not rebuild it. The highway could instead be accessed at N 10th Ave, and the land could then be sold to developers to justify the investment. If this were a course of action proposed tomorrow, it would certainly get my support.

But the North Loop viaducts, for all of their ill effects, have scraps of potential from which a more elegant solution could be assembled. Here’s an alternate proposal: tear down just half of the viaduct, and use the rest for good.

Adding Value To The North Loop

Cities around the world are always saddled with out-of-fashion infrastructure, and constantly made to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes they choose to tear it down, for good or ill. Sometimes they choose to hide it, with results that may vary. But by far the most exciting results come when cities reclaim the infrastructure for something better. New York’s High Line, Atlanta’s BeltLine, Paris’ Promenade Plantée, and Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon are all famous demonstrations of the various ways that obsolete infrastructure can be transformed into places for people.

Such an opportunity exists with the North Loop viaducts. From 2nd to 10th Avenue, the viaducts stretch two thirds of a mile, crossing over the railroad tracks and floating past the third floors of North Loop condos, apartments, and offices. On the approach into the city, they provide a fantastic view of the downtown skyline. The eastern viaduct also already provides a much needed pedestrian connection to fill what would otherwise be a gap between Washington Avenue and 5th Street, but it’s an exposed and unpleasant walk. Yet if people could walk on the viaducts without the road and wind of freeway traffic, they surely would. If this elevated space were transformed into an elevated park, with trees, flowers, paths, and benches, the effect would be transformational.

But revitalizing the viaducts as a linear park is not on its own an unvarnished win, because it would not help reclaim new land for development, nor would it ameliorate the barrier effect that is caused by the hulking highway overpass. It is fortunate, then, that the highway viaducts are two separate structures. This presents an elegant and obvious compromise. The western viaduct could be removed entirely, while the eastern viaduct is retained and greened. This would leave a developable gap of over 100 feet between the parcels that front 5th Street and the remaining viaduct.

Viaductpark

The viaduct park and redevelopment, sometime in a more enlightened future. Full size image here.

These buildings would face the new elevated park, adding value to what they lease or sell. With just a single viaduct of only 50 feet in width, the gloomy atmosphere underneath would be lessened and the new buildings that open onto it would have a strong incentive to further improve its look, feel, and amenities. Rethinking the surface of the I-94 viaducts as parkland might provide the nudge to rethink the underbelly of them as well, with opportunities for dog parks, skate parks, basketball, futsal, and other activities besides solely parking.

This elevated passage would also provide a near link between the two green spaces currently proposed for the North Loop area; a small park near 3rd St and 8th Ave, and a chain of pocket parks proposed for the shadow of the North Loop Green project between the viaducts and Target Field.

By taking an increasingly-troublesome piece of transportation infrastructure and re-conceiving it as an amenity, Minneapolis would create community and economic value where there is now only a cost. It would create a joyful link between separate parts of the downtown area. It would add a ribbon of green space to a place where there is now little. Finally, it would (ATTN: Mike Opat) create a landmark piece of urban and landscape design that would draw attention from across the country, and maybe even the world.

How To Make It Happen

Nothing can go forward without MnDOT, who has the final say on so much of the highway system, on board. MnDOT cannot get on board without the city on board. The city will not get on board unless people like the idea and bringing it up.

One way to start might be to put forward the viaducts as a location for an Open Streets festival. While Open Streets events tend to succeed on the basis of the participation of local community institutions, the sheer novelty of being able to walk on the North Loop viaducts for a weekend afternoon would be a draw on its own. It might take some creative rope and pulley systems to make it work, but there could still be a good space for vendors like the tenants of the nearby Graze Food Hall and Modist, Fulton, and Inbound Brewing. There would also be a great opportunity to get the adjacent Twins, Wolves, and Lynx teams to participate. How many kids would pass up the opportunity to shoot hoops or hit balls from the advantage of being thirty feet in the air?

