This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
it made Steve Brandt; Staff Writer Publication Date: May 31, 1992 Page: 01A Section: NEWS Edition: METRO
Donna Werz can sense the nearly 200,000 vehicles that travel each day on Interstate Hwy. 35W in Minneapolis without leaving her Stevens Av. home, which fronts the freeway. The throaty rumble that never lets up is punctuated by emergency sirens. When a motorcyclist launches down the 36th St. ramp opposite her house at 3 a.m., the whine doesn't fade until 46th St., more than a mile away. Her husband, Alex, wears earplugs to sleep. The grunting trucks are felt as much as heard. Their vibrations creep through the soles of her shoes, rearrange knickknacks, nudge pictures askew and crack walls and ceilings. It's been 25 years since 35W was completed between downtown Minneapolis and Crosstown Hwy. 62, gobbling homes in a strip a block wide and more than 5 miles long. Now there's debate over whether the highway should be expanded and more homes destroyed. The Werzes moved into their home on Stevens Av. exactly 33 years ago last week. Unlike many who watched the state highway department trench through 50 blocks of south Minneapolis, they've put up with the freeway instead of fleeing, raised three children and settled into retirement. "We were the guinea pigs," Donna Werz said. "That's what they called us. The guinea pigs of the freeway system in south Minneapolis." Most who chose to remain along 35W have gotten used to it. But some say that despite the undisputed mobility it has provided, 35W represents a permanent scar on the psyche of south Minneapolis. "The impact of that corridor was to destroy the heart of the city," said August Rivera, a Minneapolis schools administrator. There's little hard data on the long-term effects of the freeway on the city's largest residential area. The most comprehensive study was launched only three years after the freeway opened and eschewed social judgments in favor of hard economic data.
And it's difficult to separate change caused by the freeway from other social and economic influences. Nevertheless, Ernestine Belton has no doubt about the freeway's effects after living for 32 years in the 3600 block of 3rd Av. S., two blocks east of the highway. She blames it for making the block where she raised eight children a more rootless place. "I think the freeway created the poverty. It caused the property values to drop. I recall several families who left knowing the freeway was coming in," Belton said. Some who left couldn't get the price they wanted. Her block is dotted now with rented houses, many distinguished by grass that hasn't been mowed or has been trampled to dirt. Belton and her son Steve recall the years before the freeway as a time when residents could walk to street-corner stores for dry-cleaning or bread. Now they must cross bridges that span the freeway to reach Nicollet Av. The advent of the freeway was decades in the making. Congress, inspired by Germany's limited-access autobahns, directed a study of a national system of super highways. Two of Minnesota's interstate highways - 35 and 94 - first appeared on a 1939 map. World War II interrupted, but the postwar period ushered in the age of the automobile. Nationally, traffic nearly doubled between 1940 and 1954. Congress got serious about freeways in 1956, pledging 90 percent of the cost of a 41,000-mile system. Meanwhile, Minneapolis planners began to struggle with maintaining mobility in the face of increasingly longer commutes between downtown offices and factories and the expanding subdivisions of east Bloomington, Richfield, Edina, St. Louis Park, Crystal and Robbinsdale. Early sketches depict a number of expressways radiating from downtown Minneapolis and ringing it. Eventually, 13 limited-access routes were drafted, including one freeway along Washington Av. through downtown. In south Minneapolis, initial plans emphasized Hiawatha Av. and a southwestern link passing between Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. The first depictions of a north-south freeway appeared in 1949, aligned along Lyndale Av. S. Pressure for faster traffic movement was building. Traffic on Lyndale, Portland, Park and Hiawatha Avs. all exceeded the ability
of those streets to carry it efficiently. Assuming that Hiawatha would be upgraded, planners looked farther west for a north-south corridor located west of Wood Lake in Richfield but east of the Minneapolis lakes. Lyndale was penciled in. Park planners backed Lyndale, arguing that it would divert traffic from crowded parkways and best follow neighborhood boundaries. But a Lyndale route complicated the Lyndale-Hennepin bottleneck. Moving the freeway east better served the south Minneapolis street grid. By 1956, highway planners were suggesting a corridor between Stevens and 2nd Avs., but that clipped the west side of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and complicated traffic near the Minneapolis Auditorium. A year later the route, between 28th St. and downtown, was shifted a few blocks east and the process of buying and razing homes began. In an era when large public projects almost invariably create opposition, it's startling to look back with several decades of perspective on the relative paucity of protest against 35W. Although there were large public meetings, the issue was not so much whether to build, but where. One antifreeway meeting drew only 80 people. "The general civic consensus was that unless the city built freeways, it would be choked in its growth," said Richard Heath, a former city planner. Another former planner, Weiming Lu, recalled, "The highway resources were so strong, with the backing of the federal government, that it was hard to resist." That would change by the 1970s, when the highway planning process began to incorporate citizen review and more formal neighborhood organizations took root. "People saw the disadvantages and didn't want to live next to them," said Clem Kachelmyer, a Minnesota Department of Transportation official who has watched attitudes change since he began designing highways in the 1950s. "It really was kind of a shock to realize: `Hey, we aren't the good guys anymore.' Before, it was, `Why can't you build them faster?' " When construction of 35W began, the 300-foot strip between Stevens and 2nd Avs. became a linear ghost town as the first residents moved out. Their homes were moved to new sites or razed, sometimes after being looted to the point where sod was stripped from yards.
