What’s Next if the Twin Cities Boulevard Gets Built?

Editor’s note: This is part two of a series covering at-grade options for MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 project. Part one may be found here, exploring the possibility of rail in the freeway corridor.

The Rethinking I-94 project comes with a significant amount of controversy with many different groups advocating for many different solutions and ideas for what to do with this patch of highway. Currently, we are in the evaluating alternatives phase, where the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is reviewing the options. 

Diagram showing the overall project schedule for Rethinking I-94. We are currently in Phase 2: Environmental Process, and will be until 2028, as MnDOT attempts to determine a design.

I personally believe, as I listed out here, that a boulevard with a subway running underneath is the best option to use. This is similar to the at-grade crossing options that MnDOT has released, albeit with the trains. However, one question that I have not seen asked is what happens IF the boulevard option gets selected? How will the boulevard affect the rest of the Twin Cities?

I would like to speak on some options and opportunities that we have for rethinking the way that our cities are designed. 

To start with, MnDOT is currently examining this project area: 

The project area includes the stretch of I94 between 35W/Highway 55 in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul.

However, if this area were to turn into a boulevard, the uses of the rest of I-94 (between I-494 and where it eventually reconnects with I-694) will change drastically. 

Map highlighting the other areas of I-94 contained within the 494/694 ring road.
Credit: Dakota Franko

In an open letter to MnDOT last month, several governmental leaders, including Minneapolis Council members Robin Wonsley and Jamal Osman, St. Paul Council Vice President Hwa Jeong Kim and State Senator Omar Fateh (among others) called for changes in the way that this project is examined. Those changes include:

  • Reworking the traffic model that MnDOT uses.
  • Performing better community engagement and scoping.
  • Evaluating anti-displacement opportunities.
  • Fairly examining the impacts of highway removal.
  • Expanding the examined area to include both downtowns and part of Highway 280.

Although all of these are important, this last point is crucial, as having the study area end where it currently does gives an unfair advantage to keeping the highway as it is.

The project area that the letter calls for would look something like this:

The proposed project area additionally includes areas of both downtowns and a part of 280.
Credit: Dakota Franko

This area, given that it now includes both downtowns, will examine a greater number of the trips that are generated on the I-94 corridor. This will allow the traffic models to better approximate who is using the interstate and where they are going, as the area isn’t as restrictive. It also gives us a better chance to re-envision the makeup of our cities. Here you can find the letter, and here is a list of local leaders who have and haven’t signed it. I encourage you to email those who haven’t signed the letter yet and ask them to put their signature down.  

Downtown Minneapolis 

The interstates surrounding Downtown Minneapolis effectively serve as a choke point from the rest of Minneapolis. This border cuts neighborhoods apart and makes the Downtown area feel distinctly separate from the rest of the city. Given that we could turn the portion of I-94 that leads into Downtown into a boulevard, it wouldn’t take much more effort to extend the boulevard the rest of the way through Downtown.

Satellite imagery of downtown Minneapolis highlighting freeways that are part of the I-94 system (including I-394 and the viaduct in the North Loop.
Credit: Dakota Franko

This would reconnect the Downtown area to the surrounding neighborhoods much better. North Loop would be reintegrated with North and Bryn-Mawr. Elliot Park would be better connected with Ventura Village. Loring Park would be better connected with Lowry Hill and Stevens Square. Additionally, this plan would allow Loring Park and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to connect more seamlessly, making it feel like one grand park instead of two separate ones. 

An at-grade park and boulevard where I-94 currently sits.
Concept imagery of a reconnected park. Credit: Dakota Franko

A boulevard would reconnect the street grids that were severed to make way for I-94. Reconnecting these grids would give more continuity to the city. Currently it is inconvenient to get from these neighborhoods into central Minneapolis, especially by walking or biking. With the reconnected grid, the city would begin to feel more continuous, a gradual transition between neighborhoods as opposed to a hard barrier. Without this barrier, trips into and out of Downtown become friendlier, and will likely happen more often.

This also offers a significant amount of land back to the city that can be used more productively. Some will go toward building the boulevard, but a large amount will suddenly become usable for buildings, parks, or other uses. This land can be developed into much-needed housing, and will grow the population base around the center of the city. 

With the issues that Downtown Minneapolis has faced such as a lack of businesses and a slow comeback, getting a number of new residents who live near the area will liven it up and improve its resiliency. More residents means more demand for businesses, and this will help alleviate the woes that stores have faced. Additionally, with close access to public transit, these new residents will be far less dependent on cars and help boost the ridership numbers of the public transport system. 

Area that can be reclaimed with a freeway cap. Credit: Dakota Franko 

All of this could be topped off with a land bridge over I-35W across Downtown. This will ensure that the street grid is restored and that the entire portion of Downtown Minneapolis is reconnected to the rest of the city, and not just the areas currently cut apart by I-94. While this would be expensive, it would be worth it to fully integrate Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, rather than making I-94 a boulevard and letting I-35W still be a scar on the landscape. 

A Chance to Rebuild Target Field Station

Northstar trains waiting at Target Field Station. Photo: Kyle Stokes for MinnPost.

