Gotta admit, the colorful drawings are pretty cool. Depicting attractive and tranquil boulevards and curving peaceful roads, lined with interesting shops and lush trees, all connecting downtown to the lakefront like Duluthians have never experienced before — and in place of an ugly, foreboding, impenetrable highway — are as intriguing as that last fancily wrapped gift on Christmas morning.
But right now, in spite of all the buzz the drawings have been generating since first being made public early last summer, they’re just a mirage. They aren’t anything formally proposed or being worked on. They’re the dreams and fantasied visions of a small group of Duluth architects, landscape designers, urban planners, and others playing “what-if?”
Even so, the drawings seem to be on to something. Their reimagining of Duluth’s heart and core isn’t just intriguing and gorgeous, it makes a lot of sense. The timing even seems right.
“We shouldn’t be prioritizing the needs of people who are trying to travel through our city over the needs of people who actually live in the neighborhood, people who spend time in Duluth and have a nice experience. You know, freeways really don’t offer much — and especially in our downtown,” said Duluth landscape designer Jordan van der Hagen, the force behind the Duluth Waterfront Collective, a loose-knit group responsible for the renderings.
“This is definitely trying to make Canal Park more of an amenity for people who live in Duluth instead of just tourists, and then making our downtown more of an amenity to not just people who work there but tourists,” van der Hagen said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page. “So it’s kind of increasing the flow of people and opportunity across the gap by replacing a barrier (the downtown Duluth stretch of I-35) with a space that actually encourages people to gather.”
Even curmudgeonly Duluthians who Mayor Gary Doty once referred to as “CAVE people,” or “Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” can find something to like in that.
Oh yes, eliminating a stretch of interstate and replacing it with a pleasant plot of streetscape and improved access to Lake Superior will be pricey. Astronomically pricey.
But so is rebuilding an interstate, which needs to be done from time to time. And the time for I-35 through Duluth is about up. The Minnesota Department of Transportation already is seeking funding to review I-35’s needs and condition from Midway Road to London Road.
"When we do the study, we will obviously encourage comments and ideas like (the Duluth Waterfront Collective’s drawings)," MnDOT spokesperson Pippi Mayfield told the News Tribune in June. "We'll take them all into consideration."
Surely, ending the interstate at or just west of downtown won’t be the most out-there idea to be floated. The downtown stretch of I-35 is apparently overbuilt anyway. Its traffic volume is at only about 50% of its capacity, van der Hagen’s group argues, citing data in a 25-year transportation plan issued in October by the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council.
In addition, “It’s fair to acknowledge that I-35 goes down to a two-lane road just about a mile (east) from where we are looking,” van der Hagen pointed out. “We wanted to make sure we put our ideas out ahead of the process that’s coming instead of trying to backtrack when it starts, just so that people are aware. We really have an opportunity to rethink what this looks like. It doesn’t have to be (like it is now). How do we rebuild this?”
A fan of all this reimagining is the Grand Rapids, Michigan, landscape architect who played a leading role in designing I-35’s original route through downtown and along Lake Superior. A modern parkway is preferable now, Kent Worley, who lived in Duluth from 1967 to 2007, told the News Tribune Opinion page. It would slow traffic with roundabouts at Fifth Avenue West and Lake Avenue, and it would bolster accomodations for bicycles and pedestrians.
“Jordan is brilliant, brave, visionary,” Worley said. “And (there would be) more city tax-producing space. … They have gone great bananas with drawings, look-alike models, and more. It is really bold, and it seems the timing is right … with the new Transportation secretary and White House emphasis. I applaud this local group of ‘collectives’.”
Travelers from the Twin Cities and elsewhere eager just to get through Duluth and up the North Shore no doubt won’t appreciate what the colorful drawings depict and advocate. But those of us who live here or spend time here can admit: The renderings are on to something — for us.
“It depends on whether people want to be able to drive through Duluth very quickly or whether they want to create an environmentally friendly and economically successful downtown,” van der Hagen said. “We’re not saying, ‘Build this. This is what we want.’ We’re saying, ‘Start a process that looks at this concept versus rebuilding what we have.’ … If it doesn’t end up looking exactly like what we’re proposing, that’s absolutely fine. We’re more so advocating for just exploring the opportunities that are here.”