The first cross-freeway bridges were finished by 1960, but they spanned only weeds for several years. In 1965, the main roadway construction contract was let, creating an after-hours playground. "The freeway was a great adventure for a seventh-grader," recalled Steve Belton. "These were great places to explore. . . . We didn't have cable television back then. We'd go out and watch the bulldozers." After hours, they'd run through giant storm sewer tunnels. Belton recalled the time he and a friend jumped off the 38th St. bridge to the soft dirt below. Next day, word spread at neighboring Bryant Junior High, and after school, followed by a large crowd, they did it again on a dare. "I think we picked up some lunch money," he said. "I felt a sense of loss when they finally started paving." For some, completion of the $40 million freeway signaled that it was time to move. Postal worker Robert Conrad put his house up for sale two years after the freeway opened, concerned both about the effects of traffic exhaust on his 11 children and by the disrepair of neighboring homes and lawns. "We figured we lost a minimum of $7,000. We had seven open houses and absolutely no one showed up." He sold the house to the federal government and moved to Prior Lake. But people such as the Werzes stayed. Year after year, snowplows clearing the freeway ramp have thrown salt and sand against their now pitted living room windows. The front stoop, where the couple once chatted with strolling neighbors, has been abandoned for the shelter of the back yard. But Donna Werz was raised six blocks away and the mortgage is paid. They tried selling their house about the time excavations began but faced taking a price 20 percent less than they had paid. They knew a freeway was planned when they moved in but got something different from what they expected. "`You'll have a beautiful parkway-type freeway and you'll love it,"' Donna Werz recalls a federal road official telling her. "I said, `You can come live in our house for free for three months and see how you like it.' He didn't want to do that."
Landscaping for the project initially was budgeted at $12,000. City planners urged spending $172,000. Planner Lu remains unsatisfied with the result. Noise walls were added but neighbors still are split, even within families, on whether they're ugly or helpful. Three years after 35W opened, the highway department hired a consultant to examine how three metro freeway segments had affected the land they bisect. The resulting report presents a quick snapshot of the effects, sometimes for periods before the freeways even opened, but longer-term studies of 35W have never been done. In Bloomington, Richfield and Edina, freeways helped stimulate employment at a rate nearly six times the suburban average for an eight-year period through 1965. Job growth in Minneapolis freeway fringes was much slower, although still faster than the city average. In Minneapolis, for the limited period studied, the net number of dwelling units added within a half-mile of the freeway grew greater than the city average, despite clearances. But that was aided in part by a number of large public housing towers or publicly financed projects. Segments along 35W that were examined had property value increases that were lower than for the city as a whole. Property values were particularly retarded for remaining residents on Stevens and 2nd Avs., but the freeway's effect on property values was judged nonexistent beyond those streets. The effect on social patterns is harder to detect. No empirical studies are available. One reason the Stevens-2nd Avs. route was chosen, aside from the slightly lower-value homes in that path, was that planners felt they would not be infringing on neighborhoods. In fact, city planners said, they could find "no functioning neighborhoods now existing" in the freeway corridor. Those are fighting words to Ernestine Belton. "They divided our community and it has not been the same," she said. For some, the effects are more tangible. Retired teacher Violet Malchow, who lives on Stevens, twice has narrowly escaped being hit by collapsing chunks of her ceiling that she blames on vibrations.
"I was sitting on the davenport and I never noticed a crack and all of a sudden, wham, a big circle of it came down and missed me by inches." She said she talked to federal housing officials 10 years ago about a loan for repairs but was advised not to put any more money into her two-story white clapboard house. The 83-year-old said she wouldn't miss the freeway a bit, but she stays for sentimental reasons. "I'm the last one in the family and this is home."
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.