A bridge to overcome barriers

Van White Memorial Boulevard Bridge links north and south neighborhoods

Construction of Van White Memorial Boulevard began in 2002. The final section opened Aug. 21. Credit: Dylan Thomas

BRYN MAWR — It wasn’t just a physical link between neighborhoods created when an extension of Van White Memorial Boulevard opened in August.

For many who attended the Aug. 21 ribbon-cutting ceremony on the longer of the street’s two new bridges — a 600-foot span crossing a BNSF Railway line and the Cedar Lake Trail — the opening was also a step in overcoming longstanding racial and economic divisions between north and south Minneapolis.

“It’s big to me,” said Harrison neighborhood resident Pamela McClain, one of several dozen people who gathered in sweltering heat for the ceremony. “I consider it a victory for the Harrison neighborhood and the African-American community.”

The $22.3-million bridge and street project was named in honor of Van White, Minneapolis’ first black City Council member, who represented the 5th Ward from 1980 to 1990. White died in 1993 at age 68.

Planning for the north-south boulevard began after a federal court approved the Hollman Consent Decree in 1995, settling a class-action lawsuit filed against the city by public housing residents.

Ward 10 City Council Member Lisa Goodman said the new street was “more than a transit way,” it was a “symbol” for commitment the city made in 1995 to de-concentrate poverty on the North Side and open up new connections to other parts of the city. On its north end, Van White Memorial Boulevard runs through another direct outcome of that decision: the Heritage Park redevelopment that replaced public housing with a new mixed-income neighborhood, now home to more than 600 families.

“For me, this is an example of promises made, promises kept,” Goodman said, using a phrase she would repeat in her public comments at the bridge opening.

The first section of Van White Memorial Boulevard opened in 2002. The boulevard intersects Plymouth Avenue in the north and, with completion of this final section, now runs under Interstate 394 to connect with Dunwoody Boulevard at its south end.

For Harrison residents and others living on the North Side, the boulevard is a convenient new route into downtown and south Minneapolis neighborhoods. Vicki Moore said she’d opt to taken Van White Memorial Boulevard rather than “the tangle of Lyndale” on trips to the Walker Art Center with her granddaughter, Ellie, who joined her at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

But the street runs both ways, and Moore said it also had potential to bring visitors into Harrison and spur development in a neighborhood with high unemployment. Standing on the bridge, she imagined what the area would look like several years in the future when, if plans come to fruition, passengers on a new Southwest Light Rail Transit Line connecting Minneapolis to Eden Prairie will get on and off trains at Van White Station.

“When I see this area, I see people, I see restaurants, I see businesses,” Moore said.

Key to that vision is redevelopment of Bassett Creek Valley, a 230-acre area located between the Harrison and Bryn Mawr neighborhoods on the western edge of downtown.

Vida Ditter, a Byrn Mawr resident who serves on the Bassett Creek Valley Redevelopment Oversight Committee [ROC], called the bridge opening a “very significant” step in the master plan for the valley. A City Council-endorsed vision for the area’s future includes residential buildings, office towers and parkland replacing the city impound lot and Linden Yards, a city storage area filled with piles of crushed concrete, soil and other materials.

“This opens up the innards of Bassett Creek Valley,” Ditter said.

Among those present at the ribbon cutting was Rick Collins, vice president of development for Ryan Companies, which currently controls development rights to a portion of the valley. Collins said the opening of the bridge added to evidence that the valley was a “legitimate redevelopment site,” and could help in attracting potential tenants.

“Prior to this point, you could see the site but you couldn’t really physically access the site,” he said. “… Now what we need is the economy to get better.”