Midtown Greenway bridges due for artful facelifts

Roughly three dozen aging bridges span the Midtown Greenway trench that runs along 29th Street, and a few dozen artists, architects, community members and engineers are looking for ways to replace them artfully.

They are looking at ways to cut different grating patterns onto the bridge surfaces. As cars pass overhead, they said, each bridge would create a different tone. As bikers and pedestrians pass on trails below, they would get a harmonica effect from bridge to bridge.

Others would have the city build new free- span bridges, those with no support columns, over the Midtown Greenway. Instead, columns of light would illuminate the underside of the bridges, columns that hint at the old-style supports --

an interesting visual effect that would also increase safety.

The Midtown Crossings, a collaboration between the Design Institute of the University of Minnesota and Midtown Community Works Partnership, brought together artists and technicians to brainstorm on bridges and develop ideas such as these.

They seem like pie-in-the-sky in tight budget times, but the visionaries at least have the ear of city and county planners, if not the keys to their pocketbooks.

Janet Abrams, director of the University's Design Institute, said those who eventually design the bridges need "to recognize the importance of having all the disciplines work together in a team right from the beginning, not like the usual phasing -- with public art being added in a separate stage."

"We want to get beyond the appliqu notion, that art is something that you attach at the end," she said.

The Midtown Greenway was built in the early 1900s as a freight rail corridor running parallel to Lake Street, from Lake Calhoun to the Mississippi River. Local government and various citizen groups are working to redevelop the strip into a pedestrian and bike trail and future transit route.

Roughly 35 bridges spanning the Greenway are more than 80 years old, and the city or county will need to repair, replace or demolish most of them during the next three decades, according to a statement from Midtown Crossings.

John Wertjes of the Minneapolis Public Works Department said the Chicago Avenue and Park Avenue bridges over the Midtown Greenway will get rebuilt in 2003, the First Avenue and Stevens Avenue bridges will get rebuilt in 2005, and the Nicollet Avenue bridge is set for 2006.

The city is preparing a Request for Proposals this month for contractors to replace the Chicago Avenue Bridge, Wertjes said; the county will replace the Park Avenue Bridge.

Those concerned about the appearance of the Greenway are encouraging the city to include guidelines for contractors that will assure an artful and unified approach.

"Everyone is thinking of them as being linked," said Wertjes, who attended a recent Midtown Crossings meeting where bridge designs were discussed.

"The vision is, how does the old fit with the new?" Wertjes said. "The challenge is, how do you link all 30 together? Maybe there is an artistic component, a form or design."

The Midtown Crossings design workshop, held last fall, drew people from near and far. Participants included Matthew Reinert, chief lighting designer for the Guthrie Theater; Robin Minard, a sound engineer from Berlin; Marc Mimram, a freelance bridge designer from Paris, and local community activist Marilyn Lindstrom.

They broke into three teams, one focused on a set of bridges around Lyndale Avenue, another on a set of bridges around Nicollet Avenue, and the third group focused on a set of bridges around Chicago Avenue.

The Nicollet Avenue group came up with the idea of creating grating patterns in the bridge's surface to create different sounds, Abrams said. The Lyndale Avenue group came up with the idea of light columns, as well as ideas for vertical gardens and the use of clear concrete to create "light stumps."

"What we are trying to say is that this is an urban park," Abrams said. It is not a rose garden, "but it is a kind of park.

It wasn't made for that purpose, but it presents an opportunity to be that, as well as a transit route."