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Keeping the Stone Arch Bridge open should be mandatory for downtown Minneapolis, and other bridge observations

Why close a car-free bridge when the crimes in question involve cars? Also, let’s celebrate St. Paul’s High Bridge while calling out that the Hennepin Avenue bridge is the Chrysler PT Cruiser of bridges.

Closed Stone Arch Bridge
The Stone Arch Bridge is the best public space in Minneapolis, the urban icon that literally appears on nearly every tourism video, public relations campaign, and in generations of prom photos.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Everyone seems to agree that downtown Minneapolis, whether on the brink or the cusp, is poised at a pivotal moment where something needs to happen. Minneapolis is not alone, as post-COVID work patterns have swept through Midwestern downtowns like a tsunami of emptiness. The correct reaction from city leaders has been to place more emphasis on street life. Now more than ever, downtowns need to foster vitality, a critical mass of “eyes on the street,” and other urbanist clichés.

This is why it boggles the mind that Minneapolis and its Park and Recreation Board (MPRB, the elected entity managing Minneapolis park space) closed the car-free Stone Arch Bridge during the evenings of a key holiday weekend. 

The Stone Arch Bridge is the best public space in Minneapolis, the urban icon that literally appears on nearly every tourism video, public relations campaign, and in generations of prom photos. It’s important because public spaces, where people from all over the region come together, attract vitality creating a virtuous cycle. Nothing else even comes close downtown; it’s the one part of the city where all walks of life cross paths, from CEOs to conventioneers to the unsheltered.  

No matter how many times you’ve done it, crossing the Stone Arch Bridge remains unique. Last Thursday, the evening before MPRB closed the bridge, the bridge boasted the diversity of the Twin Cities. I saw everyone from new immigrants to Minneapolis lifers, street musicians, convention-goers, joggers, downtown lanyard types, and more. It’s the only place in the city that consistently passes the street musician test: If there aren’t buskers on the Stone Arch Bridge at sunset, the streets of Minneapolis should be deemed lifeless. 

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This is why Minneapolis needs the Stone Arch Bridge open all the time. Not only was this weekend’s closure useless security theater — touted routinely during news broadcasts, because “something must be done” — but it misdiagnoses the problem. For weeks, Minneapolis has been plagued by public safety issues coming from suburban teens driving cars through dense areas of the city, often using fireworks to assault passers-by.

These kinds of mayhem require the use of an automobile, which means that the car-free Stone Arch Bridge is the last place you need to close. Far better to bring back the impromptu idea in Council Member Michael Rainville’s Ward 3  from last year, which installed traffic diverters in the posh Mill District. We should curb reckless driving and drive-by assaults by changing our streets, not our parks.

Cordoning off the city’s best public space flies in the face of the rhetorical and/or earnest efforts from city leaders to bring people back downtown. Instead, the city needs to ensure it prioritizes public space, walking, bicycling, and romantic after-dinner strolls, over vague concerns about teens. Let’s hope closing the Stone Arch Bridge never happens again.  

The Chrysler PT Cruiser of bridges

In other bridge news, I struggle to contain a petty response to the recent column by longtime curiosity seeker, James Lileks, that appeared in this week’s Star Tribune. I’ve been a Lileks fan for decades, ever since I happened across his Minneapolis Gateway district history website 20 years ago, chock full of photos I hadn’t seen before.

But his column on the “Five Best Bridges of Minneapolis and St. Paul” was like a red flag to a bull. I have nits to pick.

For one thing, declaring the Hennepin Avenue Bridge to be the “best in show” is a stick in the eye. On the contrary, other than the interstates, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge is the worst bridge in Minneapolis. Its basic problem is that it’s far too wide, by which I mean that the traffic lanes are too wide, and there are too many of them.

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(The poor design is the root cause of one of the only two speeding tickets I’ve ever gotten in my quarter-century of driving. There used to be a notorious speed trap on the bridge’s  northeast side, making it the perfect spot to nab drivers. It’s almost impossible not to go over 30 mph on a bridge that looks and feels like an interstate highway; I was going 41 in 2004 and paid the price.)

Other than the misleading road design, the sidewalks are both wide and unpleasant, while simultaneously leaving the bike lanes too exposed. The bridge deck offers a nearly unblemished expanse of pale concrete that creates almost no sense of place and precious little awareness that you’re crossing over the Mississippi’s greatest waterfall.

Hennepin Avenue Bridge
Fake cables and unprotected concrete sidewalks make the Hennepin Avenue Bridge look like a video game rendering from the 1990s.
Finally, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge is fundamentally dishonest, a sham of a design.  The eye-catching towers are structurally useless, the suspension cables a fake homage to the 19th century holding up nothing. They are purely for show in such a garish way that it reminds me of the Michael Graves addition to MIA, another faux-historic dud. It’s the bridge equivalent of the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

If the county ever reconstructs the bridge deck, it should remove a lane of traffic and expand the sidewalk to include a bike lane (a la the Franklin Avenue bridge). There should be a barrier protecting the non-motorized space, and offering refuge for anyone wanting to take a photo of the river. The goal should also be to reduce speeds, somehow, to a more reasonable number. 

The gloriously positioned High Bridge

Finally, the biggest fault of Lilek’s column was that, somehow, he declared the Ford Parkway-46th Street Bridge to have cities’ “best view.” Assuredly, this is Smith Avenue High Bridge erasure. 

Angling down sharply from the West Side bluffs, St. Paul’s half-mile-long high bridge is by far the most gloriously positioned bridge in the Twin Cities metro. The view is both captivating and addictive, and in both directions. To the west, wide bluffs sweep gently around the curve that traces the St. Paul’s southern border. Following the river up stream, you’d find Fountain Cave and eventually the confluence that forms the epicenter of the Twin Cities in the first place.

A view from the High Bridge in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A view from the High Bridge in St. Paul.
To the east, of course, downtown St. Paul shines in its best possible light. Lilydale Road, the dog park, Xcel’s gas power plant lie under your feet, but St. Paul sits in front of your eyes, atop its white cliffs with the whole landscape of the working river, and a century and a half of commerce, laid out before you like a pop-up book. There’s a reason why this image graces the cover of my St. Paul book, and why the mundane view from the Ford Parkway bridge does not. 

In short, we should pay closer attention to our bridges, take them seriously, and appreciate what we have that connects across our great divides.