Stitching Together Duluth’s Downtown and Waterfront – Part One

The Duluth Waterfront Collective is a group of planners, designers, thinkers and more, united in our desire to create a more livable, equitable and sustainable Duluth. Our plan, entitled Highway 61 Revisited, takes an eraser to a one-mile stretch of Interstate 35 and will use a community engagement process to draw in the blank space as a more physically and culturally connected downtown.

Part One: The Problem

Railroads—and later freeways—have always prevented Duluth from taking full advantage of its position at the head of Lake Superior. Drawings dated as early as 1893 depict a sprawling rail yard between the central business district and what would become Canal Park and the associated waterfront. One hundred years later, that disconnection took the form of Interstate 35. At the time, the freeway was hailed by many for its progressive approach of using tunnels and decks to preserve buildings and create public space, but the freeway—much like the rail yard before it—continues to act as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront. (For some excellent historical views of this, see Bill Lindeke’s article, Then & Now: Downtown Duluth).

Today, Duluth’s interstate doesn’t live up to the expectations it was designed for 50 years ago. I-35 was slated to become a major route to the Canadian border, but now only travels a short distance beyond downtown before it transitions into the two-lane London Road. What’s more, its level of traffic does not even warrant interstate status. While the freeway and associated infrastructure take up 20% of the land within Duluth’s downtown, the Sustainable Choices 2045 transportation plan by Duluth’s Metropolitan Interstate Council shows that this stretch of freeway handles less than 50% of its intended capacity.

Congestion levels on the interstate are very low, while congestion levels on the overpasses are very high. This creates issues for pedestrian circulation.

One positive, albeit unintended, outcome of building Interstate 35 was the redevelopment of Canal Park, which is now one of the most visited tourist destinations in the state of Minnesota. In a few short decades, the neighborhood went from scrapyards, warehouses and saloons to award-winning restaurants, hotels and amenities. The freeway designers in the 1970s did not predict this surge in interest, so the infrastructure flowing in and out of Canal Park is completely inadequate.

Unlike the interstate itself, the Lake Avenue Overpass—the primary method of entry to/from the neighborhood—sits at nearly 200% of its intended capacity. Funneling the increased traffic into these overpasses creates much of the vehicular congestion that is detrimental to pedestrian activity. This not only prevents tourists from visiting downtown businesses, but also keeps Duluth’s downtown residents and workers from accessing the waterfront.

Demographics within 1 mile of Canal Park indicates the 10,821 nearby residents have lower income compared to both the city of Duluth and the state of Minnesota. While this population is split almost equally between males and females, it does have more racial diversity than much of the city. Nearly 20% of this population have a disability, and nearly 40% earn below the poverty level. 32% do not own vehicles, with many being reliant on public transit, walking and biking.

The demographics within one mile of Highway 61 Revisited’s study area reveal that the neighborhood is more diverse than the majority of Duluth. In addition, the neighborhood has a significantly lower average household income level than the rest of the city. Over 30 percent of this population doesn’t own a vehicle, with many relying on transit, walking or biking. On top of that, the area has a large number of people with a disability.

If the infrastructure in the area was reflective of what the community needs, walkable, accessible streets would run throughout the city’s downtown, but this is far from the case. Often this lack of accessibility is due purely to geography, but in the flattest parts of our city we have built the roadblocks ourselves. This is especially true along the interstate, where the car-centric overpasses overlay fast-moving traffic with pedestrian walkways.

This graph displays the population of Duluth, Fargo, Rochester, Green Bay, and Saint Cloud over the past 100 years. While every other city has grown in this time period, Duluth's population has decreased.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Duluth had significantly more people than it does now. While many similar-sized cities within the region have grown in recent decades, Duluth has seen little change in its population after nearly three decades of decline from the 60s to the 90s. Much of the infrastructure within the Twin Ports was planned and built ahead of this population downturn. While the people have left, the infrastructure is still here, and current residents continue to pay for a city built for more people than it has. Remedying this situation will require a mix of attracting new population and investment while selectively right sizing our infrastructure.

The people of Duluth are beginning to realize that rebuilding our infrastructure the way it is now may prove cost-prohibitive, as evidenced by the recent “Can of Worms” interchange project in Lincoln Park which was delayed after going $100 million over budget. Not only is the interstate financially questionable, it also is out of line with the goals of our city. The Imagine Duluth 2035 comprehensive plan specifically lists “reduce infrastructure costs through innovation and wholesale design change” and  “improve system condition and connections in and between downtown and Canal Park” amongst its top priorities. The interstate as it exists in Duluth today is out of touch with where we are as a city and where we want to go, so when it comes time to rebuild the downtown stretch of I-35, let’s build something better.

In part two of this article, I’ll explore our initial concept and how it addresses the problems brought up in part one. Stay tuned.

