In Biden infrastructure plan, advocates see opportunity to revive St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood with I-94 land bridge

A rendering of a possible development for an African American development district in Rondo, showing wide open streets, trees, and businesses.

by Ashley Hackett, MinnPost. Originally posted May 5, 2021

The Reconnecting Communities Act would establish grants to address the “legacy of highway construction built through communities… that divided neighborhoods and erected barriers to mobility and opportunity.”

After President Joe Biden introduced his infrastructure plan, which would invest about $2 trillion to rebuild infrastructure and reshape the economy, lawmakers got to work translating the plan into legislation. One bill, titled the Reconnecting Communities Act, could help revive a predominantly Black Minnesota community that was cut in half by the construction of I-94.

The Reconnecting Communities Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) along with Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Chris Coons (D-DE), would establish a Department of Transportation grant program to address the “legacy of highway construction built through communities, especially through low-income communities and communities of color, that divided neighborhoods and erected barriers to mobility and opportunity.”

ReConnect Rondo, an advocacy organization working to restore Rondo and address racial disparities in Minnesota, see the grants as an opportunity to secure funding to build a land bridge to that could restore a neighborhood that was destroyed by the construction of I-94 between 1956 and 1958.

“It couldn’t be a better fit,” said Keith Baker, executive director of ReConnect Rondo. “Every aspect of the bill really speaks to [our mission], putting resources into the community…ensuring that there is capital available to have it happen.”

Rondo’s history

Before Rondo was cut in half by I-94, the neighborhood sat roughly between University Avenue to the north, Selby Avenue to the south, Rice Street to the east, and Lexington Avenue to the west. The community was a haven for people of color and immigrants. In the late 1850s its namesake, Joseph Rondeau, moved there after he had faced discrimination due to his wife’s mixed white and indigenous heritage near Fort Snelling.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Rondo’s cultural scene flourished with music and theater, and a Rondo resident, Roy Wilkins, led the national NAACP. By the 1930s, half of St. Paul’s Black population lived in Rondo. Many of the community’s Black families were upper-middle and middle class thanks to the successful railway industry and local businesses.

Two decades later, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 promised funding for a freeway through St. Paul and Minneapolis that went right through the Rondo neighborhood. Residents resisted — police had to forcibly remove Reverend George Davis from his home when he wouldn’t evacuate to make way for wrecking crews — but construction proceeded. I-94 opened in 1968, effectively cutting the community in half.

ReConnect Rondo conducted a study in July of 2020 that found that the development of I-94 cost the loss of 700 homes, 61% of Rondo residents, 48% of Rondo homeowners and $157.5 million of home equity value. Advocates hope that now is the time to rebuild what was lost.

How federal funding could help

Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $20 billion to “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity. The proposal includes funding for replacing lead water pipes that have harmed Black children in cities like Flint, Michigan, and the cleanup of environmental hazards that plague communities of color in addition to funding for communities like Rondo that have suffered as a result of transportation infrastructure.

“Our own state DOT has apologized for the bias behind what was done to the Rondo neighborhood 60 years ago,” said Marvin Roger Anderson, board chair of ReConnect Rondo. “We are encouraged by the Biden proposal that demonstrably both builds back our country, but importantly helps address the unfinished business of racial inequity that perniciously set the Rondo community back generations, and created a wealth gap we’re still trying to overcome.”

ReConnecting Rondo’s ultimate goal is to restore the Rondo community by building a land bridge, or a “lid,” over I-94 to make space for the land that was lost. The Rondo land bridge would cap I-94 for several blocks between Chatsworth Street and Grotto Street — it would be between 2,600-3,200 feet in length. Geographically speaking, drivers on I-94 would see the road dip and drive under a tunnel, while overhead the Rondo community would see green space and a continuation of their neighborhood uninterrupted by eight lanes of highway. Depending on the design, the bridge could cost anywhere from $33 million to $455 million.

The Rondo Land Bridge Feasibility Study found that the land bridge could create up to 1,872 permanent and construction related jobs, nearly 600 new housing units and more than 1,000 new residents.

Anderson views the federal proposals as a step forward for communities of color and a way for those communities to seek opportunities on a much more even playing field.

The Reconnecting Communities Act focuses on three areas for funding: community engagement, education and capacity grants; planning and feasibility grants; and capital construction grants.

