Chapter Four: The Duluth, Minnesota Story

The following chapter details the story of Interstate 35 through Duluth, Minnesota. It must be noted from the outset that what follows is not an ideal example of how to design an urban freeway, but rather a case study of the dynamics of the issue of the urban freeway, its effects on the community, and its design. It is worthy of detail because its history typifies that of the American urban freeway in general, with the shift in attitudes towards freeway construction during the 1960s that led to discord and friction between function-minded highway engineers and civic-minded citizens; it is worthy of detail because of the notable way in which the community resolved the freeway debate by seeing the highway as something which could benefit rather than destroy and unite rather than divide a community; and it is worthy of detail because of its design, which features a combination of aesthetic, mitigation and integration techniques which make it an example of good urban freeway design.

In 1958, the original highway proposal which routed I-35 through the city of Duluth was announced by the Minnesota Highway Department. It called for a freeway that would make its way though the city, end at 10th Avenue East north of downtown, cost roughly $45 million to construct and be completed by 1968. It met with little opposition; a Highway Department hearing at a local high school on October 14, 1958 drew only about 200 people, most of whom supported the project. Then-Mayor Eugene Lambert proclaimed that the project would cause the city to look better as well as reduce congestion. During the early construction period, a Duluth city councilmember even complained that the highway department was not building the freeway quickly enough through his part of town. By the time the I-35 freeway was completed to Mesaba Avenue south of Downtown Duluth in November of 1971, 434 buildings – most of them private residences – had been destroyed (Krebs 1991). Yet, as was the case with most projects of the early Interstate-building era, few people complained.

The continuation of I-35 from Mesaba Avenue northward through downtown Duluth, however, would prove be an entirely different story that would take two decades to write. Across the country, the complacency and even outright advocacy for urban highways that marked the 1950s and early 1960s had become tempered by the beginning of the 1970s as people began to realize that the urban highway was indeed a destructive force, and Duluth was no different. As early as 1964, established opposition to the extension in question had appeared in the form of a group of citizens who were concerned about the proposed freeway’s negative effect on Leif Erikson Park north of downtown (Krebs 1991). However, through most of the 1960s the freeway’s alignment north of Mesaba Avenue and through downtown had not been finalized, thus making organized opposition difficult.

In 1970, highway officials produced what they felt was their final plan for I-35 through the center city. Their plan was relatively simple: the railroads which threaded their way between downtown Duluth and the wharves and warehouses along the Lake Superior waterfront would be relocated, and the new freeway would be built along the appropriated railroad right-of-way. The freeway would make its way from its current terminus at Mesaba Avenue to 26th street on the northern edge of the city, providing a bypass around the congested streets of central Duluth (Krebs 1973: 1-2).

Due to the need to protect freeway traffic from spray off Lake Superior, the proposed freeway would have to be elevated 20 feet into the air on concrete columns, creating a massive physical barrier between the waterfront and down- town Duluth. A large concrete seawall would also have to be built to further protect automobiles from the ravages of the lake. Furthermore, the plan called for a cloverleaf inter-change between the freeway and Lake Avenue right in front of down-town which would have required the demolition of many historic buildings as well as the filling in of the corner of Lake Superior (Rekela 1993: 186-195).

Opposition came from several fronts: mainly, people disapproved of the proposed alignment because it would have destroyed historically significant buildings along the Lake Superior waterfront, such as the Fitger Brewery complex, or important civic spaces such as the aforementioned Leif Erikson park. There was also much controversy about where the freeway should end; some people wanted the freeway to end before downtown and feed directly in to Duluth’s central business district, while MNDoT argued that Duluth’s biggest congestion problems were in downtown and that the freeway needed to extend past downtown so as to serve as a bypass (Krebs 1991). Perhaps most important, however, was the adverse reaction the citizens of Duluth had to what would have been an ugly concrete behemoth dividing downtown from the Lake Superior shore.

