A historic but crumbling pedestrian span in St. Paul's Como Park that for decades has literally been a "bridge to nowhere" is on its way to a new life.
The 110-year-old Como Park pedestrian bridge in its day was hailed as an early example of the "Melan arch" style of steel-reinforced concrete bridges named for Austrian engineer Josef Melan, who conceived them in the late 19th century.
But it languished for decades. Built to allow people to walk over streetcar rails running through the park's main entrance at Lexington Parkway and Horton Avenue, it lost its functionality after the streetcar service was eliminated in 1954.
The bridge quickly fell into disrepair after that. Chunks of concrete began falling off, vandals destroyed its original railings and it was eventually fenced off to protect visitors.
Though designated as a historic landmark in 1989, the 50-foot-wide arch remained little more than a weedy ruin because it was unconnected to the park's trail system.
The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department initially began looking into what it would take to merely keep the span from collapsing. Officials discovered in an engineering study that it was much sturdier than originally thought, leading to the possibility that it could not only be stabilized but reinstated as a functional landmark for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The city, using a $719,000 grant from the federal transportation enhancement program and $448,000 from its own coffers, announced the rehab effort in 2012. The work included not only restoring the bridge itself, but also constructing links into Como Park's 2.3-mile system of paved trails.
It was initially thought work would get underway the next year, but then the plan ran into delays.
Calls to the parks department weren't returned, but city documents indicate the first set of construction bids came in too high. Then, the contractor first chosen for the project went out of business, which necessitated a rebidding process.
The work was also delayed when it was learned that the Minnesota Department of Transportation would have the final say on the project due to the bridge's status as a historic landmark, and that needed replacement railings may not be covered under its budget.
But the project finally got off the starting line in October after the Minnesota Historical Society awarded the parks department a $220,000 grant under its Historical and Cultural Heritage program, funded through the state's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. The additional money allowed it to proceed, said Amy Brendmoen, the St. Paul City Council member whose ward includes the footbridge.
"I was thinking we wouldn't even get started this year, but now they've pulled the trigger," Brendmoen said. "I live just about a half-block away from the project, and it's been rapid. This fall they're doing the path reconstruction and the bridge reconstruction will happen in spring."
The new paths, she said, will bring pedestrians and bicyclists closer to the park's nearby historic streetcar station, which was built shortly after the footbridge in 1905 and restored in 2002 as a pavilion, interpretive center and park employee office.
"The way they've been realigned will leverage what was already done with the streetcar station," she said. "The new bike path will go both under and over the bridge, which in both cases will draw you closer to the station. It's a lovely stone building that adds so much to the neighborhood."
The renovation designs were developed by Boston-based architect Miguel Rosales of Rosales + Partners, who specializes in bridge aesthetics and design. Among his recent projects are the Longfellow Bridge rehabilitation in Boston and the North Coast Harbor pedestrian bridge in Cleveland.
He told a community meeting last year that the restored bridge will give Como Park a major new amenity.
"The bridge has a good width at 50 feet, and will come to a peak in the middle," Rosales said. "It's at a high point in the park, and so this will provide a very nice view."
He added the underlying arch will also be illuminated at night, giving it a dramatic effect in a cost-effective way.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.