Rethinking I-94 West

When Interstate 94 was constructed in the 1960s it not only cleaved off a large portion of downtown Minneapolis’ Loring Park neighborhood (now Stevens Square), it also took a wide stretch of store frontage at the center of the neighborhood’s six-block-long commercial district on Nicollet Avenue and replaced it with vacant lots and a loud, windswept freeway bridge.

On the west side of the Loring Park neighborhood, I-94 cut through the entire 6-block-long Hennepin-Lyndale corridor, a place of civic importance for the whole city, seriously damaging and degrading the corridor.

Above: Aerial view of the acute-angled intersection of Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues in the 1940s, before construction of I-94. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. Below: Google Earth image of the Hennepin-Lyndale corridor today, after construction of I-94.

Residents, business owners and institutional representatives in Loring Park and surrounding neighborhoods have long expressed an awareness of, and concern about, the damage caused by the freeway. I know this from my 20-plus years doing volunteer community planning work with Citizens for a Loring Park Community, the area’s neighborhood association (my background is in architecture, though I am unlicensed). In my various leadership roles over the years, I have heard ongoing concerns related to I-94—and, again and again over the course of those two decades, I have heard community members share big ideas and big visions for repairing the damage.

Community organizations are sometimes denigrated as being unrepresentative of renters, people of color and others. But they can be the source of solid, achievable near- and longer-term projects that benefit the whole community. They should also provide a forum for more transformative visions of the future—ideas with no clear path toward achievement. These ideas that test our assumptions about what is realistic can help us change and grow.

Of course, we are each left to answer for ourselves what we think is realistic. With the freeway, the starting question might be: Is it realistic to remove the freeway altogether? As a non-car-owning city dweller, I don’t rely on the freeways in my daily life. That’s not the case with people in much of the rest of our spread-out metro. I don’t foresee that our current network of restricted high-speed corridors for personal and commercial automobile use will go away.

Unfortunately, I think this also means that major high-volume sections of freeway like I-94 in Minneapolis are likely to stay. This does not prevent us, though, from pursuing big ideas to heal the damage it has caused.

Going All In on Thinking Big

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 marked the beginning of a self-made project of mine. With near-term efforts related to improving the neighborhood’s freeway-impacted environment stalled, I turned my attention to the long-term “big vision.” I have gathered this work on a website, The site includes archives of community planning and visioning documents that I’ve gathered over the years. It also includes two plans that represent my own big vision.

The first of these is the Hennepin Lyndale Plan. The Hennepin-Lyndale corridor is an area I know intimately through multiple planning efforts, including the development of the 2013 Loring Park Neighborhood Masterplan, the city’s 2009 Ten-Year Transportation Action Plan (called Access Minneapolis), the 2015 Hennepin Lyndale Reconstruction Project, and the subsequent establishment of a community-based conservancy in partnership with Green Minneapolis to landscape and maintain the corridor. These efforts involved various city agencies, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Loring Park and Lowry Hill neighborhood associations, and multiple cultural, religious and educational institutions that call the corridor home. I cannot speak for the government entities noted here, but I believe there is broad community agreement that two big things should happen to repair the corridor.

The first is at the south end of Hennepin Lyndale where the “Spaghetti Bowl” flyover freeway access ramps connect to I-94. The vision here is to demolish the spaghetti bowl freeway infrastructure, replacing it with city roadway infrastructure that is more a part of the city’s pedestrian-suitable urban fabric.

The second big vision is at the north end of Hennepin Lyndale where I-94 emerges from the Lowry Hill Tunnel and makes a wide, disquieting path in between the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Loring Park. The big vision here is to draw the two spaces together by covering over the freeway.

How these two visions would be accomplished—or rather, what form they would take—is the interesting part. I have seen and heard community members describe a variety of different ideas and have done my best to identify issues and options. My website’s Hennepin Lyndale Plan represents my own recommendation on how to repair the corridor. My goal was to find a design that is both reasonable for this high-traffic location and appropriate for an important civic place in our city.

