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DULUTH – A group of local planners, designers and community activists have big dreams for the Interstate 35 corridor at the western tip of Lake Superior, proposing a parkway and a better connection between Canal Park and downtown Duluth, instead of the “wall” it is today.

The recently formed Duluth Waterfront Collective imagines drastically shrinking the roadway and building out green space and new residential and commercial development around the 44 acres between Mesaba and Lake Avenues.

“We’re hoping to get these ideas out and let them speak for themselves,” said Jordan van der Hagen, a landscape designer and spokesman for the Highway 61 Revisited project, a nod to the Dylan album and former name of the stretch of concrete in question. “Sometimes people need to see things to get thinking about new ideas.”

With the clock ticking on the interstate’s life span, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is waiting for funding to start a study of the I-35 corridor between its northern terminus at 26th Avenue E. and south to Midway Road.

Any redesign probably won’t ever look like the dramatic renderings the group is presenting and may not go as far as similar projects such as the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee or Harbor Drive in Portland, Ore. Van der Hagen said the goal is simply to start a conversation.

“Hopefully something that improves the situation will stick,” he said. “It’s clearly overbuilt, and is a wall between one of the state’s most-visited tourist districts and the downtown business district.”

When I-35 first opened east of Mesaba Avenue, in the late 1980s, the downtown lakefront was not the hot spot it now is.

“Nobody saw the warehouses and scrap yards of Canal Park becoming the tourist destination they are today. As such — when the interstate cut off downtown from the neighborhood, few were concerned,” the project’s website said. “Issues with pedestrians are twofold, in that these unsafe crossings make it difficult for residents to access the lake, and tourists are discouraged from visiting downtown businesses.”

That’s a problem the city has recently tried to address with wayfinding signs, and MnDOT’s upgrades to the Lake Avenue bridge this summer intend to make it more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

Kent Worley, a former Duluth landscape architect who designed the Lakewalk, Leif Erikson Park and the largely tunneled stretch of I-35 downtown, said it was a “grassroots group of like-minded citizens” who kept the interstate from causing more destruction and division than it did.

“The interstate actually should have been built over the hill, avoiding Duluth neighborhoods and downtown altogether,” he wrote in a commentary in the Duluth News Tribune last year. “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.”

Van der Hagen said his group hasn’t come up with a cost estimate for their proposal and is still working out the logistics. He’s hopeful there will be some movement on these ideas in the next decade.

“We’re not saying tear everything down and rebuild it; that would be absurd and very expensive,” he said. “We wait until current infrastructure reaches the end of its current life span and work from that point. … It will be expensive either rebuilt as an interstate or as we propose.”

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496