To be sure, the condition of the downtown Duluth waterfront was anything but idyllic prior to the construction of the freeway. A busy railyard separated downtown from the waterfront, and much of the land was occupied by abandoned warehouses, rubble heaps, and rusted machinery (Morse 1992: 49). Highway engineers explained that their new project would erase this blight from what they termed the "underbelly" of Duluth by simply paving it over. The attitude the highway designers held for this area of the city deeply disturbed many Duluthians, who formed Citizens for the Integration of Highway and Environment (CIHE) within days of the November 1970 Highway Department announcement. Their presence served to put highway engineers on notice that their usual practice of ignoring social and environmental impact in the name of cost-effectiveness and better traffic flow would not be tolerated in Duluth (Rekela 1995: 5-9). Another group, the Stop the Freeway action group, was formed two years later to prevent the freeway from being constructed at all. It saw freeway construction through downtown Duluth as not only destructive, but also unnecessary – Duluth, after all, was at the end of the entire I-35 route as it was; why should it matter whether the freeway ended before downtown or after (Brissett 1988)?

On the evening of Tuesday, October 9, 1973, close to 1,100 Duluthians attended a public hearing regarding the highway extension. A group of citizens wearing red "Stop the Freeway" buttons cheered when a member of the Stop the Freeway Action Group claimed that highway department and city officials were showing "utter contempt for the intelligence of the people of Duluth" by building the controversial freeway and vowed that the fight against the freeway would "continue in Washington and the courts if necessary" (Krebs 1973: 1-2).

The broad consensus, however, was that the freeway had to be built. Freeway supporters knew that the existing Second Street through-traffic solution was, in the words of former Duluth City Planner Dick Lorass, "strangling the downtown" (Morse 1992: 52); the freeway’s current terminus was dumping 30,000 cars a day into the congested center city (Brissett 1989). "Anything to save or restructure the downtown community had to deal with this transportation issue," Loraas said. Alternatives to the proposed design, such as building a bypass around the city or the excavation of a massive tunnel under the central city, were studied and discarded (Morse 1992: 50). A stalemate was in effect; the process had ground to a halt.

In 1975, Duluth Mayor Robert Beaudin created a Citizens Advisory Committee which consisted of a cross-section of ordinary resident volunteers. The committee worked with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and was aided by various local firms, one of which was a firm run by Duluth-area landscape architect and CIHE founder Kent Worley. A new freeway design, one which had the goal of uniting downtown Duluth to the Lake Superior waterfront as opposed to further dividing it, was devised and was unveiled in 1976.

Worley credits Dick Loraas with spotting the potential solution to the crisis. "Between [Loraas] and Minnesota Department of Transportation administrators, coupled with the Federal Department of Transportation’s planning program called ‘Multiple Use and Joint Corridor Programs’, the project became eligible with this targeted funding which fit the problems and opportunities perfectly" (Worley 1998). Loraas indicates that the aforementioned traffic problems in downtown Duluth caused him to become involved. "Our motivation for getting involved was to resolve the issue, solve the traffic problem and get the community together again" (Morse 1992: 52).

"At first people thought they couldn’t make any changes," notes retired MNDoT engineer Don Olson (Morse 1992: 51). But momentum quickly gained and the panel spent hundreds of hours discussing the best solution to the problem of the freeway through the waterfront area. Through the dynamic created from both proponents and opponents of the freeway, "ideas began to flow" and a new design for the I-35 extension was devised (Palmer 1994: 2).

The group first agreed that the extension through downtown was, indeed, necessary (Morse 1992: 52). The group then evaluated the original MNDoT design and identified several negative consequences. The freeway itself, as well as the placement of a protective seawall along the lakeshore, would have created a physical, visual and hence mental barrier between downtown Duluth and the lake. The freeway alignment, as originally planned, would have "eliminated any significant potential for lakefront open space in the vicinity." Hazardous roadway icing would have been caused by severe weather conditions off the lakefront even in spite of the elevated freeway and seawall. The proximity of the highway to downtown would have caused negative impacts in terms of air pollution and noise. And, finally, any long-range initiatives by the community to unify and strengthen the city center would have been forfeited (Worley 1988; Morse 1992: 49). Clearly, the existing MNDoT solution to the freeway was no solution at all.

During the redesign process, Duluthians who had long since turned their backs on the waterfront area began to "rediscover" that Lake Superior was indeed a great asset to the community, and that the freeway’s design should in fact focus importance along the waterfront (Palmer 1994: 2). Worley felt that "the freeway’s alignment between downtown and lakefront areas demanded unique design solutions to protect environmental resources, link major downtown land use areas and improve pedestrian access to the long-neglected lakefront” (Worley 1998) Certainly, the opportunities were there.

