Are you aware of the 1970 challenge to the city of Duluth and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to keep Interstate 35 through downtown Duluth out of — yes, “out of” — Lake Superior?
Long and hard conversations, letters, phone calls, newspaper articles, and reasoning finally accomplished this — and then accomplished lots more. It didn’t all happen by accident. Much of it was thanks to a grassroots group of like-minded citizens who joined to create Citizens for Integration of Highway and Environment.
This was after the city and MnDOT had hired a corridor consultant from California, which asked the city and MnDOT what recommendation they wanted. A “lower lake route” was chosen, and the consultant went home smiling — with its fees.
But the city and MnDOT made the wrong decision.
The interstate actually should have been built over the hill, avoiding Duluth neighborhoods and downtown altogether. So much of the interstate’s traffic is between the Twin Cities and North Shore and has no intention or need to be in downtown Duluth or blasting through several neighborhoods.
MnDOT and the city finally were able to be convinced a route over the lake wasn’t proper, either, and the freeway wasn’t allowed to destroy the corner of the lake and some three quarters of a mile of Lake Superior waterfront.
The interstate nearly was built 22 feet higher than the lake with a metal wave-return structure on its northbound lanes. Its size and mass would have meant typical freeway roaring sounds reflected directly back into downtown for that three-quarters of a mile. The Lakewalk would not have been constructed, nor some of the lakefront hotels and Canal Park businesses.
The solution that protected the lake from the freeway included a wave-protecting wall, a steel sheet pile wall system, some 800 feet long at the lake’s corner.
After selling this concept, the suggestion was made to also cover the freeway to keep it plenty safe from overtopping waves and lake spray. MnDOT liked that idea; in fact, just about every idea and concept from the Duluth Freeway Design Group was liked by MnDOT. There was unbelievably wonderful mutual cooperation between MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.
One of the major intents of Lake Place was to avoid separating people from the lake. The idea was to connect people to the lake as never had been accomplished before. This happened to a point, but faltered at its western end when the mayor at the time chose to spend MnDOT “give-back” funds elsewhere. Those funds were planned and intended to create the most important Lake Superior connection, which would have occupied the then-available, 100-foot-wide Sears Automotive deck, a site that eventually became a Muffler Clinic. While four downtown connections to the lake were created, Duluth needed — and still needs — this fifth major one. It was denied for no good reason.
Other multiple-use highway benefits created by the construction of Interstate 35 through downtown Duluth included a westerly pedestrian and bikeway ramp with evergreen plantings; linear adjacent plantings along the freeway from Mesaba Avenue to Lake Avenue; linear stormwater runoff containment between freeway lanes; a Lake Place entrance drive under Lake Avenue and a parking lot for a picnic area, open space, and a “Lake Superior First View;” maintenance and storage under Lake Avenue and into Canal Park; and the freeway-protection wall and steel sheet pile protection wall with its three-acre platform park.
That park, now known as Gichi-ode' Akiing, was initially named Lake Place to clearly identify its location. Connections were planned between Lake Superior, Lake Place, the Lakewalk, Canal Park, and downtown.
The interstate’s construction through downtown further improved Duluth’s long-neglected lakeshore. Using more than 200,000 cubic yards of freeway rock excavated from the historic-district area just one block away, the Lakewalk was created. What had been completely unusable lakefront now hosts 1,000 people per hour, strolling, bicycling, and in other ways enjoying the waterfront and Lake Superior vistas. This half mile of prime lakefront was reclaimed after being a dumping ground that had gotten so bad people could not even go there. It became the shoreline Duluth always should have had. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve a popular and achievable lakefront.
Are you also aware that, at some point during all of this, MnDOT proposed building the freeway through Fitger’s and the adjacent shoreline of shops in what was known then as “the historical district?” Thankfully, that was averted. Duluth architect Dick Gilyard led that portion of the battle. He and a group of Duluth citizens came up with a bold plan to route the freeway inland, above Superior Street, requiring tunneling and deep-rock excavation — the same rock excavation that helped create Duluth’s extended lakeshore and Lakewalk. God Bless Dick Gilyard! The inland freeway was made possible with major retaining walls and plant materials that covered nearly every square inch. Northern environmental beauty surrounds travelers in every direction now. Four tunnels meant eight tunnel portals, with opportunities to surround traffic with a sound-absorbing, visual amenity. It went well beyond the usual treatment for interstate freeways in the U.S.
The two short tunnels were accomplished with a realignment of Superior Street above. The street’s long, straight line of traffic was broken, slowing it. New off-street parking was created. Extensive plantings enhanced newly opened views. Two green spaces were created above the tunnels: Pickwick Plaza and Jay Cooke Plaza, named for the American financier to whom Duluth owes so much gratitude. None of this happened by accident.
Additionally, the freeway walls received unique, textured concrete design patterns and color. Duluth architect Lyle Peters deserves credit for this important part of our freeway. Compare those walls to anywhere.
In the same way, the many improvements that were part of the Interstate 35 construction through downtown included a 590-by-12-foot ceramic-tile “image wall” of historical lake scenes on the lake-facing wall below Lake Place. Mark Marino and Sandra Ettestad of the Portland Malt Shoppe suggested it. There was so much excitement about it, Don Olson, the MnDOT project manager, was called at 1 in the morning — and he liked it and came to discuss it the very next day. Olson can be credited for his willing, encouraging cooperation on the part of MnDOT.
Also additionally, several thousand cubic yards of rock excavation were placed, as requested by state fisheries officials, to create a fish-spawning lakebed near Newfound Beach, opposite the Fitger’s shoreline.
Finally, at Leif Erikson Park, visitors to this day may be left asking — just like they might ask at Jay Cooke Plaza — “Where is the freeway?” Total support and encouragement from MnDOT and from the Federal Highway Administration produced one unique and memorable public project filled with formal gardens and interest eternal.
The point of this lengthy memory trip?
One wonders why it has seemed so hard for the city to say a public thank you or to demonstrate any in-depth appreciation. Some key maintenance and cleaning to retain what was provided would go a long way.
Kent G. Worley was a landscape architect in Duluth from 1967 through 2007. He designed Lake Place, the Lakewalk, Leif Erikson Park, and Interstate 35 through downtown Duluth.