Image: Minn. bridge collapse
Jim Mone  /  AP
The Minneapolis skyline is shown in the distance in this view last year of the Interstate 35W bridge which collapsed into the Mississippi River.
updated 9/14/2008 3:01:02 PM ET 2008-09-14T19:01:02

The new Interstate 35W bridge, replacing one whose deadly collapse into the Mississippi River scarred the city's image and emotions, may be getting kudos for opening ahead of schedule and restoring a vital traffic link.

But it's not generating a lot of excitement for its appearance.

Some had hoped the new concrete box girder structure due to open this week would rise as an architectural jewel near downtown Minneapolis.

"We had an opportunity to build a signature bridge, and we didn't take it," said Jerry Foss, a real estate agent who lives nearby. "They chose an average bridge, and we got an average bridge."

Government officials opted for practicality over pretension. "The first goal was to have a bridge that was safe and effective," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

Time also was a factor, since the old steel girder span's collapse on Aug. 1, 2007 — killing 13 people and injuring more than 100 — severed a major transportation link through the heart of the Twin Cities.

Opening is ahead of time
This week's opening will come about three weeks ahead of schedule.

Rybak said the new span's appearance actually is an asset.

"I think the bridge does an excellent job of visually tying together a riverfront filled with great points of interest that need unity," Rybak said. He asked that critics withhold final judgment until extensive landscape architecture around the bridge is finished next year.

The new bridge is just a stone's throw from the bracingly modern Guthrie Theater overlooking the river, a lushly landscaped city park, St. Anthony Falls, several distinctive car and pedestrian bridges, a collection of massive stone buildings that once housed historic flour mills, and clusters of luxury condos.

"It doesn't stick out like a sore thumb," said Ann Calvert, a Minneapolis city official who sat on a visual design advisory panel for the project. "This new bridge could have been something wildly dramatic, but it also might have distracted from some of the historic and interesting features in the area."

Or as Linda Figg, the president of the firm that designed the bridge, put it: "Elegant simplicity."

That sounds like "a pretty good example of making virtue out of necessity," said Ben Heywood, who runs an art gallery near the north end of the bridge. Still, he said he was more pleased than he'd expected.

Improved view of skyline
He noted that the new bridge's design provides an improved view of the downtown skyline for motorists.

And Figg said designers tried to incorporate suggestions that they make it easier for people to see the Mississippi River while driving over the bridge, with wider spacing between the guardrail posts.

"On the old one, you didn't even know you were on a bridge, much less crossing the country's greatest river," said Melissa Bean, who lives just north of the bridge. "If they've remedied that, it's a good thing."

Another design element carries the water theme further: At both ends of the bridge, the spots where the span passes from land to water will be marked with two sets of three vertical concrete "waves" standing more than 30 feet tall.

"It's to let the driver know in a sculptural way that they are crossing the river," Figg said.

Heywood, the art gallery director, said that considering what happened to the old bridge it might have been tacky to replace it with a soaring attention grabber.

"Do we really deserve a showpiece of a bridge?" Heywood asked. "You wonder if we should just say 'we don't deserve something too nice.' We should just build a bridge and be thankful that not more people died."

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