When it came to designing the artistic elements of the new pedestrian bridge over Interstate 35W at East 40th Street, Seitu Jones didn’t have to be taught what the freeway destroyed.
“I grew up around freeway construction, and freeway disruption as well,” said Jones, who was raised within blocks of the rebuilt bridge.
The original bridge to span the freeway at 40th Street was built in the 1960s. It was far narrower than current standards require for a foot/bike bridge. Chain-link fence curved inward at the top, imparting claustrophobia.
The new bridge is part of MnDOT’s 35W@94 project. The project grew out of a push by Lake Street area interests for better access to and from the freeway. But it’s now grown far beyond that with bridge and ramp rebuilds, the reweaving of lanes and stormwater work.
The replacement footbridge is far wider, with an airy open-top feel. The artistic contri- butions from Jones are financed by state road aid money that supplemented the city’s public arts project budget.
Although the new bridge opened to the public last October, the final artistic touches designed by Jones are just being added to the foot and bike span.
There are open-hand bronze medallions on four pilasters at the bridge’s ends. There are Adinkra symbols inspired by West African culture in the middle. And most noticeably — both to drivers on the freeway below and to people crossing the bridge — Jones has created subtle shadings with the bridge rail- ings. They ghost an image of the houses and trees that once lined the erased block between Stevens and 2nd avenues before the freeway trench was gouged.
The freeway’s route also consumed part of what was then Nicollet Field and is now Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Like many such road projects nationally, it segregated the historically Black Central and Bryant neighborhoods from mostly white Kingfield to the west. The Black business district around 38th & 4th withered.
In the process of soliciting community input for the bridge design, Jones said he found that “these tensions still exist.” But one recurring theme from people was that the new bridge could serve as a new connection. The bronze hands are meant to convey a welcome. They’re cast at the nearby Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center. The Adinkra symbols with two alliga- tors sharing one stomach are meant to convey unity and give an Afrocentric touch.
Jones recalled executing many sketches before settling on his design. “My biggest challenge was transferring this sketch into an actual image,” he said.
His partner in that was Kevin Swehla, an engineer and vice president at SRF, the design and engineering firm for the I-35W project. Swehla’s job was to ensure that the concept from Jones could be executed with the stan- dard materials and coatings used by MnDOT for metal bridge railings, while also making sure the railing withstood expected loading. “Behind the scenes, developing this design at a technical level was really complex,” said Mary Altman, the city’s public arts administrator.
The design used vertical palings of varying widths to subtly convey the rooftops and foliage that Jones envisioned. Safety considerations dictated that the railings be vertical rather than climbable horizontal ones. Also for safety reasons, gaps between the palings were limited to four inches.
Most MnDOT pedestrian bridges feature concrete bases and metal fences of uniform height, but Jones was able to vary the height from the bridgeheads to the center, a small deviation from the standard pedestrian bridge. “This is a foot in the door for MnDOT and the feds,” Jones said. He hopes to open that window wider in the future.
For me, the pedestrian bridge replacement is a final punctuation mark on a project I began 25 years ago. That’s when I conceived the first 10 blocks in Kingfield of what became the RiverLake Greenway. Credit should also go to Kingfield’s Steve Jevning, who labored with me, and Sarah Linnes- Robinson, the long-time staffer who keeps the neighborhood association running.
The Kingfield section built in 2001 incorporated bike lanes, and also curb bumpouts before they were widely incorporated into city road design. That element of roadway design evolution is shown by the proposed design for reconstruction of Grand Avenue South. It includes bumpouts at an intersection where city engineers once feared they’d hamper truck and bus turns. It also includes chicanes, a more serpentine type of lane shift intended to slow traffic.
Replacing the old footbridge was on our long-term list but we kept being told that MnDOT had no plans to replace it. That was the case up until the city’s Department of Public Works negotiated with the state to include it. The result is a much more intriguing crossing with the overlay of history and tradition that Jones created.