Work With What You Have (and Repeat)

Minneapolis has since August 1 been a focus of international attention focused on the disastrous collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. In addition to the human impact of the event, much discussion has developed around the design of the forty-year-old bridge’s successor, and whether the new span will be multimodal or remain exclusive to cars and trucks. The catastrophic failure of the bridge, which served 140,000 vehicles per day in and out of downtown, is a high-profile opportunity to think about Minneapolis’ future form.

“The reinvention test,” a recent article in the Economist magazine, spoke to the need for cities to metamorphose over time. The editors conducted a survey of global livability rankings of major cities, and Minneapolis earned a place among the top 50 – along with just twelve other American cities. How the I-35W bridge is to be used – what combination of modes will be served, and the boldness of design chosen to span the dramatic portion of river gorge – is a physical symbol of how Minneapolitans envision their city of tomorrow.

The city has closely related experience on which to call. Just one half mile from where the bridge rests in the river is the center of the riverfront district. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the district was transformed into an interconnected system of flour mills. The work of engineers who constructed a water power system to harness the river’s water flow to power the mills is evident in the attached drawing (Download Fuller1873.jpg, courtesy of the Institute for Minnesota Archeology). The canal shown was concealed beneath a timber road bed, and the tailraces from the mills are shown as dotted lines.

The period 1880-1930 is recognized as the heyday of Minneapolis flour power. After 1930, changes in the market tilted against Minneapolis, and by 1960 the riverfront was in various stages of decline and neglect. Over a period of thirty years, leaders in Minneapolis have committed $299 million in public investments to infrastructure, environmental remediation, public facilities and parks. As of mid-2007, $1.56 billion of private investment has been placed along the riverfront in the form of condominiums, hotel rooms and commercial space.  In the last thirteen years, the estimated market value in the district has risen from $34 million to $334 million, in today’s dollars – an annual compounding increase of 19.2%.  The following "before and after" images are presented courtesy of the City of Minneapolis:

Second_st_beforeSecond_st_after_3 The comprehensive reuse of the unique landscape and structures left behind from the milling era suggests Minneapolis knows the demands of the reinvention test. Communities around the country are reinventing riverfronts, as discussed in this book released this month.  I hope the significant opportunity to use a new bridge as a multimodal landmark is addressed with the same commitment.

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