Marvin Scroggins grew quiet as he stared at the interstate that replaced his childhood friends’ homes 50 years ago, forcing them to leave the tight-knit Rondo community. He contemplated what it would mean to cover the cement gash of I-94 with a land bridge that could hold shops, homes and parkland.

Then the treasurer of Rondo Avenue Inc. gave a pragmatic answer: “I look at it as an economic development opportunity.”

Interest about spanning parts of freeways in the Twin Cities isn’t limited to nearby residents. State and federal transportation officials, business owners and developers are exploring the notion of “capping” several sections of freeways with wide swaths of land. The idea has been floated around the Twin Cities area from St. Paul to north Minneapolis to Edina.

Some view it as a way to add developable space in built-out areas. Others see public health benefits in controlling air and noise pollution. And, at least in St. Paul’s former Rondo neighborhood, it could help heal the lingering pain I-94 left when it tore apart the historic African-American community.

The cost of building the land bridges could be tens or even hundreds of millions, but planners say the big idea is gaining traction.

Will investors step up?

“We’ve seen, in the last couple of years, a complete shift in thinking about this, from ‘Oh, this is kind of a wacky idea,’ to ‘No, this solves many problems and it should happen,’ ” said Thomas Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center.

As the Minnesota Department of Transportation prepares to replace aging infrastructure, officials are asking community members to think about other changes that could be made to freeways, I-94 project manager Brian Isaacson said.

Covering them with land bridges, also called lids or caps, has been a popular answer.

MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle came to the Urban Land Institute Minnesota this spring with a key question about constructing lids and preparing embankments for development.

“He wanted to know: Does the real estate community see this as a significant opportunity? And will they show up? Will they invest?” Urban Land Institute Minnesota Executive Director Caren Dewar said.

Local momentum

The institute assembled a panel of real estate specialists and other experts. An executive summary of their findings, which will be released in full next month, says the state should move forward with three caps: one in Rondo, another connecting downtown Minneapolis to Cedar-Riverside and the University of Minnesota’s West Bank, and a third near Farview Park in north Minneapolis. Those locations have been eyed for land bridges before, and people were already enthused about the idea, Dewar said.

The panel suggests forming a task force within three months to start evaluating next steps, creating a public-private partnership to oversee the lid strategy and establishing a nonprofit to raise money.

Meanwhile, in St. Paul, community members are racing ahead on the land bridge idea. The Friendly Streets Initiative, a community organizing group, has been gathering residents’ thoughts on a highway cap where Rondo once was. People have recommended the cap extend five blocks, from Milton to Grotto streets.

Melvin Giles, an organizer with the initiative, said the momentum around the land bridge has followed an apology last summer, by Zelle and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, for the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses in Rondo when I-94 was built.

“Part of this land bridge is kind of putting that apology into action,” Giles said.

The Friendly Streets Initiative is in the process of creating a nonprofit called ReConnect Rondo to focus on the finances and design of the land bridge, Director Lars Christiansen said.

Organizers also asked Council Member Dai Thao, who represents the area of St. Paul where it would be built, to bring a resolution before the City Council to support their work on the land bridge. Thao said he plans to do that in the next month, and hopes it will help organizers secure federal and state funding for the project.

“It’s a good idea. It’s the right thing to do. Now where are we going to find the money?” Thao said. Exactly how much the land bridge would cost is not yet certain.

But Isaacson said many different funding sources will be needed to make the cap a reality. He said other places in the United States that have added lids over freeways used private funding and philanthropic donations in addition to government support.

Examples nationwide

Land bridges are not a new idea in Minnesota. One already covers Hiawatha Avenue near Minnehaha Falls, and Duluth’s waterfront has a series of land bridges over I-35 that were built more than two decades ago.

But the popularity of lids has skyrocketed nationwide, in part because U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C. — a city sliced by freeways — has been supportive of reconnecting communities.

“This is reverberating through the transportation industry,” Isaacson told the St. Paul Planning Commission at a recent presentation on how MnDOT is rethinking the interstate.

Other cities, from Pittsburgh to Oakland to Edina, are also studying how to cap roads. Edina launched a study a few weeks ago to look for a “fatal flaw,” such as land ownership issues or problems with the soil, that could doom its idea of a lid over Hwy. 100 at W. 50th Street, Economic Development Manager Bill Neuendorf said.

“If we can reweave and reunify the neighborhoods on both sides of the highway, that’s a really positive outcome. But that’s not an easy task,” he said.

Some community members are excited about the idea, Neuendorf said, while others are concerned about changes to the neighborhood and the cost.

Fisher, the U professor, responds to people’s cost concerns about land bridges by pointing to cities like Dallas, which built a $110-million, 5-acre park over a freeway downtown. More than $1 billion of new development is estimated to have been built within a quarter-mile radius of Klyde Warren Park since construction was announced in 2009, park officials said.

Downtown Minneapolis could see a similar benefit, Fisher said, and developers who want to build on the newly created real estate between the University of Minnesota and the southeast edge of downtown could help pay for the lid’s construction.

“These are not boondoggles,” Fisher said. “These things are development opportunities.”

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649

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