In April 2018, I wrote about the wide, wonderful world of freeway caps (update: OZY very publicly went out of business in 2021 and this article is no longer available online) , also known as highway lids (because, of course, not every limited-access roadway is free to use). Born of the urban freeway backlash of the 1970s and lately enjoying a resurgence in urban cores around the country — see here, here, and here — the freeway cap is a potent component of the urbanist toolkit.

The piece focuses on ambitious cap proposals in Seattle and St. Paul. The Seattle project’s first phase is farther along in the planning and approvals process, but the St. Paul proposal is far more interesting. Those who allow that open expressway trenches or skyways represent part of the status quo in urban transportation agree that highway lids are inherently progressive. The St. Paul proposal — spearheaded by ReConnect Rondo — is downright radical.

Organic Reparations?

Before going to press, I had the opportunity to speak at length with Marvin Anderson, board chairman at ReConnect Rondo. Anderson is a living legend in Rondo, St. Paul’s African-American heartland: a storyteller, organizer, and emissary rolled into one. Anderson made reasonable a wildly ambitious vision wholly without precedent: reclaiming the gently sloping trench walls along a half-mile stretch of Interstate 94 in Rondo for cooperatively owned housing with carsharing hubs (Lyft is interested) and commercial space, with the capped right-of-way transformed into a linear park dotted with civic spaces.

Anderson wants to create dozens of acres of taxable real estate literally out of thin air to benefit current and future residents of Rondo, many of whose parents and grandparents were displaced or disenfranchised by I-94’s construction. RCR envisions a decades-overdue, largely organic reparations program — the righting of an historic wrong repeated dozens of times over in America’s urban cores. The only extant parallel I’ve been able to find is Capitol Crossing, in Washington, D.C. — but Cap Crossing covers a freeway that displaced few if any original residents, and its benefits flow almost entirely to the business interests directly involved in its construction and management. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Rondo Memories

Later in April 2018, I had the opportunity to attend Synapse Think Tank: The Story of Rondo, at the Hallie Q. Brown Center in St. Paul, not far from the eastern end of RCR’s proposed land bridge. (Thanks to Synapse Minnesota and Steve LeBeau for hosting the event and passing along the invitation.)

Anderson was the keynote speaker, his inner storyteller on full display. Some highlights:

  • I-94’s routing: The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 incentivized states to cut Interstate highway construction costs however they could. Naturally, they “chose the path of least resistance,” said Anderson, routing highways through urban neighborhoods considered blighted. In St. Paul, state and local authorities rejected a proposed right-of-way along what’s now Pierce Butler Route that would have been less disruptive.
  • Homegrown development: Anderson’s father was a shareholder in Twin City Negro Development Corp, a Rondo-based land developer that constructed 12 townhomes in the neighborhood. Citing “inferior construction,” the state dramatically undervalued the properties, precipitating a lawsuit that put the company out of business. “It was the principle of the thing,” said Anderson.
  • Redlining: Well into the mid-20th century, most of St. Paul was off-limits to homebuyers of color. Rondo was one of the few parts of town where black people could purchase homes. Some families displaced by I-94’s construction struggled to find replacement housing, said Anderson. Mr. Hughes, a prominent Rondonian who could pass, purchased 25 acres in suburban Maplewood and sold off subdivided plots to about 15 displaced families, circumventing the city’s restrictive covenants.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to create a better record of the event as it happened. In lieu of that, a plug for Synapse’s next public event: “The Power of Partnerships,” hosted by Synapse and the Christensen Group on the evening of June 7.