Repurposing a bridge from cars to people helped revitalize this Minnesota downtown

The closing of an old two-lane lift bridge has helped spark the revitalization of downtown Stillwater, Minnesota.

The Stillwater Lift Bridge was decommissioned in August of 2017. Approximately 17,000 cars and trucks were going through downtown every day when the bridge was functioning. That caused traffic jams that sometimes stretched for blocks. Little wonder that few people wanted to live, dine or shop there.

Change is good,” says Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. “Downtown, post-bridge, is absolutely fabulous. It’s a real hometown feeling. You can jaywalk. I’ve been known to do that a few times. You wouldn’t have put your toe out there before. It was very scary. Now, you can walk on Main Street with a cup of coffee and not have to worry about getting killed, basically.

One sign that things are going in the right direction: Locals are starting to come downtown again, Anthony said.

We’re seeing a lot more of that, especially going to the restaurants,” she said. “It’s just lovely and it’s pleasant, and retailers are enjoying it.

The new St. Croix Crossing Bridge crossing the St. Croix River valley to the south of Stillwater is now serving motor vehicle traffic in a way that doesn’t hurt the downtown. It opened at the same time the old lift bridge was closed to automobiles.

One often hears how new infrastructure is needed to revitalize a place, and that’s occasionally true. But sometimes, old infrastructure simply needs to be removed in order to have a revitalizing effect. Such is the case with the current dam removal trend, whereby fish migration in rivers and streams is being restored, and related recreational industry economies are revitalized.

Pyrmont Bridge. Photo by Storm Cunningham.

On the other hand, readers of The Restoration Economy or the Resilience Success Guide know that repurposing and renewing old infrastructure is actually a surer path to revitalization, especially when it helps reconnect a place (this is known as the 3Re Strategy: repurpose, renew, reconnect).

The Stillwater Lift Bridge has been repurposed as a pedestrian/bicyclist-only bridge, which is another trend that has helped trigger dramatic local revitalization in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee (as was documented in the 2008 book, Rewealth, from McGraw-Hill.)

Another great example was the Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney, NSW, Australia. Repurposing that historic bridge to serve only pedestrians and bicyclists helped revitalize Darling Harbour.

Featured photo of the Stillwater Lift Bridge in 2017 by McGhiever via Wikipedia.

See article by Mary Divine in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

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