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  Thursday February 26th, 2015    

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Fate of new bridge staircase uncertain (08/13/2014)
By Chris Rogers
Some Winonans have big dreams for the new bridge: a staircase zigzagging down from the new bridge to Second Street where pedestrians can quickly get from Levee Park to Latsch Island and three blocks of brand new parkland running from Fourth and Huff streets to the river. However, the city of Winona and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) are planning for the possibility that neither entity will be willing to pay for some of those dreams — specifically the staircase — and that the city may seek to redevelop the land between Huff Street and the bridge, according to emails obtained by the Winona Post.

After Mn/DOT selected the least expensive design for the new bridge — the concrete box girder — amid complaints by some city leaders and citizens that the design was unsightly, the state agency formed a group of local citizens dubbed the Visual Quality Committee (VQC) to guide efforts to improve the bridge's visual appeal. The VQC made recommendations on details from bridge color to lighting, and on bigger design elements including pier design, lookouts, parklike landscaping and trails beneath the bridge, and staircase descending from the new bridge's bicycle and pedestrian lane.

Mn/DOT announced in February that the city would need to pay for many of the recommendations. Since then, Winona City Manager Judy Bodway, Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward, and their respective staffs have met several times to negotiate design details and a cost-share agreement. While many of the VQC recommendations are expected to be incorporated into the final design, city staff will have plenty of say, as well.

"We're working with city staff and their desires at a staff level," Ward said of the bridge design details in an interview. "We've done very little final design work on the site plans and we're still making sure what's going into final design is going to hit the mark," he added, referring to the area beneath and beside the bridge.

Bodway and Ward met to discuss cost sharing and the VQC recommendations for the first time on April 14 for about an hour. In an email, Ward explained the purpose of the meeting to Bodway, "I have some preliminary cost estimates of site amenities and bridge items, just to start to get a feel for where the city (you) would like to take things. High-level conceptual costs for now."

In May, Ward emailed to arrange another meeting. "Our final design team is starting to work on the site plans underneath the existing and new bridge. Before we get too [far] along, would you like to have a meeting with your team to make sure we are headed in the right direction? If so, we could also provide an overview of our drainage and storm water management."

Storm water ponds reflect potential city development plans

Mn/DOT must install a series of storm water ponds beneath the new bridge to accommodate runoff from the structure. City leaders have expressed some interest in the opportunity to redevelop temporary right-of-way, properties that Mn/DOT will seize or buy for the project and then sell back to their original owners at market value, or — if the owners decline —to the city for a dollar. A consultant for the city included plans for a 100,000-square foot river interpretative center and a large parking lot to be installed next to the storm water ponds as part of the Levee Park Vision Plan. Mayor Mark Peterson's Levee Park Committee discussed the possibility of a new office building and interpretive center for the Fish and Wildlife Service near or in Levee Park during a nonpublic meeting last fall. At a meeting before the City Council in February, Ward hinted that if the city had any interest in building beside the bridge, Mn/DOT's storm water ponds could be enlarged to accommodate runoff from additional development in the area.

Ward and Bodway finally met again in late June. After the meeting, Ward sent a follow-up email detailing the design changes Mn/DOT planners were working on based on the city feedback, including changes to the ponds and "other site landscape options with and without maximization of redevelopment areas."

Design option to nix staircase follows meeting

In his June email Ward also said that Mn/DOT would work on "developing layout of trail circulation with and without a staircase" for city staff to review at another meeting in late July.

"From the staff and the community, it's been a mixed bag," Ward said in a recent interview when asked what feedback city staff had provided on the staircase. "There's some people who are passionate about the desire to have a staircase and people who are passionate about not having a staircase." When asked what spurred his team to develop design options without a staircase, Ward explained, "Well the staircase presents some different circulation for bikes and pedestrians with it and without, and the staircase takes up some real estate that could be used for a pond."

Bodway said that she had not been provided with a design without a staircase, and when asked if city staff had asked Mn/DOT for an alternative design that eliminated the staircase, she said, "The only thing we've talked about is the location and the materials of which it would be constructed." She and Ward both said that the City Council would ultimately make the decision of whether or not the city wanted a staircase and was willing to pay for it. "We're not making any assumptions on what council will or won't support," Bodway stated.

Bulk of cost-share negotiations still ahead

Unless construction phasing plans are rearranged, Mn/DOT needs the City Council to approve a cost-share agreement for the bridge project by March 2015 to avoid delays. In the last six months, little has been accomplished to decide how the two governments might split the cost of bridge amenities. Mn/DOT provided rough estimates that the VQC recommendations would cost $4.1 million, including $400,000 for the staircase, $320,000 for walls, $324,000 for lighting, and close to $800,000 for paving and walkways. Bodway and Ward both said they had not talked much about how to split the costs, but are confident that they can complete negotiations in time.



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