Left: Google Map image of the Hennepin-Lyndale Corridor today. Right: Hennepin Lyndale Plan. Image by author.
Restoring the historic wedge-shaped street grid at the current Spaghetti Bowl area would reconnect the Loring area with Uptown and would provide an opportunity for a signature building. At right is the famous wedge-shaped Flatiron Building in New York City (photo courtesy of Arch Daily). At left is my own exploration of built form possibilities at the Hennepin-Lyndale “South Triangle” site. I would love to see what others would do here. (Rendering by the author, overlayed on Google Earth background).
Hennepin-Lyndale Plan: Section drawing through an extended I-94 Lowry Hill Tunnel. The city streets of Hennepin-Lyndale are located directly above the tunnel where I-94 would run. This design would provide an efficient structure, would minimally impact existing park space and trees, and would maximally increase green space and buffering for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Loring Park. Image by author.

The Minneapolis West Side Plan

The second plan on the website, the Minneapolis West Side Plan, is different from the first plan since it involves an area that goes well beyond my Loring Park home base. At the far north end of the Hennepin Lyndale corridor, just beyond the Basilica of Saint Mary, it is as if, for the pedestrian, cyclist and local driver, the city stops. The freeway landscape explodes with I-94 heading north and I-394 going east and west. Along with adjoining rail lines and large areas of unused and underused space, the area directly west of downtown Minneapolis is effectively a giant hole.

Given its location, this place could be imagined as a confluence of the city’s great parks and trails, as a place where more people live, and as a place where North Minneapolis meets South Minneapolis. It is none of these things today. In the Minneapolis West Side Plan, I explore various methods to reconnect and reimage this underutilized part of our city while accepting that both I-94 and I-394 will remain in some form.

Current view looking northwest from Loring Park (Google Earth image).
The Minneapolis West Side Plan. Image by author.
The Minneapolis West Side Plan is built around important existing city streets and open space corridors. Each of these are negatively impacted by the existing freeway and rail corridors. The plan is offered as one iteration of how to repair and strengthen each of these city-based circulation features. Image by author.
Because of decreased air quality impacts, the coming transition to electric vehicles will allow development, under certain circumstances, to push more closely up to freeway infrastructure and allow for more ways to repair the urban fabric. Above are a couple examples of freeway liner development used as tools in the Minneapolis West Side Plan at a new city-based Lyndale Avenue (right) that would wrap around the east side of I-94. Cross-freeway liner development (illustration 5D—think Ponte Vecchio over a freeway) could be particularly useful at commercial corridor freeway crossings such as Nicollet Avenue on the south side of downtown and Broadway on the north side. All images by author.

Hopes for Real Change

Drafting this as a concept plan allowed me to step outside the normal constraints of neighborhood, city and state plans. In terms of realizing any significant changes at this location, the city and state also need to step outside their normal constraints of separate roadway planning jurisdictions and work more closely together.

I appreciate the leadership of MnDOT in engaging affected communities through the Rethinking I-94 Study. Ultimately, I believe individuals and associations (of all kinds) are the most important source of change. As a “neighborhood person” I have long been aware of the Rondo community and its Reconnect Rondo vision to repair their neighborhood at I-94 in St. Paul. What was once a long-term vision to reclaim land and reconnect the neighborhood across the freeway now has a more near-term path to becoming reality. If there is a path for the more recent—and more ambitious—Twin Cities Boulevard proposal, which would turn I-94 in St. Paul into a multi-modal corridor, I think it is a significantly longer-term project. (Unlike some, I also think the two visions may be compatible over the course of time.)

My hope is that, when construction of the Rondo freeway decking vision is fully funded, MnDOT will adjust the scope of the Rethinking I-94 Study to once again include the portion of I-94 that wraps around the south, west and north side of downtown Minneapolis. It was removed from the study’s scope sometime in 2018 or 2019.

We in Minneapolis should not wait, though. As a resident of the city, a citizen, I am not restricted by study boundaries or governmental jurisdictions. I have the freedom to envision a green and sustainable Minneapolis city center that is no longer in the stranglehold of freeways.

Others may have more or less ambitious visions, or different visions. It’s all good. If we are to do more than just survive the challenges of the coming decades, our ability to envision a better future will be essential. 

Meanwhile, I welcome your feedback at the Facebook site dedicated to my website.

John Van Heel

About John Van Heel

John Van Heel is a life-long resident of the Twin Cities, calling Loring Park home for more than thirty years. He works as a designer at a Minneapolis architectural firm and has long been active in the community and civic life of the city.