MN lawmakers hear plan to reconnect historic Black neighborhood

Rondo library
The Rondo Community Outreach Library at the corner of University and Dale, sits near what used to be the center of the old Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul.
Melanie Sommer | MPR News 2008

Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday heard a proposal that would construct a “land bridge” to reconnect a historically Black St. Paul neighborhood that was devastated in the 1960s to make way for Interstate 94, a project that advocates call an injustice with effects that linger today.

The Rondo neighborhood — once home to 80 percent of St. Paul's Black residents — was razed to construct the highway, causing the loss of 700 homes, around 300 mostly Black-owned businesses, and a significant drop in population and homeownership in the area. Hundreds of millions of dollars of community wealth was lost, and discriminatory lending practices prevented many from seeking homes elsewhere, the advocates said.

“My story of Rondo begins when I saw my father cry for the first and only time,” said Marvin Anderson, a Rondo native whose father and four other men built 12 affordable apartment buildings for the area's residents, which were ultimately lost to I-94.

“Their dream of providing affordable housing for the residents of Rondo — they watched it perish and die, and my father was never the same again,” Anderson told lawmakers during a House transportation committee hearing on Tuesday.

The committee, chaired by Minneapolis Democrat Rep. Frank Hornstein, heard testimony outlining persistent racial inequity worsened by the interstate and health effects due to pollution from the highway. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, whose grandfather had over half a dozen commercial properties in the neighborhood, told lawmakers the project is an “incredible opportunity” to right the wrongs of the highway.

Rep. Ruth Richardson of Mendota Heights, a Democrat who was born and raised in St. Paul, testified in favor of the proposal. She said the Rondo community thrived in the face of overt discrimination and that the interstate “stands as a monument to the impacts of systemic racism.” Richardson said that in order to undo intentionally discriminatory policies of the state's past, lawmakers must consider those who are discriminated against when considering new policies, like the land bridge.

“While we cannot change the past, we as legislators do have an opportunity to focus on building a transportation system that is going to promote health, equity and access for all,” Richardson testified.

The proposal, spearheaded by Anderson and nonprofit Reconnect Rondo, would construct 12 to 21 acres of land on top of the highway that would reconnect the two sides of the old neighborhood. Proponents estimate the new land would host more than 500 new housing units and retail space that would bring hundreds of permanent jobs, in addition to nearly 1,000 jobs to construct the lid.

Keith Baker, executive director of Reconnect Rondo, said they are seeking $6 million from the state this year for planning and pre-design costs, before requesting $459 million for construction in the state’s capital infrastructure bill next legislative session. Though the price tag is steep, Baker said remedies for issues like equitable access to transportation and pollution from the highway make the project a strong investment.

“We believe there are savings through investment that can be realized, and that's our position on it,” he said. “It's not just about the spending but it's also about the benefit of addressing some of the underlying concerns within communities that also drain resources away from adding to people's lives on a daily basis.”

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