A project aimed at reconnecting St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood via a land bridge over Interstate 94 has gotten $6.2 million in funding from the Minnesota Legislature, making it more likely the proposal could move forward.
The nonprofit ReConnect Rondo has been working for years on a proposal to physically reconnect Rondo via a land bridge "lid" over I-94. The predominantly Black neighborhood in St. Paul was torn apart in the 1960s to build I-94, displacing hundreds of families and businesses.
The proposed land bridge would be 12-21 acres that would cap I-94 in St. Paul, stretching between 2,600-3,200 linear feet. But it wouldn't be just a structure. The land bridge would connect both sides of the neighborhood over the interstate, making room for additional development to create an African American Cultural Enterprise District that could include housing, business developments and community spaces, among other opportunities.
ReConnect Rondo brought its proposal to the Minnesota Legislature this year, seeking $6.2 million for pre-development, stressing the project would revitalize the community that was devastated by racist policy decisions that led to the highway being built on top of the neighborhood.
The proposal was included in the omnibus tax bill, which the Minnesota House and Senate passed on the final day of the special session on Wednesday and Gov. Tim Walz signed into law on Thursday.
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"This has been just a tremendous and fast trajectory, very steep," ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker told Bring Me The News Friday morning. "We just had a lot of champions at the Legislature," adding they played a "tremendous role in lifting this forward and believing that this is something that can actually happen."
ReConnect Rondo will use the money from the state for the pre-planning of the project, which includes studying and planning to address housing, jobs, health, and environmental measures that will benefit residents. It also involves community input to develop safeguards against gentrification, property taxes rising and displacement, among other things.
"We just have a blank canvas, so all of these things will help inform the blank canvas as part of our master planning process," Baker said, noting the master plan is the "larger aspiration."
“Over the next 12-24 months is really intensive work now,” he added. “We think we have to emerge with a master plan, if you will, within that time frame."
Developing a master plan will help ReConnect Rondo articulate the definitive economic benefits of the project and show people what the community is looking for, what's important to them and how they see the project lifting the quality of life.
“The easy thing for people to get their head around is a structure. And if it was a structure, we could do it in less time," Baker said, noting nothing like this — a community created on a land bridge, a community reconnected by an infrastructure project — has ever been done before.
ReConnect Rondo's goal is to return to the Minnesota Legislature after it completes the master planning process to request bonding dollars. Ideally, they'd request the money in the 2022 bonding year, but Baker admits that may not happen until 2024.
"The pre-development is intended to get us to the point of being prepared to present and request bond dollars," he said.
The inclusion of the funding for ReConnect Rondo in the omnibus tax bill was quite serendipitous, Baker said. For years, they've been stressing that "What's good for Rondo is good for the Range" in an effort to highlight that the project would benefit the state, not just the Rondo neighborhood.
The proposal was thanks to some "horse-trading" at the Minnesota Legislature, with Baker noting that because both the ReConnect Rondo project and an engineered wood plant in Cohasset on the Iron Range both got included, they both got funding in the tax bill.
Baker said they're looking forward to visiting the plant and seeing how it could possibly support providing materials to the Rondo project.
ReConnect Rondo said in a news release the state funding marks a "significant turning point for the land bridge," noting the entire amount they requested from the state for planning "comes as an enormous triumph for the Rondo neighborhood and Minnesota's restorative justice advocates."
"On the heels of the [murder of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin's conviction], Minnesota needs to lead again because Minnesota has a blemish," Baker said, noting for its racial disparities and because it's the epicenter of a system that isn't working for people. "People need something to believe in and be hopeful about, and it's not easy, but we think this is something Minnesota can be proud of, hopeful about."
Met Council grant
Getting state funding is just one positive step toward the project becoming a reality.
This week, the Metropolitan Council approved a $150,000 allocation for ReConnect Rondo to study ways the development could move forward without displacing local residents.
This has become a concern among residents and some activists who say building the land bridge could lead to gentrification of the area instead of helping it. ReConnect Rondo is aware of it, and it's among the pieces it's working to prevent. It has been hosting public input sessions via Zoom regarding this issue, with the next one scheduled for July 7.
Baker called the Met Council grant "really, really helpful" because it focuses on ReConnect Rondo's emphasis of ensuring anti-displacement. It will help the nonprofit look into things like creating a community reinvestment fund that would provide resources to community members in the event of property tax rises or other negative impacts from the project.
He said they're trying to create a prosperity zone and a "forcefield of protection" that allows affordability and an increase of earnings for people in the area.
"A lot of work ahead, but we're thrilled," Baker added.
Federal funding also in play
Another positive step for the project come Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $715 billion transportation bill (INVEST in America Act), which includes a provision from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, to provide $5.2 million in federal funding for ReConnect Rondo.
“Our years of persistence is beginning to really pay off,” Baker said in a news release. “It’s gratifying to see the land bridge championed simultaneously at the state and federal levels, and it is because so many key people now see it as a win-win — restoring the loss of a neighborhood, but more than that to also narrow the wealth gap that has crippled the African American community for far too long.”
If the INVEST in America Act becomes law (it still needs the Senate's approval and President Joe Biden's signature), Baker told BMTN the money would be used to get more into the "engineering side of the equation."
“Over the past year, the nation has developed a greater understanding of the harm done to Rondo, and more than 1,200 other black communities across the country – but the question remains: how do we heal and, together, move forward?” Mary K. Boyd, a descendent of Rondo and board member for ReConnect Rondo, said in a statement. “Here is our answer – with infrastructure funding, we can take a major step forward to build a bridge to better for future generations.”