How to connect and heal St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood

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By EDITORIAL BOARD, Star Tribune. Originally published February 16, 2021.

As part of America’s development of its highway system, Interstate 94 was routed through the Black community of Rondo in St. Paul in the 1960s, taking out hundreds of homes and businesses. The massive construction project physically split the neighborhood and forever changed what had been a thriving area.

It was a traumatic event in St. Paul’s Black history — one that has prompted apologies from both the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the city. Now both MnDOT and St. Paul are supporting an effort by the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo to organize a number of community groups and foundations to create a “land bridge” over I-94 that would reunite the Rondo neighborhood and attempt to restore some of what was lost. It’s a worthy development project that merits support.

For much of the past decade, ReConnect Rondo has been promoting the plan to cover I-94 between Lexington Parkway and Dale Street with 12 to 21 acres of parkland, housing and retail, while still allowing cars to travel the busy interstate below.

Earlier this month, leaders of ReConnect Rondo testified during a virtual Minnesota House transportation committee meeting. They were seeking two pieces of legislation — one to fund $6 million in planning and redesign costs, and the other to look ahead to construction costs as part of the 2022 bonding bill. The group has been working with the respected Urban Land Institute.

The ambitious project is expected to cost at least $458.9 million. The organizing group expects that it will take partnerships of private, public and philanthropic funding to make it happen.

The land bridge concept, once seen as a pie in the sky idea, has picked up momentum in recent years and is particularly relevant in the wake of the George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis and the subsequent national reckoning on racial issues.

The land bridge project could help heal the community. According to the Rondo group, the neighborhood never fully recovered from the destruction of more than 700 homes and 300 mostly Black-owned businesses. Freeway construction resulted in an estimated $270 million loss for property owners — funds that could have built wealth for the affected families.

Righting an historical wrong is not the only reason to move ahead with the land bridge, however. It can be supported on its merits as a project that would add taxable property to the city. Others believe it would benefit public health by better controlling noise and air pollution. It can also be a critical part of MnDOT’s “Rethinking I-94” project to plan the freeway’s future with feedback from those who live near the corridor.

The idea is not brand-new. A land bridge already covers Hiawatha Avenue near Minnehaha Falls and includes Longfellow Gardens. In Duluth, the waterfront area has several freeway land caps over I-35. And in 2012, Dallas opened the $110 million, 5-acre Klyde Warren Park over a downtown freeway. City officials there estimate that the park has had a $1 billion-plus impact on the city.

Although the Rondo land bridge dream is still far from realized, the planning process should be supported and funded — with both economic development and racial equity as worthwhile goals for St. Paul and Minnesota.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the cost of the project. Its initial cost is projected to be $458.9 million.

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