Taking a fresh look at Duluth's downtown interstate.
We acknowledge that this study area is located on the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. The spaces being reimagined within this project reside on land that was home to communities of Ojibwe, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, and other Native peoples. Today, many of the defining characteristics of Duluth's downtown waterfront follow the pathways and places of the indigenous people of this area. We are committed to creating a vision for our downtown which is inclusive of the historical and contemporary contexts of these spaces and the people who have called them home in the past, present, and future.
When I-35 was built, nobody saw the warehouses and scrapyards of Canal Park becoming the tourist destination they are today. As such - when the interstate replaced the rail yards between downtown and the neighborhood, few were concerned that a barrier would continue to exist between the two. Things have changed, and at present Canal Park and the associated waterfront are some of the most visited places in our city. Unfortunately, there are few ways of traveling between downtown and Canal Park, regardless of whether you're in a car or on foot. Some of the city's worst traffic backups occur when people are forced into these bottlenecks. Issues with pedestrians are two-fold, in that these unsafe crossings make it difficult for residents to access the lake and tourists are discouraged from visiting downtown businesses.
and the Harborfront
& Central Hillside
A freeway is a mode of infrastructure which by default is inaccessible to anyone without a car, which is 32% of people living within one mile of the downtown stretch of I-35. We can rethink our infrastructure to be more inclusive of the people who are actually living in this neighborhood. In addition to low rates of vehicle ownership, the following is also true:
Have a disability of some kind.
Are people of color.
Are experiencing poverty.
1 in 3 downtown residents can't even use the freeway
The Impact Zone
Per the American Lung Association, people who live or work within .2 miles of a freeway experience higher rates of the following:
One-in-three downtown residents do not own a car.
What is healthy for our cities and our environment is healthy for us. The opposite is also true.
This is the total amount of land that Interstate 35, Railroad Street, and associated infrastructure consumes within downtown Duluth. This mass of roadway takes up just shy of 20% of all space within downtown.
The question is: is our infrastructure overbuilt for our community? The answer seems to be yes. A recent report by the Metropolitan Interstate Council indicates I-35's downtown stretch handles less than 50% of its intended capacity. Meanwhile, recent highway infrastructure projects in Duluth have gone significantly over budget while our pothole-lined streets struggle to be maintained. Eventually, our freeway will find itself at the end of its useful life, at which point scaling back this piece of infrastructure could create a win-win scenario, creating a solution that is less expensive to maintain (i.e. you pay fewer taxes) while creating more space for development (which adds more to city tax revenues).
Interstate 35 Is Past Its Prime
The following chart shows how average annual daily trips on Interstate 35 have fallen since 1999. Curent freeway traffic through downtown is less than that of Central Entrance and Mesaba Avenue.
Note: Traffic numbers are sourced from MnDOT's Traffic Mapper Application. AADT numbers from 1996-2015 reflect estimated traffic counts. On Jan 12, 2022 we were notified that MnDOT unpublished their 2019 traffic count showing an AADT of 20,400 for this stretch of I-35.
1998 - peak freeway traffic
48,900 daily trips
Don't Just Take It From Us
In 2018, our city adopted the "Imagine Duluth 2035" plan as the guiding document for future decision making in our community. Many of the changes made within this project stem from recommendations made by this document.
For example, the transportation section lists the following goals:
Improve street conditions to function better for everyone
Reduce infrastructure costs through innovation and wholesale design change
Add to the transportation network by systematically enhancing multi-modal options
Improve system condition and connections in and between downtown and Canal Park
Base decisions about transportation infrastructure primarily in the context of improving city and neighborhood vitality, and not on automobile through traffic
Protect and enhance regional transportation networks, especially for purposes of expanding opportunities for movement of freight
Our proposal, if implemented, would be grounded in the goals of this document, advancing a number of its goals and objectives. Read more about this plan here.
LOCATION: Portland, OR
TRAFFIC: 25,000 Daily Trips
LOCATION: San Francisco, CA
TRAFFIC: 100,000 Daily Trips
PARK EAST FWY
LOCATION: Milwaukee, WI
TRAFFIC: 54,000 Daily Trips
THE BIG DIG
LOCATION: Boston, MA
TRAFFIC: 75,000 Daily Trips
LOCATION: Syracuse, NY
TRAFFIC: 60,000 Daily Trips
CONVERTED: In Progress
Can You Fix A Freeway?
These Cities Did
For reference, at our project location I-35 has
29,000 daily trips, far lower than many places where freeways have been removed. There are no examples of neighborhoods that became worse by removing a freeway.
Improve Safety and Mobility
Create New and Connect Existing Green Spaces
Promote a Physically and Socially Connected City
What Comes Next?