Without I-94, many of the connections to I-394 would no longer serve a purpose. This is a chance to lessen the total amount of space that we allocate I-394 in the heart of our Downtown. This area can be freed up to use as land that is ripe for development, as has been shown by the popularity of the North Loop neighborhood and the new North Loop Green tower. Instead of leading all the way to Washington Ave, I-394 could stop/start at the Lyndale intersection instead, with perhaps a single lane leading to/from the A and B ramps. The rest of 394 is centrally located, near two stadiums and in the North Loop, and should be reclaimed and redeveloped as high-density apartments, bringing more residents into Downtown Minneapolis. 

This also offers Minneapolis the opportunity to develop Target Field Station, terminus of the Northstar, into a true central station for Minneapolis. Using the space freed up from I-394, space can be dedicated to building a high-quality central station in Minneapolis that can act as a hub for all commuter rail in the city. Plans are already in place to add another line, the Northern Lights Express, and there are opportunities for several more, such as the Dan Patch Line. Union Depot in St. Paul is a centrally located, beautiful station, and Minneapolis deserves one as well. It can serve as the focal point of the commuter rail system in Minneapolis offering transfers to the light rail, Northstar and hopefully several new lines adding to a transit-dense area of Minneapolis, and it will hopefully look the part as well. 

Downtown St. Paul

Highlighted portion of I-94 in downtown St. Paul.
Credit: Dakota Franko

Many of the points that I made about removing I-94 in Downtown Minneapolis apply in Downtown St. Paul as well. The interstates effectively choke off Downtown from the rest of the city, and removing them reconnects the city with the vibrant neighborhoods for which St. Paul is known. As opposed to Minneapolis, St. Paul will require a freeway cap in order to truly reconnect the streets, as I-35E will still cut through the city. 

Downtown St. Paul has had greater issues than Minneapolis in recovering to pre-pandemic activity, and an I-94 removal, plus an I-35E cap, would free a significant amount of area to turn into high-density housing. This will help to increase activity and life in Downtown, and help rejuvenate business. Additionally, much of the I-94 area is within a short walking distance from either the 10th Street Station or Robert Street Station on the Green Line, offering them ample access to public transit. 

This also offers the chance to grow St. Paul’s Downtown. The last major building added to the skyline was the Traveler’s Building built in 1991. With more land opened up, St. Paul could potentially add a building or two, likely residential, to the skyline. 

North Minneapolis

Highlighted portion of I-94 in North Minneapolis.
Credit: Dakota Franko

Continuing the highway removal into north Minneapolis will offer a chance to revitalize and return much of what was taken from the communities there. With the Blue Line Extension set to complete in 2030, and several bus rapid transit lines operational, there are several ways to get around the city without a car. Removing the highway will free up a large amount of land that can go toward increasing housing density in the northern part of Minneapolis. Additionally, in the Camden neighborhood and continuing northbound, much of the highway runs next to the river. Here it could be redeveloped as parkland and greatly increase the size of North Mississippi Regional Park. 

Eastside/Maplewood

Credit: Dakota Franko

In St. Paul, removing the highway to the east up until I-494 would likely be the last part of the highway to be moved, but would also make sense. Dayton’s Bluff and other neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown would benefit the most with increased density and a return to the street grid. As you move toward Maplewood, the development is very strip mall-oriented, and a boulevard constructed there would likely have to support this type of traffic initially before phasing into a better design. This project has the benefit of being along the Gold Line corridor, offering a quality mode of transportation to replace car trips. Removing the highway and converting it into a boulevard would likely increase the Gold Line’s ridership numbers by a decent margin as some people who previously used I-94 to commute will convert to using transit.

One Final Note

Highlighted corridor that includes most of I-694, which runs north of the Twin CIties.
Credit: Dakota Franko

I-94 stretches for a total of 1,555 miles from Billings, Montana until Port Huron in Michigan. One reservation I have heard regarding the Twin Cities Boulevard is that, with an interstate this important being removed, it will surely end up being placed somewhere else and that replacement will destroy more neighborhoods in the process. 

This fear can be answered, as I have shown above, by decommissioning I-94 through the Twin Cities and giving its title to what is currently I-694, which runs through the northern suburbs. This provides MnDOT, and all of us, with the satisfaction of having name continuity along the entire stretch of I-94, while letting us continue with the interstate removal. 

Interstates are optimized when they function as ring roads, allowing passengers to travel to and from low-density zones. However, when they are placed in cities, they separate neighborhoods, create congestion, emphasize sprawl — all while worsening the lives of city residents. This plan will help to convert I-94 from being an interstate that hurts residents to an interstate that functions as a ring road. 

Minneapolis and St. Paul have an opportunity to redevelop and improve both cities with the Rethinking I-94 project. MnDOT planners have listed several alternatives they think fit the corridor, such as expansions, repairs and the status quo, changing a lane or two to transit only and at-grade boulevards. Most of these are unimaginative and use a short-term perspective for a project that will have long-term consequences. With this big a project on the horizon, we need to ponder big ideas and big changes that can happen in our cities.

Once again, I encourage you to email those leaders who have not yet signed the letter to MnDOT and encourage them to sign it. Additionally, send some emails or letters to MnDOT yourselves about what you think of Rethinking I-94. The more pressure we exert, the more likely they are to make a change for the better. 

About Seth Bose

Pronouns: he/him

I am a Loring Park resident and a student at Minneapolis College studying both Economics and Mathematics. I am an advocate for more transit and denser, more sustainable, and all around better cities.