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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