Planning Blunder #9: Over the highway and through the lake

Bill Lindeke, proprieter of the nation’s best sidewalk blog, twin cities sidewalks, has bestowed upon me the honor of writing half the entries in his bile-fest of Twin Cities planning blundersNumber 10 went to the low-density industrial redevelopments of the St Paul Port Authority, and I will attempt to live up to Bill’s word-wizardry with the following:

What's in that water, friend? (Nokomis Bathhouse in the 20s)

Ahhh…. the classic Minnesota summer at the lake….  basking in the brief pleasure of sunlight hitting your winter-pasty skin….  splashing and being splashed as your feet dance in the sandy bottoms and mystery slippery sea monsters graze your shins…  goosebump eruptions on your arms as you momentarily return to dry land to consume a scorched tube of ostensible meat….  the sharp bursts of honking and the screech of brakes from the uncomfortably proximate highway–hey!  What the hell is a highway doing in the middle of this tranquil lake?

The answer is Planning Blunder #9:

The Cedar Avenue bridge over Lake Nokomis!

Thank you Santa for bringing us progress

Who would hate Minnesota so much that they would literally pave over the quintessential Minnesotan experience?  To find out, you would have to look up the payroll of the Minnesota Department of Highways between 1920 and 1926, when someone had the brilliant idea to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bridge over smallish Lake Nokomis  instead of curving Cedar Ave slightly to the west.

The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, in its “veritable encyclopedia of Peculiar Park Particulars,” claims credit for trying to avert this blunder, but was foiled by Richfield, whose borders hadn’t yet been turned back from the south end of the lake.  To some degree, it makes sense that Richfielders would be in such a hurry to get to points north that they would pay the price of a lake’s spoilation to shed a minute or so of travel time.  Contemporary judges should remember, also, that at the time Lake Nokomis still had the Minnesota swampy shoreline and may have felt more like an enormous morass than a resort paradise.  But from a statewide perspective it is difficult to understand why this route was so important that it would have been ruined by a small curve to the west – according to Steve Riner, the highway (36) of which the bridge was a segment ran south only a few miles to MN-5 (about where I-494 is today), and only crossed the Minnesota River in the 1950s.

Using this helmet underwater is the only way to cut out the highway noise

My Take on the Lake

Despite noise pollution from the airport and water pollution from Cedar Ave, Nokomis Beach remains a pretty hot summer spot.  I remember an awkward work party there several years ago, where we munched on samosas and sipped 3.2 while screaming gremlins ran around us and middle-aged men showed the world exactly how little exercise they get.  In other words, a classic beach scene.

So even though the lake is still brings aquatic pleasures, it is the principle of the thing that gives me a queasy feeling when I go over the bridge.  Lakes should be for lake-like things, for example fish or ducks or inner-tubes.  If you must use a motor on a lake, please let it be driving a boat.  But part of this principled revolt comes from the fact that they seem to have built the bridge just because they could; for reasons detailed above, Cedar Ave easily could have been routed west around the lake.

Apparently I’m not the only one who is made queasy by this particular bridge.  A facebook group dedicated to removing the bridge started last summer, and while it has relatively few members, it counts several local policymakers in its ranks.  However, in a political environment where it is difficult to convince a certain party to spend money to construct something, it will  be even tougher to persuade anyone to destruct something.  This particular bridge seems to have been rebuilt recently, too, so it will be a while before it attains functional obsolescence.

Winter Blunderland (by Tim Kiser, who is a good photographer and I hope is not a lawyer)

Minnesota likes to trumpet its lake-iness, but has no qualms about destroying its liquid jewels.  Other metro-area impaled lakes include Twin Lake in Robbinsdale and Anderson Lake(s) in Bloomington, although Lake Nokomis is more gratuitous than those two.  Every time I cross it, I see that tiny amputated remnant and I’m reminded that anywhere I go, roads will follow me.  Although there is no doubt that millions of dollars have been wasted to bridge this lake, maybe it is not a blunder.  Maybe it is something more devious.  Maybe it is there to remind us that in the USA our way is the highway, and the road to the open just leads to another road.


14 comments on “Planning Blunder #9: Over the highway and through the lake

  1. Reuben says:

    I don’t know much about the history of this project, but I’m surprised this made the list. In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that they could have easily gone around the lake rather than over it. But I’m wondering: Given that literally hundreds of smaller lakes and wetlands were filled/removed to accommodate the mostly unbroken MPLS grid system, and that most of the lakes that still exist in MPLS are heavily engineered (including Nokomis), it says something that planners took the trouble to bridge the lake rather than just fill it in.

