When the Dale Street bridge over Interstate 94 in St. Paul was recently replaced, the design process — and, more important, the results — steered clear of the same-old, same-old.
Beautiful and meaningful site-specific artworks are an intrinsic component of the project. They're also a primary reason why the Dale Street bridge is a role model for future freeway overpass design. But the bridge's merits move beyond the visual.
With wider sidewalks (they now measure 16 feet) that are physically separated from the roadway by a low barrier, the bridge generously welcomes the people who traverse it while walking, biking, using wheelchairs and pushing strollers. This sensitive remake — which also features intersections with traffic-calming components — recognizes that vehicles are not the only means of transportation.
"Roads and bridges are not just for cars," said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, who represents the area. "They're for all of us."
On either side of the bridge, three-block stretches of the Dale Street roadway were also rebuilt, with safety and aesthetics in mind. Overall, the project is a promising first step in the work to repair the damage that was inflicted on the Rondo neighborhood — the city's thriving Black community — when freeway construction plowed through in the early 1960s.
"This was doing more than laying concrete, this was more than rebuilding a road from one side of the freeway to the other," said Carter. "It was laying the foundation for respecting an area that has been traditionally disenfranchised by engineering projects. It was rebuilding the pathway of our community."
The power of listening
The original bridge went up in 1961 and its last meaningful renovation took place in 1983. Initial replacement plans began percolating seven years ago, when Ramsey County received $5.6 million in construction funding. The $14.7 million project officially opened in August.
If that seems like a long time to replace a quotidian freeway overpass, it is. By design. Seeking consequential engagement with — and feedback from — the public added more than another year to the project.
"We wanted to make sure we got it right," said John Mazzitello, Ramsey County's deputy director of public works.
Mission accomplished. Finally, this busy freeway crossing not only serves the neighborhood, but it also reflects it.
Art plays a major role in the project's success. Rather than asking artists to submit specific proposals, a citizen-led search committee interviewed prospective candidates. Three St. Paulites — Mica Lee Anders, Hawona Sullivan Janzen and G.E. Patterson, all of whom have direct ties to Rondo — made the final cut.
The trio worked collaboratively under the mentorship of another St. Paul artist, Seitu Jones. Inspiration was drawn from the stories and suggestions they painstakingly gathered from a wide variety of opportunities: planning meetings, a neighborhood festival, even canvassing.
Jones, whose portfolio includes public streetscape projects, including stops along the nearby Green light-rail line, helped to transform the artists' creativity into concrete and metal.
"What I've experienced is that engineers are really leery of working with artists, but that's only because it hasn't been done" he said. "After the experience, they're happy, and they say, 'We have to keep doing this.' "
Indeed. Think of how our bleak urban freeway landscape could be transformed, bridge by bridge, overpass by overpass, using the creativity of local artists and the insight of surrounding communities.
"Public works isn't used to the public engagement process, but they got behind it," said Jones. "Artists leading the way is now one of the legacies to include in their tool bucket list when infrastructure like this is created."
Beauty at 60 mph
The bridge's artwork is strategically designed to appeal to a wide audience.
Motorists driving on I-94 can see street maps of the former Rondo neighborhood etched into the abutment walls on either side of the bridge. Looking up to the bridge's railings, they can catch glimpses of colorful plexiglass panels that read "We Are Rondo" and feature stylized representations of acorns.
Oak trees — recalling the oak canopy that once shaded the neighborhood — have a thematic presence throughout the project. Cars approaching the bridge on its two exit ramps are greeted by giant — and gorgeous — silhouettes of oak trees, fashioned in Cor-Ten steel; the rusting metal's coarse texture mimics the roughness of tree bark, and the color suggests the leaves of red oaks in winter.
There's some lovely whimsy at play, especially for pedestrians. Sidewalks on both sides of the bridge are etched with inlaid oak leaves that are set in a follow-along pattern for the Lindy Hop, the popular Swing-era dance. There's also a poem that reads, in part, "oaks were we, acorns were we before, rondo are we now."
"It helped that two of the three artist were poets," said Jones.
To capture the rich global melting pot of Rondo populations past and present, the inclusive "I am Rondo" is stamped in 11 languages into the concrete along the parapet. A powerful wordless message — one that seems to say, "Remember what was here before" — comes in the form of ghostly images of long-gone Rondo houses, set into the bridge's concrete plinths.
"They put the houses back," said Carter. "They're not the physical buildings that housed people, but a remembrance. It's walking through a memory. It's understanding where we've been so we can understand where we're going, it's taking that passage that some of us need to take."
Visually, the bridge also makes an effort to fit into its surroundings, with railings and lamps that echo the same vaguely Beaux-Arts imagery used on neighboring I-94 bridges.
Another plus: The words "Dale Street" run across the bottom of the bridge on both its east and west sides, alerting tens of thousands of daily motorists of their exact location. Here's hoping that such you-are-here representations become standard operating procedure.
"We're taking what we learned from Dale Street — making this a community bridge, and not just a transportation bridge — and applying it to projects within the county," said Mazzitello. "The county is placing a big focus on community engagement and working with stakeholders to make sure that what we're delivering belongs to them."