Start by establishing the idea of the viaducts as a place where people might someday belong, not just cars. From there, the fate of the viaducts should be woven into the scope of the Highway 252/I-94 project that MnDOT is embarking upon. That is the nearest opportunity to rebuild the entry and exit ramps for the highway, potentially feeding them onto 10th Avenue instead. More traffic would land on North Loop streets, but at slow neighborhood speeds, and with ample opportunity to become accustomed to North Loop retail options. Then, as a part of that larger project, the viaducts could be severed, one could be torn down, and the untapped value of the area could start paying dividends for the state, city, and neighborhood, as construction of the park commences.

These are weird and fraught times. It can be difficult sometimes to think about the future, when so much about the next month or two is completely uncertain. But it is more important than ever, in times like this, to hold onto dreams. Here, in the heart of Minneapolis, is an opportunity to turn a frog into a prince, perhaps it can be something to look forward to.

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25 Responses to Minneapolis’ North Loop Viaducts Offer A Unique Opportunity

  1. Eric Anderson April 8, 2020 at 11:13 am #

    Love the thinking —

    The viaducts would also be fantastic for solar panel install. Maybe keep both viaducts, with solar panels on the western, green path on the east? Farmers market and/or housing built below?

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 8, 2020 at 11:24 am #

      Tearing the western viaduct down and putting homes in that space doesn’t preclude the ability to put solar panels on top of those buildings.

    • Mark April 8, 2020 at 11:40 am #

      Plans for redeveloping the farmers market and massively increasing housing around it are already underway.

      While this is a nice thought exercise both viaducts need to go. The high line works in NYC because it has history, character, it meanders through the landscape. This is a concrete monument to the 70s and doesn’t deserve to be remembered decades to come.

  2. T April 8, 2020 at 5:31 pm #

    Would rather see this turned into a boulevard with BRT connecting to I-94 and I-694 and an alternate routing of the blue line in the middle of the right of way with a stop for the North Loop before connecting to Washington via Lyndale

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 8:15 am #

      Imo not the best route for either of them.

      Just as the viaducts now miss a lot of employment and residential density, a BRT that ran on them would have the same limitations. Instead, routing buses the length of Washington Avenue and having them get on I-94 further on would serve more people, which I wrote about a bit here: https://streets.mn/2020/01/07/bus-lanes-now-for-downtown-minneapolis/

      For the Blue Line, an alignment down the viaducts doesn’t really make sense given that the LRT route currently terminates a block to the west. Why should it cut back in order to go north, when using 7th Street and Lyndale N is completely feasible and would make far more sense geographically?

      • T April 9, 2020 at 3:47 pm #

        Appreciate the well thought out comment. I agree the LRT would be better served by 7th street.

        And after going back and forth for awhile i think Washington would be a good corridor for BRT. What originally took me away from having that in my original routing was the bottleneck around Broadway and Washington and the fact that the corridor’s strength really begins around 10th Ave N so running to Broadway really slows down the bus without much benefit.

        But as i was looking at the satellite map throughout the area. I did it from the perspective of not turning the viaduct into a boulevard as i usually had and saw that with the ramps it would be pretty easy to make a bus only ramp that would enter/exit the freeway at Plymouth Ave and then connect to Washington from there. There also would be room for an in-line bus station under Broadway on the ramp since both ramps have 2 lanes and with some cones to separate bus traffic and the passenger traffic from 7th street/Olsen there wouldnt be any danger with buses stopping to service the stop with car traffic still able to accelerate on that other lane.

        That would allow them to serve that area further on without slowing down as much to go through a bottleneck on Broadway

        • Alex Schieferdecker
          Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 4:59 pm #

          I think that’s a great solution to the issue. As I noted in the article, the potential reconstruction of I-94 to the north of downtown in the coming decade is really the best possible opportunity to synthesize a lot of these issues and create a much better transportation plan for the North Loop.

          • T April 10, 2020 at 12:08 am #

            I think when the Reconstruction happens we should be pushing for a gold line that’s truly a 94 line. Of we have two ends to it. That’ll make people more likely to do the logical thing and run BRT thru Cedar Riverside and either run on Riverside or go straight to 94 with a stop by seward midway into downtown St Paul.

