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Public pressing MnDOT to think outside the box in Interstate 94 review

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Seeking public input on how to upgrade Interstate 94 between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, state transportation officials got an earful Monday on an idea backed by Our Streets Minneapolis that’s rapidly gaining attention: filling in the freeway trench and replacing that stretch of I-94 with a transit-friendly commercial corridor.

Another grassroots proposal comes from ReConnect Rondo, the St. Paul-based campaign that wants to construct a land bridge over I-94 between Chatsworth and Grotto streets for an African American cultural enterprise district. That effort would mitigate the damage to the vibrant middle-class Black community called Rondo that was destroyed by I-94 in the 1950s and ’60s.

Driven by racial reconciliation and climate change, the interest shown Monday in the Minnesota Department of Transportation project called Rethinking I-94 underscores community hopes that the agency will think outside the box of typical highway needs.

And the project itself reflects MnDOT’s interest in acknowledging past decisions that traded Rondo for regional growth — and its unprecedented decision to involve the public early in the process as it determines the project’s goals.

MnDOT officials have been “very good partners in that they’ve demonstrated an openness to learn … they’ve brainstormed with us the various approaches that it may require for a project like ours to emerge,” said ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker.

MnDOT promises to do better by local communities that were unable to influence I-94’s design 60 years ago, and will consider community-grown alternatives with an open mind, said Sheila Kauppi, the deputy Metro District engineer who is overseeing Rethinking I-94.

“A full range of options are on the table,” she said. “We have not eliminated any.”

The project area includes seven institutions of higher education and four major stadiums, and plays a key role in moving goods across the Twin Cities metro.

MnDOT repeatedly has stated that its main responsibility is to repair bridges, retaining walls and pavement. A draft “purpose and need” statement also notes the goals of reducing congestion and crashes while enhancing walkability, bike-ability and livability around the freeway.

The final version of that document, anticipated by year’s end, is expected to lay out a range of alternatives considered worthy of further consideration. But it likely will be years before MnDOT settles on a course of action and how much it will cost.

The fact that the agency is soliciting public input this early in the process stemmed from the decision to rethink the way it engages community, said MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger.

Russ Stark, St. Paul’s chief resilience officer, pushed back against MnDOT’s stated goal of greater mobility for vehicles because, he said, “We don’t actually think greater mobility for vehicles in this corridor is a good solution.”

DFL Sen. Omar Fateh, whose south Minneapolis district borders on I-94, “is hearing a lot from his constituents, who really wanted to see the most ambitious proposal possible,” said legislative assistant Chris Meyer. “We want to see a stronger emphasis on reducing vehicle miles traveled, because transportation is the biggest source of carbon pollution in the state.”

The debate has been in the works for several years. ReConnect Rondo, which launched in 2009, aims to cap a half-mile segment of I-94 in St. Paul, at an estimated cost of $15 million for pre-development activities, up to $300 million for the land bridge and $170 million for the enterprise district development on top.

ReConnect Rondo is studying anti-displacement and restorative development modeling with the help of $6.2 million from the Legislature, and St. Paul has offered the campaign $179,000 to date. City officials plan to help the project apply for a grant from the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, dedicated to repairing neighborhoods deprived of wealth by transportation infrastructure.

According to the so-called Twin Cities Boulevard proposal offered by Our Streets (formerly the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition), the 7.5-mile segment of I-94 between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul would be redesigned as a boulevard bounded by economic development and transportation alternatives to cars.

The proposal, inspired by other highway-to-boulevard conversions such as in San Francisco and Rochester, N.Y., was unveiled earlier this year.

“We wanted to bring forward the Twin Cities Boulevard in response to the call to create a project that was truly transformative and that didn’t just repair the highway or reform the highway,” said Alex Burns, Our Streets’ transportation policy coordinator.

The freeway conversion proposal emerged after Our Streets’ organizers door-knocked along the project corridor, talking to residents about freeway noise and the air purifiers they used to mitigate traffic emissions.

“We have met people who were displaced in the initial development of Interstate 94, who didn’t realize it was possible to restore what was there,” said Our Streets Advocacy Director José Antonio Zayas Cabán.

The Twin Cities Boulevard campaign does not yet have a cost estimate. Organizers are eyeing federal transportation funding and hope that Minneapolis and St. Paul will apply for a Reconnecting Communities grant to study the costs and benefits of boulevard conversion. Neither city has yet agreed.

MnDOT has not yet conducted traffic studies or public surveys of support for either the freeway conversion or land bridge alternatives. There are major differences between the two campaigns, which don’t see eye to eye.

Our Streets’ advocates laid out various reasons why they believe a land bridge would be inadequate, since it would leave the freeway “and its resulting impacts in place.” That prompted ReConnect Rondo to ask Our Streets to stand on its own merits rather than attempting “to advance itself by discrediting and undermining the work” of land bridge proponents.

Kauppi said she has been learning about other examples of land bridges and highway conversions, but cautioned that the segment of I-94 in question is unique. It carries about 150,000 vehicles daily, she said.

“Some of the other states, they have a much different traffic volume that they are handling — much lesser,” she said.

In a statement, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said I-94 “should not remain as a wall dividing our communities,” and added that he was glad that “MnDOT will consider all options on the table — including a boulevard conversion — as a part of the rigorous environmental study.”



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Star Tribune

Foundations invest $6 million into new fund to support local journalism in Minnesota

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Some of Minnesota’s largest foundations are backing a new local news fund that’s collected $6 million so far in a five-year effort to bolster local journalism across the state.