Slowly, the possibilities began to take shape. Instead of building up, why not build the freeway down and cover it with a "lid" atop which could be built a park? The lid would hide the freeway from the urban fabric as well as protect traffic from lake spray. The park, furthermore, could be used to connect downtown Duluth to the waterfront. Thus was the beginning of Lake Place. Similar tunnels could be used to hide the freeway and protect historic buildings such as the Fitger Brewery as well as existing civic spaces such as Leif Erikson park. Consideration was also given to features not directly related to the freeway right-of-way, such as a "Lakewalk" next to the freeway that would stretch along the Lake Superior waterfront. Remarks MNDoT engineer John Sandahl, "the freeway was the catalyst for other city improvements. The Lakewalk wouldn’t have been built without the freeway" (Morse 1992: 52). The resulting concept was presented in the I-35 Multiple Use and Joint Corridor Development Study in 1976 – a document Worley describes as being "the key to search for opportunities – exploring what could be and providing a formal presentation format" (Worley 1988).

This type of solution to a highway-related problem was, to be sure, very new. "They (the Federal Highway Administration and the Minnesota Department of Transportation) were skeptical at first. This joint-use stuff was a little bit of foreign territory to them," Loraas explains. "But they were very helpful" (Morse 1992: 52). The Duluth I-35 redesign process took place during a time when both the FHWA and state departments of transportation were beginning to understand that poorly-designed urban freeways had negative effects on the communities in which they were built. William T. Colemen, newly-elected president Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Transportation, acknowledged the federal government’s awareness of the situation at hand with the commitment to "assure that all public funds allocated to transportation be spent with due consideration for their design, artistic and cultural impact” (Morse 1992: 51).

The Duluth City Council approved the new design, and in October of 1977 the Federal Final Impact Statement for I-35 from Mesaba Avenue to 26th Avenue East was approved. However, the battle to build the highway was still far from over. The challenge of relocating existing rail lines and acquiring right-of-way still lay ahead, as did legal challenges. One such challenge occurred when the Fitger Brewing Company sued the state highway department in December of 1977, claiming that the state had been misleading them for years about the freeway’s plans and that business had suffered as a result. The case would languish in the courts for a decade before it was resolved in favor if the state (Krebs 1991).

The freeway, furthermore, still had opponents who were not at all impressed with the new design and continued the fight to keep the extension from being built at all. In November of 1980 these opponents forced a referendum aimed at deciding whether the freeway should end at 10th Avenue East or should continue through Leif Erikson park and end at 26th Avenue East. The resulting vote was in favor of the longer route. Duluth City Council reaffirmed the vote by approving the longer route in a vote of their own. Undaunted, freeway opponents continued to fight the construction, even as the state completed land acquisition agreements with landowners along the proposed routes and even as the existing railroad lines between downtown and the waterfront were in the process of being relocated. In 1983, a group called the Lakeshore Bypass Committee filed suit to keep the I-35 extension from being built. A federal judge, however, denied the case. Freeway opponents then applied pressure to city council, who in February of 1984 reversed its previous decision and voted to end the freeway at 10th Avenue East instead of 26th Avenue East. Duluth Mayor John Fedo vetoed the action but was overridden. This quandary was solved from St. Paul three months later; the Minnesota State Legislature passed a bill overturning the Duluth City Council’s decision and directing that the freeway extend all the way to 26th Avenue East. Some councilmembers tried to file a lawsuit declaring the legislation illegal but were unsuccessful (Krebs 1991).

In the fall of 1987, a federal appeals court threw out yet another anti-freeway lawsuit. Business owners who worried that the freeway would have a negative impact on their business and Duluth citizens who worried about the freeway’s negative impacts on the Duluth waterfront had filed the suit as an objection to MNDoT’s environmental impact statement (Engineering News-Record 1987). The dismissal of this lawsuit marked the end of any serious challenge to the I-35 extension.

