Grand Avenue Bridge scheduled to be replaced next year. Other arch bridges over the Des Moines River to follow?
The City of Des Moines cannot seem to keep itself out of the spotlight lately, when it comes to historic bridges and preservation. While the city finished second in the Ammann Awards in the category of City Tour Awards for US historic bridges, and an agreement was made on a joint venture to restore the Green Bridge over the Raccoon River at Fifth Avenue SW, trouble is now looming for one of its treasured landmarks: the arch bridges. When we talk about arch bridges, it does not necessarily mean the modern structures we see at Center Street over the Des Moines River that was built in 2010 or the George Washington Carver Bridge spanning the Raccoon River at Martin Luther King Drive that was built in 2005, or even the tied arch pedestrian crossings that span I-235 and were built at the same time.
We’re talking about the concrete arch bridges that are over 100 years old and are in need of some upgrades to accommodate increasing traffic in Des Moines. The first bridge in line for an upgrade is the Grand Avenue Bridge, spanning the Des Moines River. Built in 1918, the 495-foot long bridge features six closed spandrel arch bridges, built using two different types of concrete resembling two different colors. This was one of the typical works designed by James B. Marsh and built by Koss Construction Company, both prominent firms serving Des Moines during that time. Despite being the youngest of the four arch bridges spanning the Des Moines River in Iowa’s state capital, recent inspection reports found deterioration that was worst than anticipated. End result: instead of extensive rehabilitation, the City has recently decided to tear down the bridge in 2015 and replace it with a new bridge.
The question is with what design? Some city council members are advocating a generic bridge type, featuring either a girder or beam design, which would be the cheapest. Yet, opposition to that plan has sprung into force almost immediately, not only within the city council, but from many residents and media news outlets, some going as far as Miami! Jack Porter, former city council member and current preservation architect working for the Iowa Historical Society mentioned in a news interview that the Grand Avenue Bridge presented an obstacle when it was originally built and it later tied the city together, connecting the city center with the eastern parts of the city. He believes that the new design should replicate the one that is scheduled to be replaced. He is backed by city council member Chris Coleman, who supports the plan to have a structure that conforms to the historic district. Yet Deputy City Engineer Pam Cooksey believes that the arch design does not meet state standards. She supports a modern structure.
While the design for the new Grand Avenue Bridge is being considered, keeping the arch design in mind, other arch bridges are being targeted for a thorough inspection to determine their needs as well. The city council recently hired local bridge company Shuck-Britson to undertake this mission together with several other bridges in the city, regardless of bridge type. This is the same company that had previously inspected the Cascade Bridge in Burlington and the Green Bridge in Des Moines, the latter of which prompted its immediate closure in March 2013 to all cyclists and pedestrians. The bridges in visier of the inspection by SB include the Court Avenue Bridge, Walnut Street Bridge, Locust Avenue Bridge, Red Pedestrian Bridge, and the Meredith Trail Arch Bridge. A link to these bridges, profiled by the Chronicles last year can be accessed here.
This leads to the question of the future of the arch bridges, for if the other bridges are targeted for replacement, how will that affect the city and its logo, “The City of Arches?” Christine Hensley in an interview with the Miami Herald claimed that it would be a mistake not to maintain the arch bridges. Des Moines has had a record of destroying many places of historic interest over the past two decades, including the destruction of the Chicago and Great Western Railroad Bridge last year, a multiple-span through truss bridge spanning the Des Moines River that had been sitting abandoned for many years. Another Grand Avenue arch bridge spanning Walnut Creek was replaced with a generic structure a year earlier. And while the city has been transforming itself to make it attractive and pedestrian friendly on one hand, but protect it from massive floods that put portions underwater in 1993, 2008 and 2011, some of the transformation has come at the expense of the historic places that had been part of the city’s history. In some cases, the attempt to integrate modernism into a historic district ended badly with the modern structures becoming an eyesore.
Some residents are suspecting foul play as the City is looking at modernizing at any cost, selling the safety issue of the bridge and the high costs for rehabilitation as reasons for demolishing the Grand Avenue Bridge and replacing it with a modernized structure. Others see the project as the first of successive bridge projects being tied together with plans to raise the dikes and structures to allow for the Des Moines River to flow more freely, especially during flooding. Already in the works is raising the Red Bridge by four feet with portions of the dikes to be raised at the expense of the historic levies dating back to the 1920s. Yet the question remains: how often do the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers flood the city, and is this grand project worth its cost, especially if it comes at the expense of the city’s downtown arch bridges?
And while some people in the forum have claimed a bridge is a bridge and we should build something that lasts, the fight to save the arch bridges in Des Moines has already begun, with government officials and the majority of the city’s population and businesses backing ways to preserve them to conform to the surroundings of the historic business district, which includes the corridore connecting downtown and its bridges with the State Capitol. And no wonder, as there are plenty of examples of arch bridges that have been strengthened and widened, but restored to their original forms. This includes the bridges in Erfurt, Germany, six of which received the same treatment as what many are hoping should be done with the Grand Avenue Bridge (see the Chronicles’ articles here).
Still there is a year a left, and the plan for replacing the Grand Avenue Bridge is in the early stages. Yet there will be many questions to be answered as to how the new bridge will look like, if it is necessary to replace it to begin with. People from many groups, including the Friends of the Green Bridge, Lost Des Moines and the City’s Historical Society will be watching over the developments very carefully to see how this project will impact the other bridges in the city. Will the bridge be like the rest or stick out like a modern sore thumb? Will the other arch bridges follow? And lastly, will the City need a new logo should all the arch bridges disappear? Learning the lessons from the Green Bridge, the City may want to keep in mind that people are watching them to ensure that what happens with the Grand Avenue Bridge in the end will not affect the other arch bridges they love very much in the city. The arch bridges are the third most popular places of interest according to the survey conducted by the Des Moines Register. If they are gone, so will be a key piece of the city’s legacy, something that they cannot afford.
Interesting Fact: Erfurt won the 2012 Ammann Awards for Best Kept Secret with the city’s historic arch bridges, which includes the Kramer Bridge, the largest housed arch bridge in Europe.