ReConnecting Rondo has as an organization already been working on these three categories, according to Baker, who says that the bill would enhance and support all of the steps the organization has already taken to engage the community around its efforts.

Legislative hearings have also led to follow-up discussion surrounding federal funding opportunities, two in particular: reauthorization of the FAST Act – the Federal transportation infrastructure spending bill — which includes $287 billion to help cover the cost of planning and removing or bridging highways; and the $435 billion Economic Justice Act, which includes a pilot project called “Highways to Boulevards” aimed at removing or covering highways responsible for decimating communities of color in metro areas across the country.

Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the area in Congress, has also requested Community Project Funding from the House Appropriations Committee that, if awarded, would support grants of up to $250,000 to four cultural districts in St. Paul, including Rondo. The funding would be used to “prioritize culturally focused business development & technical assistance for BIPOC entrepreneurs and community organizations, as well as produce a guide for businesses on using the arts to boost business.”

But ReConnect Rondo leaders are focusing more on the Reconnecting Communities Act, which seems to both apply perfectly to Rondo and complement the efforts the organization has already made. And leaders like Baker and Anderson say that after a year of acute racial unrest in Minnesota, they must seize this moment to act.

No time like the present

When Biden announced his infrastructure plan and the Reconnecting Communities Act materialized, leaders at ReConnect Rondo realized that so many political and social factors were aligning in their favor.

“We’ve got the local policy influences at play today,” Baker said. “Then you’ve got the national policy alignments and influences going on. I’ve rarely seen the alignment of both at the same time, local and national.”

Baker called the current state of Minnesota a “catalytic moment,” saying that the last 100 years leading up to the death of George Floyd brought the state to a point where communities like Rondo can and should fight for the restitution they deserve. For Baker, this moment also includes efforts at the federal level — including Biden’s infrastructure proposal and the push for more funding and protection for BIPOC communities — that could also tip the scales in Rondo’s favor.

“We see the conditions of Minnesota being one of the worst places in the country for African Americans, being the center of racial injustice, during George Floyd,” Baker said. “Minnesota has an opportunity to shine brighter.”

At the local level, the Minnesota legislature has considered a bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights) along with a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Sandra Pappas (DFL-St. Paul). The bill seeks a $6.2 million General Fund appropriation in fiscal year 2022. The money would be granted to ReConnect Rondo “for project development of the Rondo Land Bridge freeway lid over marked Interstate Highway 94 in a portion of the segment from Lexington Avenue to Rice Street.”

Also at the local level, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has acknowledged that the construction of I-94 destroyed homes and disconnected communities and is cooperating with organizations like ReConnect Rondo to help rebuild neighborhoods that were impacted by the construction of the highway.

“Our agency is committed to doing better, working in collaboration with organizations like Reconnect Rondo and the communities impacted by our work, and prioritizing the well-being of the people who live, work and play along the corridor,” MnDOT Director of the Office of Communications and Public Engagement Jake Loesch said in an email. Loesch said it’s too early for MnDOT to comment on the impact or specific details on the Reconnecting Communities Act as the bill is still being considered in Congress.

The bottom line for leaders like Baker is that the money provided by both Minnesota legislature and Congress could support an issue that directly affects people of color in Minnesota, particularly Black people, whose families and businesses were not prioritized when the state built I-94.

“If passed, the Biden infrastructure proposal would be an enormous step forward to help close the wealth gap and help communities of color, like ours, turn its focus to the future and seek opportunity on a much more level playing field, and I believe, help the country move forward as well.”  Anderson said. “I want to give Rondo the chance at restoration that so many believe is possible and that it deserves, nothing more than that. And it seems the times may have found us in this epochal effort.”

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ReConnect Rondo Technical Advisory Team:

  • David Juliff, Be Civil, Inc.
  • Khani Sahebjam, SRF Consulting Group
  • John Maczko, SRF Consulting Group
  • Kent Arhenholtz, Kaskaskia Engineering Group
  • Brenda Thomas, KLJ, Inc
  • Marcus Thomas, Bolton & Menk
  • Scott McBride, Bolton & Menk
  • Marcell Walker, Bolton & Menk
  • Veronica Burt, 600 Strategies, Inc.
  • Björgvin Sævarsson, YORTH Group
  • Katie Eggers, YORTH Group
  • Jim Erkel, Retired Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA)
  • Brian Isaacson, Ramsey County
  • Diem Van Groth, Strategic Consultant