Out-of-the-box thinking radiated off of the Steelman Exchange building’s rooftop overlooking downtown Minneapolis as University of Minnesota graduate students gathered around more than 50 design boards reimagining the highway viaducts between the Warehouse District and the North Loop.

Along with their professor, the students from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs presented their different visions for the Fourth Street viaducts, which stretch from Second Avenue North to 10th Avenue North, on May 9 during a preliminary design charrette. Their work is the culmination of a site-planning class in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program.

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Fernando Burga, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, speaks to the crowd at the design charrette on May 9. Photo by Rhett Carlson

University of Minnesota assistant professor Fernando Burga led under the premise that “things change, [and] the conversation starts today.” While the ideas were extensively planned and presented, Burga stressed that it was not “finished work” from an implementation perspective, and that students in the program specialize in engagement and the democratic process. The charrette was an “invitation to join in the process,” Burga said.

The viaducts have existed since the early 1990s, when the area around them was little more than an afterthought to be sped past on the way out of downtown. Since then, thousands of multifamily units, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, and numerous retail and dining establishments have entered the area to create the city’s premier live-work-play neighborhood that we all know as the North Loop. With the increase in population and investment, new attention has been paid to the unsightly viaducts. In recent years, questions have arisen about their value (or lack thereof) to the surrounding neighborhood.

Just few months ago, urban planner Alex Schieferdecker penned an opinion piece in Downtown Voices, which called for a reimagining of the viaducts in conjunction with a new basketball arena.

The Fourth Street viaducts are elevated on and off ramps for I-94 that run about two-thirds of a mile between the Warehouse District and the North Loop. Photo courtesy of Google Maps

The event, which was open to the public, also drew North Loop residents, real estate and planning professionals, and at least one Minnesota Department of Transportation employee.

Three teams of students produced separate proposals: Post-Pandemic Downtown Destination Retrofit, North Loop Woonerf Street, & New Housing/Density. Their design boards contained thorough research of the area’s history, traffic patterns, and current conditions, as well as detailed descriptions and AI-aided renderings illustrating how the area could look different under their plans.

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Design boards laying out the students' proposals were spread across the floor of the Steelman Exchange. Photo by Rhett Carlson

In the Post-Pandemic Downtown Destination Retrofit pitch, a “highway to green-way” is proposed, with the viaducts remaining in place. But instead of ferrying cars, the structure is transformed into a linear park similar to New York City’s High Line, with green space and multi-use paths. The current parking lots under the viaducts are envisioned as flexible, programmable space for the community.

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The students’ Post-Pandemic Downtown Destination Retrofit proposal imagines a linear park along the viaduct. Photo by Rhett Carlson

In another proposal titled North Loop Woonerf Street, the center portion of the viaducts is removed and replaced with a woonerf and park. (Woonerf is a Dutch term for a “living street” where vehicles are considered guests in the space and traffic is calmed through street design elements such as chicanes, plantings, and bollards.) The remnants of the viaducts at either end become “patios in the sky” with bike connections to Plymouth Avenue at one and downtown at the other.

In the third proposal, high density housing and mixed-use development is envisioned for the space the viaducts currently occupy. Renderings show building massings similar in height and scale to what is found on either side of the viaducts today.

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A design board at the charrette event shows aerial photos and describes historical development of the North Loop. Photo by Rhett Carlson

The viaducts will likely be in place for at least another 15 years, but improvements could be implemented under the structure in the meantime. 

Burga noted that the new North Loop Green development broke precedent with its 1-acre green space under MnDOT infrastructure.