Sell the VM Bridge, help both cities.

Downtown Mankato has a pretty active dining and drinking scene. It slows a bit during the summer because a lot of the bars are college bars, but it’s still pretty good. Likewise, Lower North Mankato (Belgrade Ave) also has a pretty active dining and drinking scene, now with a bit of retail mixed in, but I think we can make both spots even better.


They’re both good (getting better, Belgrade needs bigger sidewalks, more on street parking and trees) places to be, but you don’t see a lot of people swapping between the two. Lower North definitely has its regiment of loyal diners likewise with downtown Mankato.

Why is it like this? The Veterans Memorial Bridge connects Belgrade in Lower North with Downtown Mankato, it’s a pretty easy walk to the bridge, but that’s when walkability takes a bit of a nose dive.

The bridge services cars looking to get on to Highway 169 (a major southern MN artery). At current counts it handles roughly 23k cars a day, a hefty number for a small town, it’s a crucial piece of infrastructure for both cities. The problem we run into though is that it was made really only for cars. There’s no bike lanes, and if you’ve ever been on the bridge, it’s sidewalks are literally a foot raised off the road and rather narrow. The bridge was built during a period that walking and biking weren’t that cool, however, it’s becoming more and more prominent and the bridge should adjust to get pedestrians over the river.

My suggestion? Sell it.

Crazy right? Yeah you betcha it’s a crazy idea, so crazy that it might just work.

I realize the following proposal has some flaws, but it’s more so to get people thinking than an actual proposal.

During CNU I listened to the three-hour “Urbanism 101” talk by Jeff Speck. In his slide show he showed this image:

HighStreetCap-1

Ariel view of the bridge.

This is the I670 cap in Columbus, Ohio. Let me give you the skinny on it. There was a conference center neighborhood on one side, a pretty diverse neighborhood with great shops and restaurants on the other. However, said neighborhood wasn’t doing well because the people from the conference center weren’t walking over this interstate bridge to get there basically because the bridge sucked.

Cap_at_Union_Station

A street view of the bridge. You can hardly tell it’s even a bridge.

That’s my summary of the situation. Here’s the Urban Land Institutes:

“The Cap at Union Station is a $7.8 million retail development that reconnects downtown Columbus, Ohio, with the burgeoning Short North arts and entertainment district. Opened in October 2004, the project effectively heals a 40-year scar that was created by the construction of the city’s I-670 inner-belt highway. Composed of three separate bridges—one for through-traffic across the highway, and one on either side for the retail structures—the Cap provides 25,496 square feet of leasable space, transforming the void caused by I-670 into a seamless urban streetscape with nine retail shops and restaurants. While other cities like Seattle and Kansas City have erected convention centers over urban highways, the I-670 Cap is one of the first speculative retail projects built over a highway in the United States.”

The city decided to invest 1.9 million to expand the bridge by 80 feet. They then gave the site to a developer. Meleca Architects out of Columbus took the bridge and put retail on it, thus creating an awesome connection between the Short North neighborhood and the Conference Center area.

The Short North is now one of the best neighborhoods in Columbus, thanks almost exclusively to this bridge.

OKAY. So what about Mankato/North Mankato?

YES. SHUT UP. I KNOW. Columbus is WAY bigger than Mankato, it has more money, the bridge is shorter so on and so forth.

We all know that downtown Mankato is coming back and it’s a place where people want to be. We also know that this bridge is a huge divider between downtown proper and old town Mankato. The bridge on the Mankato side is flanked by the Blue Earth County library and by a big, open, undeveloped lot (which is supposed to be Bridge Plaza?) The library is a trip generator for a lot of Mankatoans(?) (I’m just going to call you “Manks”) but the bridge and the undeveloped lot prevent a lot of people from making it to our beautiful, stroad-ridden, oldtown.

If we were to develop the bridge, primarily on the northwest side, it would have to be in tandem (mmm…bagels) with better pedestrian and bike access across both sides of the bridge. I don’t think that a full on development of all 753 ft of the bridge would be a good idea, but rather a small portion of the lower northwest side and maybe a bit of the northeast side as well. Here’s a visual:

bridge-dev

By putting development on the bridge and at the end of the bridges, it gives people a reason to cross it which benefits both cities.

The bridge will be due for an upgrade in the near future as next year is it’s 30 year anniversary. I remember hearing a rumor that state money was floating around to make the bridge better, but I don’t know if anything ever came of it.

I think that having the increased pedestrian/bike/PS is really important because basically right now our river is behind a God-forsaken soviet style wall with little access. This could also be a staging spot for more events on the bridge, much like we do on the 4th of July fireworks. Maybe even some trees? Who knows…

There would be a lot of challenges with a project like this. Tons of zoning ordinance exemptions, setback exemptions, building on state right of ways, but I think it would be worth it because it would be unique to the city of Mankato and to the upper midwest. Columbus definitely isn’t the first city to do this, the Ponte Vecchio and the London Bridge did it way before. I think the song “London Bridge is Falling Down” came from the idea that there was too much stuff built on the bridge and it was structurally failing. The Ponte Vecchio was built in 1345 and seems to be doing ok. The good ‘ole days, ya know?

Yes, this project would require a good deal of private/public investment, but so did Front Street and so will Nicollet Mall. I assume the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

Maybe this should be an MDM post, but I decided just to make it a general post because Columbus did something similar and I think we could too.

 

Creativity is the key to everything, including land use.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.