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Cover I-35 in Duluth? It's been done before

The landscape architect who designed parks above the interstate wants to better connect downtown with Canal Park.

Vehicles drive under interstate tunnels in Duluth
Traffic on Interstate 35 and its ramps enters and exits the tunnels below the Gichi-ode' Akiing park Tuesday morning in Duluth. Some grassroots activists want to see more of I-35 through downtown enclosed in tunnels whose tops would be landscaped to create greenspace.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The future of travel on Interstate 35 through downtown faces a key hurdle later this summer.

That’s when the Minnesota Department of Transportation is expected to release the results of its Fifth Avenue West Bridge planning study.

I35 Tunnels.
Vehicles travel south on Interstate 35 and its exit ramp to Lake Avenue after leaving the tunnel beneath the Gichi-ode' Akiing park Tuesday. The tunnel is the southmost tunnel of four between First and 13th avenues east.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The future of the four-lane bridge over I-35 is important because it’s being confronted by grassroots concepts seeking better connectivity between downtown and Canal Park.

“I-35 just slices right through the city,” said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurants in Duluth.

The funneling of visitors and residents via Lake Avenue, and feeder routes like Harbor Drive “aren’t all that interesting,” Daugherty added, calling it “indisputable” that I-35 negatively impacts the way people interact with the city.

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An artist's conception of a future Duluth downtown.
The Duluth Waterfront Collective's reimagined Interstate 35 corridor through downtown Duluth aims to promote a more livable, equitable and sustainable city, the group says.
Contributed / Duluth Waterfront Collective

One existing concept from the Duluth Waterfront Collective favors creation of an at-grade parkway that would replace I-35 through downtown.

Now, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, comes another alternative. Semi-retired landscape architect Kent Worley, 83, contends the state ought to cover I-35 with green space, like it did through the tunnels in eastern Duluth.

“The separation this roadway causes between Canal Park and downtown is absolutely unnecessary and wrong,” Worley said. “I’m convinced air quality in that area is as unhealthy as can be, and I want to turn that around.”

Worley wants to cover the four lanes of interstate, mechanically ventilate it, and “plant the bejeebers out of it.”

“I would plant that so green it would be the talk of the Northland,” he said, envisioning connecting trails, lunch break exercise space and an overall "place of beauty."

"There would be new elevated viewing options people would have," Daugherty said. "It would take advantage of that unique quality of our city."

Worley has submitted his concept to MnDOT, and has been acknowledged. He's also proliferated his thoughts widely to leaders throughout the city. He doesn't have a website or any fancy renderings — only an idea he's calling "Downtown Duluth Greenway."

So who’s Worley and why does his opinion matter?

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man standing by Leif Erikson Park sign
Landscape architect Kent Worley spent his formidable working years in Duluth and he returns to the city often. He proposes covering Interstate 35 with greenspace as a way of creating increased connectivity between downtown and Canal Park.
Contributed / Kent Worley

“Kent Worley is a worthy champion, and a credible figure in the history of Duluth,” Daugherty said. “We are an extremely ripe candidate for such a good idea.”

Worley worked at the Duluth firm Architectural Resources, Inc., for 40 years, overseeing the formidable years of the interstate's arrival into the city, culminating with the opening of the Leif Erickson Tunnel to complete the roadway in 1992.

“I was the one who conceived and worked on just about all of the eastern parts of I-35 — beginning with working to try to keep MnDOT from building it into the lake!” Worley said.

I35 tunnels.
Boyd Tuve reads a book on a bench in Gichi-ode' Akiing on Monday. The downtown Duluth park is built over Interstate 35.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Once the vision to put I-35 on concrete columns 20 feet above the water was discarded, Worley helped to design the green spaces above the tunnels in places such as Leif Erickson and Gichi-ode' Akiing parks.

“It was an amazing experience, and MnDOT turned out to be very cooperative,” Worley said. “There are some wonderful and capable people at MnDOT.”

All told, about three-fourths-mile of I-35 through downtown is currently already covered. Worley doesn’t see why it can’t happen again.

“Leaving the freeway as it is, is not going to let people cross between downtown and Canal Park,” Worley said. “I want people to freely move between those two areas.”

According to a MnDOT survey about the Fifth Avenue Bridge, 24% of commenters sought better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

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“Duluth needs to start following the example of other great cities and invest in long-term solutions for walkable and bikeable urban areas,” one commenter said.

“The Depot should be visible from the waterfront and the waterfront should be visible from the Depot,” another commenter wrote. “The overpass completely obstructs this viewshed.”

The News Tribune asked district engineer Duane Hill, who supervises MnDOT’s Duluth office, about alternative concepts for I-35 during the agency's summer construction kickoff March 31.

I35 Tunnels.
A dog walker passes through the Gichi-ode' Akiing park over I-35 in Duluth on Monday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“This whole project is a planning project to explore ideas,” Hill said of the Fifth Avenue West Bridge study.

Results of MnDOT’s $200,000 study into the Fifth Avenue Bridge are expected in June. Hill said MnDOT had planned to engage specifically with the Duluth Waterfront Collective, whose parkway concept has gained community and media attention across the past several years.

When asked about covering the roadway versus turning it into an at-grade parkway, the founder of the Duluth Waterfront Collective, Jordan van der Hagen, said the more alternatives the better.

The Duluth Waterfront Collective believes it can better connect downtown and Canal Park for less money than rebuilding the interstate.

“It’s great to see different people coming together to throw ideas in the ring,” van der Hagen said. “I don’t think we’ve found the perfect solution yet, but more and more people are realizing that we can do better.”

Covering the roadway with infrastructure to create green space would be expensive. And so-called “freeway lids” or “land bridges” have already been cast negatively by political conservatives who dismay at the cost and downplay any negative impacts the introduction of freeways have had on neighborhoods.

But a future repair or rebuild of the Fifth Avenue West Bridge that maintains the status quo won't address concerns like Daugherty’s.

“There’s just not user-friendly or inviting access to Canal Park,” Daughtery said. “The resistance to something like this is going to be, ‘Show me the money.’ But on a conceptual level, there’s not a lot not to like.”

For Worley, the choice is simple.

“There are three options — and keeping it as is, is really short-sighted,” he said. “The parkway is one bold step, and covering it and letting people move safely between the two is the third, and best, option obviously.”

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Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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