Motivated to better fuse downtown Duluth with Canal Park, a group of design professionals has rolled out a plan to reinvent traffic and people flow by turning Interstate 35 into a neighborhood parkway.

“People in Duluth see Canal Park and downtown as these two distinct things,” Jordan van der Hagen said. “In reality, it should be one urban business district. It shouldn’t be separated at all.”

Van der Hagen is the spokesperson for the Duluth Waterfront Collective. He’s a landscape designer at Architectural Resources in Duluth and co-founder of the group that’s aiming big by calling I-35 "overbuilt" and saying it serves as a wall that interrupts the pulse of downtown.

Jordan van der Hagen
Jordan van der Hagen

“That’s exactly what it is and how it functions,” van der Hagen said. “For getting people to the North Shore, it’s good at that.”

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But even in that function, van der Hagen says I-35 through downtown is only used to 50% capacity, citing data that appears in a 25-year transportation plan issued by the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council in October.

For van der Hagen, the issue is as personal as it is professional. He experienced a harrowing close call as a pedestrian crossing over the Lake Avenue bridge as a college senior.

“I was almost hit by a car walking across,” he said. “The sign pointed for me to go, but somebody coming off the ramp of I-35 didn’t realize they were supposed to stop.”

The group’s proposed parkway would be ground level and feature an array of crossing opportunities, while also opening up 20 acres of space for private development between Mesaba and Lake avenues.

The News Tribune asked the local Minnesota Department of Transportation about the idea, which is outlined on the group’s website and has appeared in multiple recent media reports.

Spokesperson Pippi Mayfield said MnDOT only learned of the effort last week. The Duluth office has submitted a proposal that would review the entirety of I-35 from Midway Road to its northern terminus at London Road. The study has not yet been funded.

“When we do the study, we will obviously encourage comments and ideas like this,” Mayfield said. “We’ll take them all into consideration when it’s time we can do something with it.”

Not even the Waterfront Collective itself is hoping to see its entire vision through to reality. Instead, the group of professional designers, drafters and planners is intent on starting a community conversation about the future.

"Instead of solving one issue at a time, we're trying to address a lot of different things," van der Hagen said, describing pedestrian and bike flow, along with the ability to connect tourists from Canal Park to downtown. "What happens in city’s downtown ripples out. If downtown is successful, the rest of the city is successful, too."

They’re also in the process of expanding to include a wider variety of participants from outside their professional sphere. They're meeting with community and business organizations and have even seen their proposal reach the mayor's office.

“Everyone has been pretty supportive since we published the website,” van der Hagen said. “Most people are concerned this is too expensive and that it would take too long to drive through downtown. But we’ve seen with the can of worms that it’s gone incredibly over budget.”

Indeed, the three-year, $343 million project to rebuild the confluence of highways at 21st Avenue West has been delayed and scaled back after original plans went $100 million over budget. The Waterfront Collective believes that by opening up city property with a lower-profile roadway, public-private partnerships would fuel a more economically palatable project.

“We don’t think it’s going to cost more,” he said, acknowledging there have been no price estimates as yet. “A lot of the big improvements would be funded by private development. It’s not going to be as expensive as recreating the interstate the way it is.”

At present, there is no plan to rebuild I-35 through downtown. But by proposing to study it, MnDOT has acknowledged that the roughly 30-year-old portion of interstate is at least approaching its lifespan.

Van der Hagen said the Waterfront Collective is encouraged by early returns.

“We’re trying to get the conversation started,” he said. “A lot of the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a pretty significant change, but most people end up agreeing with what we’ve put together.”