One of the most difficult endeavors of the Duluth I-35 project was the removal of the railyard which ran between downtown Duluth and the waterfront. The tracks had to be removed before the freeway itself could even have been built, and it required the relocation of no less than five separate railroads. It would take 10 years of planning, two years of construction, and $45 million, but eventually the yards and operations of the Burlington Northern, Chicago North Western, Duluth Misabe & Iron Range, Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific and Soo Line railroads were moved from the downtown Duluth waterfront to adjacent Superior, Wisconsin. This operation required the cooperation of so many different shippers, unions, property owners and local jurisdictions — not to mention the collaboration between five separate railroad companies that were normally competitors — that many people felt the project could not be done at all. "I still remember what one federal railroad administrator said: ‘with one railroad you can work something out, but two become a little iffy, three impossible, four more – worse’ and we had five," remembers Don Olson (Morse 1992:53). But the project was completed; with the help of 11 miles of new railway, the construction of a new railyard and the improvement of four other existing railyards within the Duluth/Superior area, all five railroads relocated and the land between downtown and the lakefront became available for highway construction. A Federal Railroad Administration official called it "one of the best urban rail consolidation projects in the country" (Braun 1985).

Construction on the extension itself began in 1982; the first tunnels were begun in 1983 (Brissett 1988). The extension eventually required the removal of 20 homes and 200 businesses (Krebs 1991), one of them being historic Branch’s Hall, Duluth’s first brick commercial structure (Morse 1992: 53). However, many other historic buildings along the freeway’s path were preserved. One such historic building, the Endion Railroad Station, was moved in 1986 from its original location amongst the railyards to Corner-of-the-Lake Park, a newly-created space at the corner of Lake Superior in an area that would have originally been occupied by a cloverleaf interchange between I-35 and Lake Avenue had the original 1970 freeway plans been realized. The relocated station became the home of the Duluth Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The freeway’s alignment along the waterfront also guaranteed that other buildings, such as the Fitger’s Brewery Complex and the Old City Hall and Jail, were preserved as well (Morse 1992: 52-53).

above: A view of the I-35 extension project from the south. (MNDoT graphic)

The construction of the freeway posed yet another dilemma in the form of 144,000 cubic yards of rock that had been excavated to make way for the freeway and its tunnels. Normally, the rubble would have simply been transported away. Mayor Fedo, however, suggested that the excavated rock be used to create a wider strip of beachfront along the shoreline parallel to the freeway. This solution resulted in an extra 6.3 acres of new public land for the City of Duluth and also saved $400,000 in rubble removal costs. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, however, feared that the new shoreline would have a negative impact on a trout spawning area located in the vicinity (Morse 1992: 54). MNDoT responded to those concerns by using 10,000 cubic yards of the excavated rock to build a 5-foot high, 15-foot wide and 1,200-foot-long spawning reef in Lake Superior waters directly offshore from the Fitger’s Complex (Cook 1988).

The first section of the extension, from Mesaba Avenue to Lake Avenue, opened to traffic on October 29, 1987, five years after construction had begun. Phase two, from Lake Avenue to 10th Avenue East, opened to traffic on November 21, 1989. The final phase, stretching from 10th Avenue east to 26th Avenue East, opened on October 28, 1992. Lake Place itself was dedicated on July 15th of that year, and Leif Erikson Park was returned to public use with the dedication of its new rose garden on August 28, 1994. The entire 3.2-mile extension from Mesaba Avenue to 26th Avenue East would end up costing about $200,345,000 – a far cry from the entire freeway’s original $45 million pricetag. In accordance with federal policy, 90% of the cost was picked up by the federal government. The State of Minnesota chipped in the other 10%. Some minor expenditures were also required of the City of Duluth.

As was noted before, the solution to the freeway dilemma was to build down instead of up and to cover the below-grade roadbed where necessary to protect historic buildings and existing public spaces, create new opportunities for public space and connections between the waterfront and downtown, mitigate the noise and pollution caused by freeway traffic, and protect traffic from lake spray and hazardous icing conditions. The tunnels also allowed Superior Street, a major downtown Duluth arterial, to run concurrent with the freeway, thereby providing as little dis-ruption as possible to the existing street system (Brissett 1989). In all, four cut-and-cover tunnels were built over a 13-block span of the freeway.

above: Lake Place, built atop a cut-and-cover tunnel over I-35, is designed to connect downtown Duluth to the Lake Superior waterfront. (MNDoT graphic)

In the case of Lake Place, a wall between the roadbed and the lakeshore was built. Then, a deck was built from that wall, across the freeway, and into downtown, creating what amounted to a 1,000-foot-long tunnel between First and Third Avenues East. Finally, the area on top of the deck was designed in a manner that would attract citizens to the lakefront. The resulting 2.5 acre Lake Place, located 40 feet off the ground and affording views of the lake and surrounding city that Duluthians had never before experienced, is connected to downtown, adjacent Corner-of-the-Lake Park and the shoreline itself by pedestrian bridges and stairwells. Kent Worley, the designer of Lake Place, emphatically admonishes that his creation is not merely a "park," per se. "Please know that LAKE PLACE is all you need to say. It is not Lake Place Park; some son of a bitch added the word park… It is not a park – it is a PLACE. There is a difference" (Worley 1998).