Rethinking I-35 will open up opportunity for transformative change within our downtown, but removing the freeway isn't nearly as important as creating a strong vision for what replaces it. We're working with community members to keep evolving what that vision could look like. We're more committed to accomplishing our goals than building any particular concept, but the following provides an example of what is possible.
Improve Safety And Mobility
Build all infrastructure to exceed ADA standards for people with disabilities.
Develop a multimodal transportation network which prioritizes non-vehicular options for moving around the neighborhood.
Alleviate congestion on local streets within downtown and Canal Park.
Consolidate I-35 and Railroad Street into a parkway capable of handling existing traffic.
Create pedestrian networks which encourage the safety of our most vulnerable populations.
The Cross-City Trail, shown here rerouted along the Parkway
Giving People The Choice
To Move How They Want
I-35 acts as a wall between Duluth's most visited attractions and its downtown. This wall backs up traffic in adjacent areas, frightens bikers, keeps residents away from Lake Superior, and makes it nearly impossible for persons with disabilities to cross. This wall also acts as an economic barrier, in which tourism is primarily limited to the lake side of the interstate.
This diagram shows a comparison in existing vs proposed connections for vehicles, bicycles/pedestrians, and rail between various locations around Duluth's Downtown Waterfront. Whether you choose to drive, bike, walk, or roll, this concept gives people options for how they choose to move.
I-35 is not congested, but because of the way that traffic is funneled into the two roadways crossing the freeway, many adjacent streets are over capacity. When looking specifically at vehicle infrastructure, our goal is to limit the complexity associated with our on/off ramp system. For example, instead of having to leave the DECC by turning on Railroad Street, looping around the Harbor Drive access road, and then using the 5th Avenue ramp, you could simply get on the parkway and leave. The congestion in downtown and Canal Park is caused by our overly complicated road network. We can alleviate this congestion by simplifying the area and implementing a gridded street network.
Everyone has dealt with the frustrating process of trying to park in Canal Park. People searching for parking spaces are one of the biggest causes of congestion in this area. By developing a district parking approach utilizing new and existing
parking ramps that are directly accessible from the parkway, we can remove circling cars from Canal Park streets. The pain of parking will no longer be part of experiencing the Duluth waterfront.
Drive In and Park
The proposed parkway in this concept has rail running through it to accommodate the North Shore Scenic Railroad. This trackage could be used to re-implement a streetcar line which would run along the parkway and beyond to Lincoln Park and the East Hillside via existing tracks, connecting major tourist areas and residential neighborhoods within the denser parts of Duluth's waterfront.
Additionally, the parkway provides opportunity for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line. Utilizing a joint BRT-Streetcar median transit stop near the existing DTA center, we could increase opportunities for quick trips into downtown for residents of our peripheral neighborhoods (such as Lakeside and Gary).
This is the total amount of land that Interstate 35, Railroad Street, and associated infrastructure consumes within downtown Duluth. This mass of roadway takes up just shy of 20% of all space within the neighborhood.
Improve Safety and Mobility
Here we see the proposed major routes for vehicles, bikes, pedestrians, and rail traffic. Major changes to note include the condensing of I-35/Railroad Street into a single higher-volume lower-speed parkway, the inclusion of several new connector streets between downtown and Canal Park, and improved bike/pedestrian infrastructure near the corner of the lake. The new layout "stitches" downtown and Canal Park into one core area while shifting the transportation emphasis from getting people through town as quickly as possible to making it easier for locals and tourists to traverse between the two areas. Though commuters need not fret, we will only be lowering the speed limit from 50 to 35 mph. Travel times for those moving east to west along this route will only increase by 30 seconds if they hit green lights, and 2 minutes if they hit red lights.
Creating A Waterfront Parkway
The above section shows a direct comparison of the current layout of the interstate vs the proposed parkway. At present, there are 14 lanes of traffic which run along this corridor. Moving across the section - the Lake Superior Parkway would provide bump-out space for businesses, wide sidewalks with landscaped borders, 3 lanes of traffic, a landscaped median with stormwater processing capabilities, a rail line for the North Shore Scenic Railroad (and potential for a future street car line), 3 lanes of traffic, more landscaping, and a separated recreation trail with designated space for bikers and pedestrians.
Highway 61 Revisited
Our project name serves as more than just a nod to one of Duluth's favorite artists to claim. Before the construction of Interstate 35, there was U.S. Highway 61, the route which inspired the title of Bob Dylan's sixth album. By demoting the interstate to a parkway, it would once again become Highway 61, literally Highway 61 revisited. Rerouting Duluth's "Bob Dylan Way" into the proposed parkway creates an excellent opportunity to acknowledge this route.
Explore ownership systems to keep development rooted in addressing community needs.
Help the City of Duluth fund neighborhood programs city-wide by increasing the tax base.
Provide space for accommodating missing neighborhood services.
Create opportunities for existing neighborhood residents to generate wealth and find affordable housing opportunities.