  2. Reggie says:

    “To some degree, it makes sense that Richfielders would be in such a hurry to get to points north that they would pay the price of a lake’s spoilation to shed a minute or so of travel time.”

    ^^^ luv that!

    You know, I think a giant, man-made pond would look really good where Richfield currently stands.

  3. Froggie says:

    The current bridge was built in 1984.

    I see you’re part of that bridge removal group, Alex. What’s the actual plan? Eliminate the bridge and Cedar Ave entirely? Reroute Cedar Ave around the lake? Also, removing the bridge alone isn’t going to improve the water quality…I’d hazard a good bet that the bulk of the water quality problems have to do with run-off that goes FAR BEYOND the traffic crossing the bridge.

    • Thanks for the date, Froggie – where did you find it? I looked everywhere (except, of course, books).

      I actually just came across the facebook group when researching the blog post (when you’re a blogger you can refer to googling as research). I doubt if they have a real plan, considering they’ve left spam on their wall for several months. I’d think an easy solution would be to route Cedar where West Nokomis Pkwy is today, although obviously there would be neighborhood issues with removing trees, changing stuff etc. There are maybe hundreds of projects I’d prioritize before this, but as long as we’re spending hundreds of millions on football fields maybe we could find a few pennies to remove the bridge.

      I had a couple science-oriented friends look at the MPCA data on Nokomis – it seems to have pretty typical water quality for the metro, that is, not great, not too bad. There wasn’t any data on pollution from the salt, which I think would be the biggest effect of having a roadway directly over the lake, presumably draining right into it.

      • Froggie says:

        National Bridge Inventory (which I have the shapefiles for) lists 1984…that’s close enough to what I recall, though I thought I remembered it being 1985 instead. The bridge over Minnehaha Creek was replaced as part of the same project.

        Rerouting around the west side on the parkway is an option. But given that Cedar is a city truck route and also has buses, it would require reconfiguring the intersections on both ends and reconstructing/widening that western side of the parkway, plus another traffic signal where the parkway meets 54th. Can’t imagine the residents along the Parkway north of 54th would be too happy about that. Plus, with *ANY* project in this area due to the parkland, you’d run into Section 4(f) impacts…the Feds are more amenable to “replacement-in-kind” in these situations, which is one possible (and likely) reason why the old bridge was replaced with the existing bridge.

        BTW, count me amongst those who disagree with “spending hundreds of millions on football fields”.

        • Thanks Froggie, I had no idea there was a National Bridge Inventory. I’m glad there is, though.

          Sure there would be some pissy neighbors, but I would think that one reasonable dedicated politician could get the project done, although probably not for a hundred years when the bridge will need replacing – of course, by then our flying cars won’t need bridges at all.

          • Red says:

            I may be the lone voice here who prefers the bridge over any re-route using West Nokomis Parkway. But then I live a blocks from the bridge. There are entirely too many people using Cedar as as a shortcut through my neighborhood and I don’t think it’s removal would stop it. It never being built may have, but that bridge was crossed long ago (no pun intended) and I don’t think removing the bridge would stop that. Traffic is a nightmare and us locals avoid it at rush hour. I sure don’t want that traffic on the parkway, 52nd, etc. I do wish they would rebuild it and make it more aesthetically pleasing, however.

  4. […] #7 in the official list of the Twin Cities’ Top Ten Planning Blunders.  Check out numbers 8, 9 and 10, and stay tuned here and at twin city sidewalks for the rest (although at the rate […]

  5. […] Cedar Avenue bridge over Lake Nokomis (map) was dubbed Planning Blunder #9 by authors Bill and Alex. This bridge is a clear example of a roadway that […]

  6. Mattaudio says:

    I wish this would still be under discussion. Cedar is not a road, definitely not a freeway. If people want to speedily go more than 2 or 3 miles north to south, they can use 35W.

  7. TomV says:

    I think the only reason to use Cedar is to avoid Hiawatha. It would be interesting to compare traffic volume before and after 2004.

  8. […] Cedar Ave Bridge over Lake Nokomis was a planning blunder, and the time is here to fix our mistake: The Park Board should urge Hennepin County to remove this […]

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