Will walkers have a place to stop and take in the Mississippi River Valley while strolling over the new Winona bridge? What will Winonans see as they walk beneath the new structure? A new local group put in its two cents on Tuesday. Made up of Winona Area Chamber of Commerce representatives, citizens, and local government staff, the Winona Bridge Project Visual Quality Committee (VQC), met earlier this month and will meet throughout the fall to provide input on aesthetic details of the new bridge.
The group is an advisory committee to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), meaning that the VQC has a voice, but it does not have authority. Mn/DOT will make the decisions. Nevertheless, this fall the VQC will discuss overlooks, bridge piers, railings, landscaping, lighting, and signage. Mn/DOT officials made it clear that the topic of different bridge types — such as the concrete box girder Mn/DOT intends to build or the more expensive arch or cable stays that were considered — is off the table. "The VQC is not going to be allowed to really make any changes to the concrete box girder. All we can deal with are the amenities," explained VQC member Tom Choinski.
In past public discussions, some of the committee members made it clear that the bridge type was their primary aesthetic concern and that they favored an arch or cable stay bridge type. The Chamber, on the other hand, supported the box girder bridge. At the VQC's first meeting, some confusion arose over whether the bridge type was a "a done deal." A recent Winona City Council decision contributed to that confusion. The council gave municipal consent to the bridge project, but attempted to exclude the bridge type from its approval. While Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward advised the City Council they "could do that," just before the vote, afterward he explained that it does not work that way. The council effectively approved the box girder bridge.
There is only one other approval Mn/DOT needs to build the box girder bridge it wants: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) following a federal Environmental Assessment in the fall. Aesthetic concerns are included in the catch-all assessment and opponents could lobby against federal approval on those grounds.
When asked about the limits of the VQC's role, Choinski said, "They're alleging that we are a valuable committee and they will listen to us." He hopes the committee's work can tie into efforts to revitalize Levee Park, downtown, and the riverfront, but the former St. Paul lobbyist does not have much patience for Mn/DOT's claims that it did not have enough money for an arch bridge. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," he added. "We need more support from the top."
Piers and overlooks
The Winona Post went to press before the VQC finalized its recommendation on overlooks and bridge piers. However, there was broad support for overlooks, and Mn/DOT representatives indicated that including the overlooks is a real possibility.
"I don't think anyone is opposed to it," VQC member Colleen Bremer said in an interview. VQC member and Chamber of Commerce affiliate Jordan Hoel agreed. "The visual quality of the bike path and having an overlook into the water" are his top priorities for the new bridge, he said.
Bremer supports concepts to feature artwork or interpretive signs explaining the geology of the river at the overlooks, she said.
"Just to have a nice walk along the river and stop at an overlook would be really nice," said VQC member and Chamber of Commerce affiliate Vicki Englich in an interview.
The group also discussed aspirations and limitations for the design of the new bridge's piers at its first two meetings. Members asked if the piers could be sculpted to look like steamboat smokestacks or other shapes, but Mn/DOT representatives informed the group that the shape of piers cannot be changed, only its surface relief, texture, and color. Several other ideas ran up against structural impossibilities. VQC member and Levee Park committee member Mike Kennedy suggested including embossed images of smokestacks if a flow-blown sculpted pier was not an option. Sometimes, "it is the unwillingness to do it that is the barrier, not the engineering," he told designers.
Pier design is an important decision, Bremer said, because it will affect the aesthetics under the bridge. "There is quite a bit of area under that bridge," she added. "Hopefully that will be something beautiful where people will want to sit," not a place to throw trash. Future discussions of landscaping will be important to that area, Englich pointed out. The under-the-bridge aesthetics may be particularly important if the city follows through on hopes to obtain condemned land west of the bridge for a new park. Whether those hopes will be realized will not be known until after construction, so the VQC will have to make its recommendations without knowing how the area will ultimately be used.
In general, committee members expressed hopes that the new bridge will fit in with the historic bridge and the historic feel of downtown. They want to see "cohesion" as Englich put it in an interview. "I think it should reflect the history and the nature and the feeling of Winona," Bremer said.
What Mn/DOT does with the VQC's recommendations remains to be seen, but the bridge project offers a real opportunity for the VQC to work with the city's Levee Park committee and make "to make the riverfront a real vibrant area," said Choinski.