            Give the all day express service that until a subway is considered or major grade separation or railroad right of way reconstruction this city will be missing with a slow green line

  3. Steve Gjerdingen April 8, 2020 at 7:38 pm #

    I remember the first time I drove on that road (3rd street) was after I made a wrong turn downtown. I was so disappointed because i had to drive 3 miles out of my way to take the Dowling exit and circle back. Whoever thought it was a good idea to prevent people taking those roads to Broadway was not thinking. I say remove those things to make sure no one else made the same mistake I did.

    Also, I think the only way the north loop will expand effectively is if both overpasses are removed. We desperately need more housing in useful locations in Minneapolis and this will help built a future for that. A very high viaduct for non-motorized users that is 10 blocks long and contains no exits doesn’t seem too useful, especially as the north loop densifies.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 8:17 am #

      I agree the viaducts are a barrier, but I don’t think you responded to the idea I put forward to knock down just one of the viaducts. That cuts the barrier in half, turns it into an amenity, and frees up space for development. Is that not a win-win-win?

      • Mark April 9, 2020 at 10:40 am #

        Not really. It’s still a barrier, both physically and psychologically. Green it up all you want but until it’s physically gone growth on the other side will be limited and the North Loop won’t be cohesive. Greening it up is nothing more than window washing.

  4. Brandon A April 8, 2020 at 8:11 pm #

    We need more thinking like this, however for the location I disagree that this would be the best idea.

    The whole thing should be torn out and they should unearth Bassett Creek, giving it a new open-air path surrounded by new development. Much of the land west of the viaduct, directly above Bassett Creek are surface lots owned by metropolitan council, so acquiring parts of it for public domain shouldn’t be too difficult.

  5. Aaron Isaacs
    Aa April 8, 2020 at 10:57 pm #

    Tear down both viaducts from 5th Ave. N. to 10th Ave. N., routing the traffic at ground level on 4th Street. That opens up five square blocks for redevelopment and/or park land.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 8:18 am #

      What I’m saying is that you can tear down just one viaduct and get the same result, and in a way that would add a lot of value by creating a novel amenity.

  6. Garrett Bembenek April 9, 2020 at 1:42 am #

    Love the idea of creating a linear park to reclaim space for pedestrians. Another example of reclaiming underutilized space beneath an overpass is the Im Viadukt project in Zurich, Switzerland. Mimicking the successful aspects of their design to incorporate restaurants, shopping, and office space in what is quite valuable real estate nowadays while also providing significant contributions to the city’s tax base.

  7. Scott April 9, 2020 at 11:39 am #

    Fun post. It’s an interesting idea to repurpose one of the viaducts into a linear park.

    However, I’d rather see both removed. The High Line is a beautiful and historic structure and it passes by or through several cool old buildings in an area of NYC with little green space. Also, it allows people to see the Hudson River and skyscrapers into the distance. The viaducts have zero visual interest, lack access points for people, and would still be a barrier in the North Loop. It just isn’t worth the millions it would take to turn it into a park, attempt to beautify the exterior, and add access ramps/ elevators.

    Minneapolis already has the Midtown Greenway, which functions as our ‘low line’ park. I’d rather see funds put into redevelopment along the route, adding rail transit, and extending it across the Mississippi into St. Paul. There is no need to copy NYC, like so many other cities, when Minneapolis already has our own unique features.

    And, I agree that the Wish Bone concept is very short-sighted and unnecessary. The Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge and riverside parkland is truly extraordinary and world class, as is. Hennepin County should buy the post office redeveloping it into a mixed-use feature to extend activity and street life along the parkway for example.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 11:52 am #

      There is a haze of nostalgia that surrounds the current High Line, as if its value was always apparent. In fact, the opposite is true, really just two people saw what it might become and worked to save it. Everyone else hated it. It didn’t look like a beautiful or historic structure when Rudy was trying to tear it down.

      • Scott April 9, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

        It’s a fun idea and I appreciate your creativity.

        I actually saw the High Line before it was rehabilitated, and it was a beautiful structure, just in poor condition. The materials, design, and value as a historic rail corridor are what made it worth saving. The bleak, concrete viaducts lack those features.

