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06.16.2011
Motor City Freeway Span
New bridge and park reunite Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood.
Courtesy Inform Studio

The Mexicantown Bridge tilts above one of those lovely messes of highway infrastructure that looks from above like a big bowl of fettuccini. The $7 million single-tower asymmetric cable-stayed structure spans a service road and two freeways as they interchange, flow across the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario, and spill into southwest Detroit’s most vibrant neighborhood.

When plans for reconfiguring the knot of highways and surface streets began in the 1980s, community leaders in Mexicantown realized the three-year construction—Michigan’s biggest-ever transportation project—would have dire consequences for business owners. They fought to offset the impact with a pedestrian bridge to reunify Bagley Avenue, split in the early 1970s by the I-75 interstate freeway.

“We were able to make an infrastructure project a part of a larger vision of economic development for the neighborhood and southwest Detroit,” said Margaret Garry, former vice president of real estate and development for the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation (MCDC) and managing partner at Detroit Geothermal.

MCDC led the campaign to build the pedestrian bridge, along with an International Welcome Center and the Mercado, a mixed-use commercial outpost, still acquiring tenants in a tough economy. “The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) deserves a lot of credit for doing it in the right way—these are transportation engineers,” Garry said. “It was 20 years of the community all saying the same thing. It was the right thing to do.”

   
Clockwise from top: Rendering of the bridge pathway; the iconic cable stays during the day and evening; the east side of the plaza is planted with grasses and features a mural by local artist Hubert Massey.
 

Suburban Detroit-based inFORM Studio won a public competition in 1998 to design the bridge, an unprecedented step for MDOT. The architects imagined a platform supported by multiple columns between traffic lanes to maximize open space and create a plaza for events. Little remains of their initial design except the plaza, preserved on the east side and planted with reeds, grasses, periwinkle, and crabapple and locust trees. “The competition entry done in ‘98 looks nothing like it,” said Cory Lavigne of inFORM.

HNTB, contractors for the $230 million Gateway Project, led the structural engineering and helped reduce the columns to a single pylon, which hoists two-thirds of the span on ten cables, with five cables on the other side. Dampers stabilize the plaza and make it feel rooted to the ground.

After 25 years and more than 40 distinct iterations, the last landscape elements are being installed this spring. The intensive community-based process shows. A handmade glazed-tile mural by Detroit artist Hubert Massey strongly identifies the place with the Mexicantown community. Amber and red LEDs embedded in the plaza and polished, sandblasted, brushed, patterned and exposed-aggregate concrete are a world away from typical chain-link enclosed walkways. “It was a continual process more than anything I’ve ever been involved in,” Lavigne said.

“If you get input from the people who are going to be living there it generally comes out better,” said Fern Espina, an MCDC board member. “For me it’s a phenomenal thing and a dream come true, and I know it is for the community as well.”

Stephen Zacks