At design workshop for new Minneapolis bridge, a ho-hum reaction

Bridge piers
The designers of the 35W bridge presented two options for the concrete piers that support the structure.
Image courtesy of MnDOT

The new 35W bridge will be white and will have retaining walls built from Gabain Wall, a stone native to the Mississippi River Valley.

The choices came at the end of a day-long gathering called a charette organized by state transportation officials and the bridge design firm. The invited guests included government officials, architects, planners and neighborhood activists.

Coordinators say the dozens of participants were surprisingly unified around the idea of making the Mississippi River, not the new bridge itself, the focal point of the design. The group chose native materials and colors and shapes that would highlight the beauty of the bridge's surroundings.

MnDOT planner Mike Sobolewski says this focus on the river and the surrounding valley as a key design element is a departure from past public forums, where the bridge was front and center.

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"A white bridge with poor maintenance could be very ugly very quick."

"What's important to people ... keep in mind you're spanning a great asset, something that stretches quite a distance, rolls through many states and has a great history behind it, and that is the Mississippi River," says Sobolewski.

About 80 people participated in the workshop, which culminated in a vote. It was the last in a series of forums aimed at soliciting community opinion on the new bridge plan.

Results of the vote are binding and will be incorporated by the design team into the new bridge.

In addition to choosing white over light brown for color, the group voted overwhelmingly to use open railings to allow for a view of the river. Voting on how to light the structure ended in a tie and will be hammered out in the near future.

While transportation officials are calling the workshop a success, some at the meeting were left wanting more.

"The process is very, very controlled," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design. "We're given just a couple of options, and the whole thing is set up so there's no sort of challenging, is this the right question?"

To Fisher, the design was nothing spectacular.

"It's just pretty much what you'd expect a highway bridge to look like," he said.

Irene Jones directs outreach for the group Friends of the Mississippi. Jones says overall she is pleased with the workshop's results, but she was hoping to hear more from officials about other elements, and other bridge-related projects that were not on the table.

"We were often given an opportunity to choose between two things or three things. And I think some people felt like they would like to blend some of those options, or look at some other possibilities," said Jones. "I think that the team will take that into consideration, because I think there is still an opportunity to make nuanced changes to what's been determined today."

The state official managing the bridge reconstruction says the lead design firm, Figg Bridge Engineers, will take into consideration the feedback on design elements that were not put to a vote.

In keeping with Minnesota's no-nonsense reputation, some questions centered on the practical: Will the support piers attract pigeons? Will graffiti taggers find a new canvas in the structure? And what exactly will a white bridge look like after a couple of gritty Minnesota winters?

"As a state, we're historically not the best on maintenance -- obviously or we wouldn't have had a bridge fall in the river," said Jerry Foss, who lives near the bridge. "A white bridge with poor maintenance could be very ugly very quick."

Linda Figg promised that the bridge will have a coating that resists spray paint, and pointed out that many bridges in the area are light-colored and survive the winters without looking too grimy.

The firm will reveal the final design in the next few weeks.

Construction on the new bridge's foundation is expected to begin by Nov. 1. The $234 million dollar bridge project is slated for completion by December of 2008.