Bringing New Light to Greenway Bridge Design

All kinds of new light will be pouring into the Midtown Greenway, if bridge builders adopt the concept for the bridge replacements at Chicago and Park Avenues proposed by Julie Snow Architects. The architectural firm delivered its preliminary conceptual design on July 11, and there is a growing buzz of excitement over the results. Over the last few weeks, the design has been shared with the community for comment and feedback. Jon Wertjes, the engineer for Minneapolis Public Works who is managing the concept design phase of the project, says that the response to the conceptual design has been overwhelmingly positive.

The City’s original $50,000 design budget for these two bridges was boosted by the contribution of another $25,000 from MCW partners Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Target, and $25,000 from the city’s public art budget. This additional funding enabled the City and the County to adopt an enhanced design process. According to Wertjes, the enhanced design process helped bring the community into the project. “The funding partnership worked well, in part because the Midtown Community Works members are part of the community,” he explains. “By stepping up to help fund and participate in the design process, they helped to reinforce the community’s investment in the Greenway’s bridges.” Council Member Robert Lilligren is also pleased with the design process. "I see this bridge design process as a model for how we should approach infrastructure and public art in the City," he said. "This is breaking new ground and is really an exciting partnership."

New Design Approach

Wertjes believes that the Julie Snow team possessed a number of attributes that led to its selection, including a deep interest in the community process, demonstrated expertise, and a broad, multi-disciplinary approach. In developing the design, Julie Snow Architects collaborated with a landscape architect, a graphic artist, a lighting artist, a sound artist, engineers, and a community representative. Martha McQuade, who is the project manager for the Julie Snow Architect team, points out that this particular design process was unique because it emphasized the incorporation of art into the bridge design from the outset. “In the past, the process for municipal projects involving art began with an engineer designing the underlying infrastructure, followed by the addition of the art,” says McQuade. “With this project, the art is integrated from the very beginning. The work already in the Greenway and the existence of the master plan for public art paved the way for that to happen, and also helped to guide our work as we began to develop the design.”

Wertjes is excited about the design, which he describes as “fresh, inventive, and integrated with the community process. The design sets the right tone without restricting the possibilities for subsequent bridge designs, and leaves open the door for interaction with new bridges, whether adjacent or elsewhere along the Greenway.” McQuade emphasizes that, on many different levels, the design reflects the community’s involvement in the process.

Seeking Safety and Light

“ Early on, it became clear that one of the community’s biggest concerns was making these two bridges safe, and overcoming the entrenched perception that they are dark and dangerous places,” says McQuade. “For that reason, the design strives to open up the bridges and fill the underside with light, creating a welcoming space. For instance, separating the pedestrian path and the vehicle path allows extra light to filter into the area beneath the bridges. At night, the bridges will be lit from below, creating a volume or room of light.”

Julie Snow Architects' preliminary conceptual design for the Chicago Avenue bridge.

“ We also realized that if we could make the bridges attractive places for children to play, we would have really succeeded in our goal of transforming the bridges into safe, community places,” continues McQuade. Working with a sound engineer, the team designed the walls under the Chicago Avenue bridge to curve so that they act as parabolic reflectors, which will allow people under the bridges to experiment with sound and echo. On the Park Avenue bridge, sound tubes underneath the bridge will connect with the green space on Park, creating a similar opportunity to play with sound while simultaneously emphasizing the connection of the street with the Greenway.

Julie Snow Architects' preliminary conceptual design for the Chicago Avenue bridge.

Julie Snow Architects' preliminary conceptual design for the Chicago Avenue bridge.

Orienting to the Greenway

As McQuade points out, emphasizing this connection is another crucial element of the design. “The original bridges were naturally designed to deflect attention from the railway corridor, and to discourage the public from entering it,” she explains. “With these new bridges, the goal is exactly the opposite. We designed the pedestrian path along both Park and Chicago to dip slightly toward the Greenway, highlighting the connection between the pedestrian activity above and below. At the same time, the vehicle path rises slightly, alerting drivers to the fact that they are passing over something special, and giving them an opportunity to glance down the Greenway. Finally, under both bridges, the area between the pedestrian and vehicle paths will be a vertical garden, spilling down the walls and reinforcing the connection, above to below.”

Eric Eoloff, Director of Community Relations at Abbott Northwestern, has been a participant throughout the bridge design process, and he is enthusiastic about the result. "I'm excited by the innovation of this design," says Eoloff. "It achieves the goal of encouraging pedestrians to enjoy the Greenway by day, while also incorporating light underneath the bridges to invite use of the space by night."

The next step is to submit the design to the approval processes of the State Historic Preservation Office, the City and the County. The architects will continue to refine the design in response to feedback from these entities, with a focus on ensuring that it is buildable, affordable, and continues to reflect community input. Once a final, approved design is complete, County and City engineers will develop construction plans, with construction planned for 2004.