Encourage the spread of existing tourism activity along the waterfront into downtown and hillside business areas.
A "Boxcar Market" adjacent to the Depot provides rentable spaces for makers and creators to sell their goods.
In total, over 20 acres of prime downtown real estate within walking distance of the waterfront would become available, stimulating one of the largest developments in Duluth's recent history. These parcels provide an opportunity to alleviate housing demands and missing neighborhood necessities without dislocating existing families and businesses. This land would ideally be held in a community land trust to ensure that development is rooted in addressing the needs of local residents, with profits going towards promoting affordability, preventing displacement, building economic and racial inclusion, and maintaining and programming high quality public spaces throughout the concept area.
A recent study by UMD's Bureau of
Business and Economic Research
found a 1-mile parkway conversion
would cost $50 million while creating
and economic impact of up to $4.8 billion.
Create New and Connect Existing Green Spaces
Link together downtown and waterfront parks and fulfill the late 1800s city vision for a series of parkways along the city's waterfront and hilltop.
Design new parks and plazas to promote the enjoyment of the outdoors across four seasons.
Overlay green infrastructure on top of the proposed parks network to process city storm/floodwaters, generate energy, restore habitats, and reestablish critical species.
Integrate native ecology seamlessly into the urban fabric.
Prioritize improving public health and quality of life for all Duluth residents and visitors.
An extension of the waterfront into Downtown allows for habitat restoration and aquatic recreation.
Create New and Connect Existing Green Spaces
Duluth is known for its extensive park system, yet the downtown area has a limited amount of green spaces. This project aims to use the money made from economic developments to fund a network of well-maintained and programmed green spaces, linking existing parks with new open space via trails and parkways while providing space to overlay green infrastructure. This parks system would create a buffer between the city and Lake Superior for the purpose of treating runoff and floodwaters while also restoring habitats and native ecologies.
Promote a Physically and Culturally Connected City
Foster a sense of community ownership by working with Duluthians to develop a shared vision for the future of our city.
Integrate the built fabric of the city to unite downtown and Canal Park into one unified urban core.
Encourage interaction of people of diverse backgrounds to promote shared experience and understanding.
Discourage the displacement of existing neighborhood residents and encourage a welcoming environment for newcomers.
Create spaces and places which are rooted in inclusivity, equity, and accessibility.
I-35/5th Avenue West
This key intersection would be reimagined as an at-grade roundabout intersection with the adjacent freeway being converted into a parkway. A grade-separated pedestrian path and rail bridge would allow both vehicle and bike/pedestrian traffic to flow out from major events with minimal interruptions. This would also open up space for new development while allowing existing structures to shine. Notably, the Duluth Depot would be unburied by overpass infrastructure while an adjacent "boxcar" marketplace would allow for vendors to sell goods in an environment that enforces this corridor's rich history and character.
I-35/3rd Avenue West
Reaching up into the hillside is just as important as connecting to the waterfront, and uphill connectivity is the focus of this portion of the concept. 3rd Avenue has one of the shallowest slopes of all streets in downtown Duluth, and converting it to a meandering bike/pedestrian path would allow for an uphill connection between the waterfront and Skyline Parkway that could actually meet ADA standards. This would ensure people of all abilities could access amenities along the waterfront. This corridor would also help direct stormwater from the hillside into a proposed series of treatment ponds, which would capture and process runoff before reaching Lake Superior while providing scenic water features and ecological habitat.
The dominant feature of this section of the parkway would be an extension of the waterfront into the city. Utilizing the Minnesota Slip, a waterway would extend under a bridge on the parkway and into downtown, allowing water access points for residents and visitors to launch kayaks and paddle boards before venturing off into the harbor. This waterway would be surrounded by a large park, serving as a central community gathering space where once a freeway divided the city. An overhead viaduct, nodding to the historic pre-I-35 Lake Avenue Viaduct would run over the parkway in this location to provide a grade-separated path for bikes and pedestrians, making it possible to walk from Superior St. to the Dewitt-Seitz Building without crossing a lane of traffic.
The Big Picture
Create A Unified Downtown
Click through a review
of the proposed changes.
Is It Time For Transformative Change?
How Does It Feel?
Duluth: the Zenith City on Lake Superior. Do you see an opportunity to play a role in helping Duluth reach its zenith? Are you interested in seeing a superior downtown Duluth? We are looking to form a coalition of supporters, leaders, and thinkers who can help us create a more livable, equitable, and sustainable Duluth. We want to hear your ideas, regardless of your background. Please contact us to discuss ways we can work together.
The Duluth Waterfront Collective is a grassroots volunteer group of Duluth-based designers, planners, thinkers and more who undertook this project to start a conversation within our city. Nothing outlined in this plan is expected to be built (yet), but is intended to inspire change. If it has worked and you have thoughts, please share them with us using this form.
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