Other tunnels include the Brewery Historic District Tunnel, an 800-foot-long tunnel running adjacent to the Fitger Brewery Complex and other historic structures that would have been destroyed had the freeway been built. Another 800-foot tunnel, the Jay Cooke Plaza tunnel, is so named because of the creation of yet another park – this one named for Duluth founder Jay Cooke – atop it. The final tunnel, the 1500-foot-long Rose Garden tunnel, runs beneath Leif Erikson park (Brissett 1989).

above: Jay Cooke Plaza and Tunnel in Duluth. (FHWA graphic)

Some of the most contentious freeway debate, in fact, focused on the impact to Leif Erikson Park, which was home to a 1,200-plant rose garden planted in the late 60s by a Latvian immigrant to Duluth. The construction of the free-way would require the destruction of the prized rose garden; however, the National Environmental Protection Act would likewise require MNDoT to restore the rose garden to "its original condition." MNDoT went one step further; the new rose garden dedicated in August of 1994 was almost twice as large as the original one and featured over 2,000 plants of 99 different varieties ar-ranged in four circular beds and two long beds (Rekela 1995).

above left and right: Leif Erikson Park atop the Rose Garden Tunnel. (MNDoT graphics)

The Lakewalk, a shoreline hike-and-bike trail extending from Lake Place to Leif Erikson Park, is another of the highway project’s integration-minded features. Previous to the highway project, no such area of recreational activity along the lakefront existed. The placement of excavated rock along the shoreline, however, as well as the connections to the lake created by new spaces such as Lake Place, made the Lakewalk feasible.

Besides being a sensible solution to problems wrought by the environment, the freeway and the lack of connection between the city and the lakefront, Lake Place also serves as a venue for the placement of public art. Along the outside of the wall of Lake Place is a 580-foot-long Image Wall designed by Worley and artist Mark Marino, made of 1.27 million ceramic tiles and depicting 73 different images and scenes of Lake Superior maritime activity (Hemby 1990). The park also features "Green Bear," a bronze sculpture by artists from Duluth’s sister city of Petrozavodsk, Russia. Well over twenty thousand trees, shrubs and plants were planted atop the deck, which was reinforced by 400 tons of steel (Star Tribune 1992).

Other ornamental fixtures along the freeway extension include the Northland Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial behind the Fitger’s Complex (Morse 1992: 50) and a statue of Leif Erikson in the park bearing his name. Leif Erikson Park also features an ornate "Horse Fountain" that was removed during construction and replaced (Rekela 1995: 5-9).

Over one million dollars was spent on scenic enhancement of the freeway alone; landscaping and plantings along the freeway were carefully selected and arranged; even the retaining walls along the freeway were designed and articulated to be something well beyond merely utilitarian. In this sense, even those driving along the freeway can enjoy the aesthetic value of the project.

In both 1992 and 1994, the Duluth I-35 extension and Lake Place won Federal Highway Administration "Excellence in Highway Design" awards.

The moral of the Duluth freeway story is that the urban freeway does not have to be a destructive influence on the inner city. In fact, it can have the exact opposite effect. Says Duluth I-35 Citizens Advisory Panel member Bill Abalan, "I-35 led to a renaissance of Duluth’s downtown." This is because the city and its citizens took the opportunity to turn something potentially destructive into something that added value to and improved the quality of life of the entire community. Says Worley of his creation (Lake Place) "I like going down to the lakefront and seeing people enjoy it" (Rekela 1995: 5-9).

The Duluth story in many ways typifies the dynamics of the urban freeway in America, and there is a lot from the Duluth experience that can be learned. Architects, city planners, engineers, politicians and anyone else who are concerned about the urban environment must see to it that solutions such as those reached in Duluth – cooperative methods of planning and such "pro-urban" methods of freeway design – are commonplace, so that the conflicts and delays experienced by Duluth before the freeway’s construction are avoided. As Kent Worley states, the design of freeways is a "people problem – not a car or highway problem. We are not treating the real problem – only putting on bandages" (Worley 1998).

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