Press Forward Minnesota, which launched last January, has raised $6 million in donations so far from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media Group in St. Paul and the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

Mukhtar Ibrahim, who is a consultant on the initiative, said Friday he hopes to get more foundations to support the fund.

“We want to keep the momentum going,” said Ibrahim, former CEO of the Sahan Journal in St. Paul and a former Star Tribune reporter.

The effort is part of a national Press Forward coalition that started last year, aiming to invest $500 million in newsrooms nationwide. Other regions have their own chapters, including Chicago, which has raised about $10 million.

Since 2005, more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the U.S. — almost a third of all newspapers — with Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota losing the most newspapers per capita between 2005 and 2023, according to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

That’s leaving a growing number of communities without any local news source. Research has shown that, when local newspapers close down, fewer people vote or run for local office and cities approve higher bond spending. In Minnesota, eight weekly newspapers closed earlier this year, some after operating for more than a century.

Minnesota’s fund will be administered by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, which will start accepting grant applications this fall. Ibrahim said it’s too early to say how much grants will be, but for-profit and nonprofit news organizations statewide will be eligible to apply.

“This will benefit the whole state,” he said. “We need to see journalism as essential [to fund] as much as public works … it affects the health of a society.”



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Shooter fired from behind fence, killed north Minneapolis man in his car

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A Bloomington man was charged with murder Friday after police said they used surveillance video to place him behind a fence where shell casings were found at the scene of North Minneapolis shooting last month.

Dameon Markese Collins, 23, of Bloomington faces second-degree murder charges in the death of Carl Maurice Woodard, 55, of Minneapolis and is being detained in Hennepin County jail on $1 million bail.

According to the charges:

Police were dispatched to a shooting on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. N. a little before 11 p.m. on June 28. They found a parked car with 13 bullet holes in it. Woodward was in the driver’s seat, unresponsive. His death was later ruled a homicide.

Officers determined the shooting likely came from a hole in a fence that was situated directly next to the passenger seat of the car where Woodard was found. The Minneapolis crime lab found 23 shell casings behind the fence.

Surveillance footage from the area later identified a white Chevy Tahoe that was parked two houses down from Woodard’s car. Police say Collins got out of the car and proceeded to navigate to a nearby alley before walking between two houses on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. to a fenced area near the victim’s car.

The video then shows several muzzle flashes. Shortly afterward Collins is seen running from the scene and getting back into the Tahoe. Phone records also place Collins at the scene of the crime.

After being placed under arrest, Collins gave a statement to police where he acknowledged that he drives a white Tahoe, was wearing the same clothes as the man seen in the surveillance videos and that he knew there was a hole in the fence on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. Collins stated then when he got out of his car it was because he was going to talk to a girl.

Collins is also charged with possessing a pistol without a permit, a misdemeanor. He is due in court next week.



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Rare officer v. officer lawsuit over Hennepin County K9 mauling ordered thrown out by federal appeals court

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A rare excessive force lawsuit pitting Minnesota law enforcement officers against each other after one officer was mauled by another’s K-9 must be dismissed, a federal appeals court ruled this week.

A three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith McNamara in his bid to dismiss a civil suit filed against him last year by a former Champlin police officer attacked by McNamara’s K-9 as the two pursued a suspect together.

Daniel Irish, who now works as a police officer in Brooklyn Park, had alleged that McNamara did not warn others that he had released the K-9 named Thor as police tracked a suspect who had led them on a pursuit into Osseo in March 2022. Irish sued over his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force and unreasonable seizure.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery in August 2023 denied McNamara’s request to dismiss the complaint after he argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity. Montgomery noted that the mauling was a “highly unfortunate accident” but concluded that it was “clearly established” that a seizure occurred within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Irish had argued that McNamara willfully deployed Thor during the pursuit and “objectively intended for him to bite the first person he encountered.”

McNamara countered that he did not “subjectively” intend to seize Irish and that because “the law is unclear as to whether subjective or objective intent should be considered,” it was not clearly established that Thor’s bite was a seizure. The Eighth Circuit panel this week agreed with McNamara and reversed Montgomery’s ruling. The lawsuit now goes back to Montgomery with instructions from the appellate court to dismiss.

Megan Larson, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said Friday that the office was “satisfied with the court’s decision and we have no further comment.”

Irish’s attorneys said he still suffers from the effects of C. difficile and other gastrointestinal ailments brought on by antibiotics taken to treat a deep skin infection caused by Thor’s attack.

“Officer Irish did exemplary policework that day,” said Andrew Noel, an attorney representing Irish. “He is disappointed by the court’s ruling but he continues to serve the people of Brooklyn Park every day.”

Writing for a panel that included Judges Ralph Erickson and Duane Benton, Judge Jonathan Kobes concluded that this case “fits best in the unintended-target line of cases.”

McNamara commanded Thor to go after the fleeing suspect less than a minute before the dog bit Irish. He repeatedly ordered Thor to disengage from Irish and refocused the K9 toward the suspect.

“All told, we cannot say that it was ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official [in Deputy McNamara’s shoes] would understand’ that he acted unlawfully — or even within the scope of the Fourth Amendment. Contrary to Officer Irish’s warning, our decision today does not mean that one police officer could never seize another,” Kobes wrote in the 9-page ruling. “We hold only that it was not clearly established as of March 2022 that an officer in Minnesota could seize a fellow officer with a K9 without subjectively intending to do so.”

The ruling was the second order issued this week from an appellate court regarding a police K-9 attack. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered that the State Patrol can be sued for liability after an unprovoked attack by one of its K-9s on an Owatonna car dealership employee, saying that qualified immunity for the agency does not apply under the state’s dog bite statute.



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