Evan Ramstad
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The front-page article a few weeks ago about Twin Cities activists who want to see I-94 removed and turned into a boulevard between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul barely hinted at the effect that would have on the region's economy.

My first reaction was probably like yours: No way that's happening.

There's the obvious reason, which is that it's always hard to take out infrastructure. On top of that, progressive activists would first have to fight out their competing priorities. When that happens, things stall out, as Minneapolis learned with its 2040 Comprehensive Plan or Minnesota legislators showed in the 2024 session.

Who would win that fight? The reformers who want to restore neighborhoods and make driving a little cleaner and nicer in the Twin Cities? Or the ones who brought housing development to a stop in St. Paul by imposing rent control?

If you opened several miles of prime real estate in St. Paul, bankers wouldn't finance and developers wouldn't build on it. With the city's rent controls, they're not assured a return on their investment.

YouTuber Ray Delahanty, who analyzes and compares American cities for their livability on his City Nerd channel, in a video earlier this month made a strong case for taking out the 7.5-mile stretch of I-94. He pointed out that urban freeways are being reconsidered in cities across the country.

"Something like I-94 reflects what is ... an extremely outdated vision of what a city is and what a city should be," Delahanty said in the video.

It's also a vision that's out of step with what cities are becoming. Taking out a highway that tens of thousands of Twin Cities residents rely on every day seems fantastical to me.

So is the fact that commuting is down by around one-third since the pandemic. Also amazing: Driverless cars may finally emerge with the next upgrade of wireless networks, to 6G. They'll make possible the data exchange automated vehicles need.

Where we live and work, the entire purpose of cities, is changing in front of us, which makes it legit to question the point of in-town highways.

Cecil Smith, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association (MMHA), at a forum earlier this month encouraged developers to think about how living patterns already shifted due to remote work — and will again if automated vehicles become the norm.

"It's a premature discussion about the I-94 corridor, but it's a really amazing thought experiment because then you realize a really massive shift could happen," Smith said after his presentation.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2016 started a long-term process to review how I-94 functions between the two downtowns. It's been nearly 60 years since that highway stretch was completed and it has reached the stage where it needs enough repairs and improvements to warrant some reconsideration.

Last year, the department released a list of eight alternatives for the stretch. A final decision is not expected for several more years.

Our Streets, the advocacy organization once known as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, produced a 91-page report in March that favors turning that stretch into a boulevard. It echoes themes the Congress for New Urbanism, the Washington-based nonprofit focused on urban design, identified in its "Highways to Boulevards" project.

Our Streets turned to Visible City, a St. Paul consulting firm, for estimates of economic effects. On the Minneapolis portion of the existing highway, it estimated about 60 new homes in a low-density scenario could be built. Up to 235 in a higher-density scenario, meaning apartments, are possible.

On the St. Paul stretch, Visible City estimated a range of 505 new homes in a low-density scenario to around 2,000 in a higher-density one.

In addition, removing the big interchange at Huron Boulevard, near the Mississippi River bridge and the University of Minnesota, would make room for another 200 or so low-density housing units and more than 900 units in high-density buildings.

Those estimates came from studying existing building patterns in neighborhoods near I-94, Jon Commers, managing principal at Visible City, told me.

They don't account for the effects of rent control, which St. Paul voters approved in a 2021 referendum.

"It's generally regarded as perhaps the most extreme form of rent control in the country," Jay Parsons, consultant with Dallas-based Madera Residential, said at that MMHA event earlier this month.

"Even among rent control advocates, they realize you don't want to totally disincentivize construction," he said. "I know they [St. Paul City Council] have gone back and tried to tweak the regulation, but the uncertainty around it has cast a cloud over developers and, more importantly, the finance providers to those developers."

Getting rid of I-94 between the downtowns is a long shot on many levels. There's a case for it, though not while there's an unreasonable financial risk to redevelopment.