The next time you’re in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, take a break and check out the 4th Street freeway ramps. You’ll see a pair of single-lane viaducts looming in the middle of a charming neighborhood, blinding the sun atop massive concrete pillars surrounded by above-ground parking. These small extensions of the highway serve as a dreary plague of concrete in a flourishing and cosmopolitan district of the city center. They hardly coexist with thousands of people trying to ignore them as they walk from their homes to their desks or from the brewery to the ball game.
What if we told you that this stretch of highway might not even need to be there anymore? That this infrastructure does more harm than good?
Here are the facts: The 4th Street overpasses in Minneapolis stretch about two-thirds of a mile from the edge of the warehouse district to I-94 north. They serve 15,000 drivers per day, taking them on or off a part of the highway that serves only one direction. They could save drivers maybe two minutes of travel time, and that is if you are very generous with route mapping. In any case, there are many alternative routes that allow drivers to access the highway heading north.
The two useless ramps were built in the early 1990s, when the North Loop was primarily an aging industrial district full of surface lots, half-abandoned factories, and warehouses surrounded by idling trucks. But in 2021, things have changed. Decades of development and a first-class baseball stadium have turned the streets of North Loop into one of the nation’s hottest real estate, and highway overpasses cover much of it.
If you live or hang out in the North Loop, you know the raised freeway ramps are ugly, loud, and massive. And their design virtually ensures that drivers speed through the often crowded streets of the Warehouse District.
But think about real estate. These two ramps, which MnDOT is currently repairing to the tune of $ 3 million, are found on some of the most expensive acreage in the state. Based on the land tax revenue from the adjacent block, the land under the viaducts represents at least $ 5 million in land tax revenue per year. And that’s a conservative estimate. Also, if the ramps disappeared, the land value would likely be much higher.
This ramp is just a small piece of the freeway system that surrounds downtown Minneapolis and all other major cities in the state. In the 1950s, building urban freeways through the city center seemed like a good idea with little inconvenience. But now, as downtowns add tens of thousands of new residents, maybe it’s time to shift planning priorities.
Ten or twenty years ago, removing a highway from the city center was unthinkable. Nowadays, however, withdrawal from the freeways is becoming a fashionable trend. Examples like the elevated Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, demolished after the 1989 earthquake, have shown that downtown neighborhoods can be improved by removing unnecessary infrastructure and with very little impact on the city. the circulation. President Biden recently launched a $ 20 billion fund that would include freeway withdrawal money, with the aim of changing federal policy in line with climate change and fairness goals. This year, urban design advocates in cities like Dallas, Syracuse and even Duluth are pushing to remove freeways in their downtown areas.
Imagine if one summer bulldozers arrived to remove this marginal highway and restore the normal street to ground level through the north loop. Imagine if the space once occupied by the asphalt and concrete pilings turned into new apartments, office towers, sidewalk cafes, or perhaps a park for the thousands of people who have moved downtown over the years. in recent years. Imagine stepping out of Target Field and strolling down a tree-lined street down to the river without having to walk under a huge concrete overpass.
This example is as clear a case as you’ll find in Minnesota of adding by subtraction, removing an unnecessary section of highway, improving the downtown economy, and greening one of the prosperous areas of the city. It might not happen this year, but maybe one day we can imagine a city with fewer highways. If so, the north loop is where we should start.