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12 thoughts on “Stitching Together Duluth’s Downtown and Waterfront – Part One

  1. Bill Shears

    I didn’t see this referenced in this post, nor on the official project website, but how does this proposal adapt to climate change? There was recently some chatter about Duluth becoming a “climate refuge” after UMD sponsored a marketing campaign. It seems like downsizing infrastructure while the city is on the brink of a potential population spike would be sacrificing future adaptability for a short-term reduction in taxes and a boost to real estate developer profits.

    If climate change didn’t matter when planning infrastructure, I think I would appreciate this if I lived in Central Hillside. From a recreation perspective, having only two entrances to the lake and Park Point (Lake Ave and Harbor Dr) is annoying and this would be a nice solution. From a work/travel perspective, having more entrances to downtown means less time driving through downtown – instead of going up Mesaba Ave and taking a right, you’d just slowly meander to your desired exit.

  2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Regarding this comment:

    “I-35 was slated to become a major route to the Canadian border, but now only travels a short distance beyond downtown before it transitions into the two-lane London Road.”

    At NO point during I-35 planning was it ever intended to go beyond the start of the Two Harbors Expressway (roughly the equivalent of 68th Ave E). Original approval was only to 10th Ave E…it was later decided to build it to its current endpoint at 26th.

    1. Nick Brooks

      The author completely neglects to mention that the freeway extension and tunnel system is how the Lakewalk was built. Major oversight.

  3. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Looking forward to this. Duluth is wonderful, but the divide between the downtown and Canal Park makes it difficult for people to move from one to the other on foot (and even by car). That, in turn, forces Canal Park to have a lot more parking and lot more wasted space than necessary. If it were easy to walk from one to the other, Canal Park would be far more pedestrian friendly.

    Duluth has so much potential as a city, it could be in many ways like Minnesota’s answer to Aspen; a hub for recreation and tech. The city’s under-utilized waterfront is certainly one reason why this is not realized.

    I would love to see a DFL trifecta make revitalizing Duluth, with passenger rail and ripping out I-35, into a legislative priority.

  4. Monte Castleman

    If there’s a problem connecting downtown and the waterfront the solution is more skyways and caps, not making everyone that wants to walk between them cross a major surface arterial and make all the people that just want to get to the north shore suffer stuck at traffic signals. Once I-35 ends at London road congestion is so horrific that we should be talking about addressing that problem.

    Like it or not, I-35 is a highway of statewide importance, so it’s not just about downtown Duluth businesses bemoaning the fact that people don’t get tempted to stop at their fine overpriced establishments because they’re not stuck in traffic on a surface street.

    1. Justin

      No one likes being delayed but sometimes it happens if you pass through a city or town. I think it’s a little crazy to have a freeway right there for the reasons outlined in the article.

  5. Dave

    Leave the freeway as is. It provides a good path from the twin cities to UMD.
    Focus on fixing the roads we have rather than build new things that we can’t maintain. The city already pays for non productive businesses like Spirit mountain and Great lakes Aquarium and city golf course to name a few! What we need in Duluth is a new mayor and council that focuses on a good business climate, jobs, and lower taxes!

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      Removing this freeway and creating an amenity that boosts the value of everything around it (and possibly creates new developable land) could be a huge benefit to the finances of the city and the state. I’m sure people will find a way to get to UMD regardless.

  6. Kent Worley

    Eliminate the excess and needless thru traffic [Twin Cities to and from the North Shore] by providing an above the city route.

  7. James Buchanan

    The only way this plan will work is to first create a bypass for north and south traffic on Interstate 35. Fortunately, there is a real world example of how that can be done. The village of Vossevangen, Norway had traffic congestion on the European route E16 that is a main west-east road that runs through their village. Instead of widening the E16 road in their village, taking out businesses and homes, a bypass tunnel with roundabouts on both ends was built instead.

    I believe that a similar bypass tunnel, two lanes each way, from Duluth’s Point of Rocks under Downtown Duluth, and exiting north of the Lakewalk Parking lot at Holiday Station could make your plan workable. Also, make the intersections into two lane roundabouts instead of four-way stop intersections.

    Without these additions on your plan, the stop and go traffic will increase travel times, idling engines will increase downtown carbon dioxide, drivers will take Superior Street to avoid the backup of traffic on the main highway, and result in the defeat of the real reason why Interstate 35 was built in Downtown Duluth to begin with.

  8. James Buchanan

    First, I’m wondering why the North Shore Scenic Railroad is not depicted on your illustrations? This is the same track that could within a ten or twenty years also carry commuter trains from Duluth to Two Harbors and back.

    Second, how will runners attending Grandma’s Marathon go across Interstate 35 at a grade intersection crossing? Have you talked to Grandma’s Marathon management about this?

    Third, while we need better pedestrian access to and from Canal Park, improving pedestrian access on the existing bridges is much better than the vanity project proposed here.

    Lastly, practice defensive walking and never assume that a driver will stop for you, even if you have the green light. Take responsibility for your own safety and the safety of others while walking and driving.

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