  8. SurlyLHT April 9, 2020 at 1:37 pm #

    A lot of the commenters seem to want them both torn down. Perhaps tear them both down and place a linear park in the middle of the block? This would also be more cost effective than maintaining the spans for an elevated park. Would the new freeway entrance just be at 10th? Also I would move the eastbound entrance to the west and free up all that land between the Mpls Housing HQ

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 9, 2020 at 5:06 pm #

      I can make two arguments for my solution being preferable to tearing both down and making at ground level.

      (1) The uniqueness of a park in the air. You don’t get many chances to do something like that, because it doesn’t make sense if the infrastructure is not already there. But in this case, it is there.

      (2) The crossing of the railroad tracks bridges a big gap that would occur without the viaduct (and today, the small pedestrian path along it). If you tear down the viaducts, you’d either have to build a smaller new bridge, or just give up that connectivity.

      As for cost, I’m not sure how it would shake out, but tearing down both viaducts is more costly than just one. Obviously less costly than 2X the per unit cost if you’ve got all the equipment already on site, but still more costly than just removing one. What’s the cost of that versus the cost of maintenance versus the value of the land being uncovered versus the added value of a unique park amenity, I do not know. That’s too complicated for this post!

  9. Derek April 9, 2020 at 7:43 pm #

    Think of the fun things this could evolve into. While the walkway, plants, trees, and benches would be essential, it could do more. For example, unique, outdoor curling rinks/sheets 🥌 🥌. In the warmer months, these could be converted to horseshoe pits.

    Below the remaining viaduct, we could have semi-permanent food truck/food stalls. Think of all the fast casual restaurants beneath railroad tracks in Tokyo, for example.

  10. Ian R Buck April 11, 2020 at 8:07 pm #

    100% here for this, let’s do it!

  11. Andy E April 14, 2020 at 9:15 pm #

    I started to write this yesterday, then deleted. Came back today.

    I think the idea of turning one of the viaducts into a linear park is interesting, and has promise. By that I mean it is (to me) clearly something that would be worth a detailed look. However, I think it should be one of at least two options for a replacement/repurpose of the viaduct. The second option I’ll lay out below.

    From the railroad tracks, re-build the viaduct ramps to reach ground level at the intersection of 5th Ave and 4th Street (moved slightly south). From there, a re-built 4th street will continue along the route of the current 4th street and part of the north viaduct. This road should be optimized for the neighborhood with no street parking, stop signs and bump-outs at all crossings (maybe even small speed bumps or other calming features), and low speed limits. But it should also function effectively for traffic entering/exiting downtown. I was thinking something like a 4 lane boulevard, with a tree-lined medians.

    8th Ave would be extended and rec-connected as well, providing another crossing point. Finally, a pedestrian bridge would be built from the corner of Lyndale and Plymouth over the highway to the new 4th Street. I would be interested in seeing the feasibility (and safety) of building center-run (raised in the tree-lined median) bike lanes directly connected to the new pedestrian bridge on one end and the Kenilworth Trail on the other end.

    Finally, at the NW end, 4th Street could be extended up to an extended 12th Ave, where the on/off ramps would join. This would free up additional space where the inbound land currently is for park space or additional building space.

    The total concept would be to still allow for the efficient, although slow, movement of vehicles into and out of downtown while having calm (albeit busy at times) streets for those living, working, and walking in the area.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker April 16, 2020 at 2:13 pm #

      I think that would actually probably be the ideal solution if you could go back in time and help the planers of the day understand what the future would look like.

      The main issue I see in the present is that it sounds extremely expensive. With my idea, I tried to make lemons into lemonade. Given a chance and a budget to do it from scratch, I think I’d come around to your idea instead.

      • Andy E April 17, 2020 at 6:22 pm #

        That’s understandable.

        Part of my thinking is that maintaining the viaduct and a road will need significantly higher maintenance over time – especially when the viaduct reaches the end of its viable life and needs a major overhaul. That would be the selling point – smaller impacts on ongoing maintenance budgets.

        I’m also assuming that it is currently beyond the realm of possibility for that access to the highway being removed completely. I would think that this type of road, even with stop-signs and traffic calming designs (raised intersections?), would add less than 5 minutes to someone commuting into downtown. Heck, it would basically make this route into downtown similar (in time spent on city streets) to Washington (7 Corners) or Hennepin.

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