Building Bridges

The architects at El Dorado have found ways to reclaim freeways for pedestrians.

El Dorado

Kansas City, Missouri

Like a lot of freeway overpasses in America, the Troost Bridge was born shortly after the Federal Highway Act of 1956 set $25 billion aside to build the interstate highways we know today. And like everything else in that system, the Troost—a poured-cement overpass in Kansas City, Missouri, with a narrow margin for pedestrians—was a product of its time.

“The design of interstate highways was pretty car-centric,” says David Dowell, a principal at the design firm El Dorado, where revitalizing decayed urban overpasses has become something of a specialty. “In terms of lighting, in terms of noise, and in terms of where these roads were put, vehicular traffic was the priority. No one was thinking about the pedestrian experience when these things were designed.” The result was roads that cut off downtowns from their surrounding neighborhoods, dividing communities, driving property values down, and isolating formerly desirable areas into desolate islands in a sea of fast-moving traffic.

In tough economic times, razing the interstates and starting over is not an option—but that doesn’t mean the system can’t be tweaked. “We’ve evolved a process we call ‘sanctioned meddling,’ ” Dowell says of El Dorado, which has seven pedestrian-bridge projects under its belt, including the Broadway Overpass over I-670 and the Wyandotte Bridge in downtown Kansas City.

Strict safety regulations provide opportunities for the firm’s principals to get creative. “Because of federal transportation department standards, there’s a focus on standardization that can be a bit bureaucratic. And there’s a reason for that—the people who design these bridges bear a massive liability weight on their shoulders,” Dowell says. “I’m hypersensitive about flippant critiques of these bridges. A bridge over a freeway is nothing to mess around with.” Instead, El Dorado works to make the bridges inviting as well as safe. The firm encourages community participation, to ensure a sense of ownership by the people who will use the overpasses.

The Troost project is particularly significant because the structure divided two communities that, Dowell hopes, will greatly benefit from being reconnected. “The Troost Bridge is kind of the racial Berlin Wall of Kansas City,” he explains. “We’ve been working on it for ten years. It’s gone through three departments in the city government and six different bridge designers. It’s a quarter of my life that we’ve been working on this project.”

The bridge, which runs over Brush Creek, is a continuation of a creek-side trail, making it inviting to hikers. It features a high glass wall, to shield pedestrians from traffic without obstructing the view. Its opening on May 5 was heralded by a classic form of pedestrian empowerment: a street party.

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