Rondo land bridge
A view of the potential five-block Rondo land bridge over I-94 looking eastward from Chatsworth to Grotto streets.

Efforts to knit together Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood with a “land bridge” over I-94 have received a big boost with infusions of state and regional tax dollars. Representatives of ReConnect Rondo presented an update on their work to the city’s Planning Commission on July 9.

The nonprofit ReConnect Rondo received $6.2 million from the state during a special legislative session in June. The money will be used for a master planning process, launching what is expected to be a two-year effort.

Calls for the land bridge first began in 2009. Building a five-block bridge has an estimated cost of $459 million. Various land bridge configurations have been sketched out over the years, including one of more than 20 acres.

The bridge is intended to reconnect the old Rondo neighborhood, which was cleaved in two by I-94’s construction in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, Rondo was the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhood.

   

“We’ve been building the case for the land bridge,” said Marvin Anderson, the board chair of ReConnect Rondo. Anderson, 81, has been a lifetime champion for improving his neighborhood. He cofounded Rondo Days and led the efforts to build a commemorative plaza honoring the neighborhood’s heritage.

“This project will help us reignite a vibrant African-American cultural district,” said ReConnect Rondo executive director Keith Baker, who worked for 18 years at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Three potential land bridge locations will be studied. One is between Grotto and Chatsworth streets. A second would extend from the Victoria Street Bridge east to Grotto. A third would be on either side of Victoria.

 

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Public engagement will be a major focus during studies of the land bridge’s location and feasibility. ReConnect Rondo has many ambitious goals centered on providing neighborhood connections, new space for affordable housing, improved public health and more open space.

“This project will help us reignite a vibrant African-American cultural district,” said ReConnect Rondo executive director Keith Baker, who worked for 18 years at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Anderson said the land bridge would be a big part of righting the wrongs of the past. According to him, had I-94 not gone through the neighborhood six decades ago, more than 700 homes with a collective value of more than $157 million would still be standing.

Freeway construction also meant the loss of 300 businesses. Anderson’s family lost both its home and business. Not only did many families believe they did not receive adequate compensation, he said, discrimination made it difficult for many to find places to resettle.

ReConnect Rondo also received a $150,000 Metropolitan Council grant in June. The money will be used to study how proposed development on the land bridge can be done without causing gentrification or displacement of neighborhood residents.

Creation of a Rondo Restorative Development Overlay District is also expected to be considered. The district would focus on affordable housing as well as a proposed Black cultural enterprise zone on the bridge.

The project has faced some critics in Saint Paul’s Black community, who are concerned about gentrification. Anderson said an extensive public outreach effort this fall and an upcoming planning process will attempt to address those fears.

The land bridge could accommodate up to 576 new housing units and 1,000 residents. It is also seen as providing up to 108,000 square feet of new commercial space, 36,000 square feet of nonprofit and institutional space, and as many as 1,872 construction and permanent jobs. Development of the land bridge is expected to produce up to $4.2 million in city tax revenue each year.

The state grant for the project could be combined with $5.2 million from the federal government. U.S. Representative Betty McCollum helped get money for the land bridge project approved in the U.S. House on July 1 as part of the $715 billion federal INVEST in America Act.

The funding, which focuses on environmental and transportation projects, has yet to pass the Senate.

— Jane McClure

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