While troublesome stretches of the SouthWest Light Rail Project (SWLRT) in Minneapolis will delay passenger service until 2024, aesthetic polish is being applied to 300 yards of its approach to SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie.
The large, concrete piers that support the new LRT bridge over and alongside Prairie Center Drive have been fitted with emblematic, bas-relief, concrete panels. In mid-December, they are washed in blue light from sun-down to sun-up.
The panels (or plaques) feature ducks, wild flowers and butterflies of the sort that flourish in the neighboring lake and wetlands of Purgatory Creek Park.
The back story
Years of Hennepin County, Met Council and municipal SWLRT planning meetings continually engaged community input regarding preferences of station and bridge design. Most folks who showed up or sent in comments wanted stations and bridges to say something about the character of their respective neighborhoods.
During local SWLRT hearings and informational meetings, a pod of comments about the plans for the massive French curve over Prairie Center Drive – in their most civil mode – referred to it as “an eyesore.” Help, perhaps, was on the way.
The bridge pier panel designs were created by Maryland-based artist Steven Weitzman. Nationally known for his large scale public art, the charismatic Weitzman counts installations at the United Nations, the U.S. Capitol, the National Zoo and the Colorado History Center in his resume as well as scores of federal, state and municipal highway and bridge projects.
Although his bas-relief designs were cast and installed by SWLRT contractors on a Met Council project, Eden Prairie is paying the bill.
Eden Prairie Public Works Director Robert Ellis and Weitzman quickly and kindly responded to a number of EPLN queries.
From email exchanges with Robert Ellis:
Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN): When did the City of Eden Prairie choose to go ahead with the art project?
Robert Ellis: Early in the light rail design process we heard the public’s desire to soften the look of the Prairie Center Drive bridge. Because it is located so close to Purgatory Creek Park and the large conservation area we attempted to incorporate the natural features found there within the bridge piers. That is why each pier has embossed impressions of native plant, flower, insect and animal species. The design also incorporated the multicolored lighting to better display these pieces at night and to allow for changing colors through the seasons and for special events.
EPLN: When was the lighting turned on?
Ellis: I believe it has been running intermittently for several weeks as the contractor has been working to finalize various components of the bridge and landscaping in the area.
EPLN: How are they lit at night?
Ellis: The bridge piers are illuminated with a programmable accent LED lighting system that controls the lights on each pier column.
EPLN: Will the lighting scheme change color?
Ellis: The accent lighting system has the capability of lighting in almost any color. We expect the lighting will change throughout the year as seasons change or special events take place. Once the system has been officially turned over to the city, we will develop an annual lighting scheme with various colors that can be programmed into the controller.
EPLN: Does the city intend to have the artwork illuminated every night?
Ellis: Yes, we do.
Clay models and urethane liners
In a series of emails and a phone conversation this week, Steven Weitzman described how bas-relief plaques are made and installed.
First a conceptual design is developed for the commission (the art project) and then approved by local clients, he said; in this case the City of Eden Prairie and the SWLRT Project.
Then, a full-sized clay model is sculpted for each plaque (panel or section). Then urethane (synthetic rubber) molds called “liners” are made over the clay models. The liners are then shipped to a contractor who casts the liners (or molds) with cement that cures into concrete and installs the plaques on the piers.
Both Ellis and Weitzman appreciate that the durable urethane “liners” can be reused in different configurations for a variety of new structures such as stairways, retaining walls, public squares and gardens.
Urethane liners, says Weitzman, have saved his clients tens of thousands of dollars over the years. “That was the intent in Eden Prairie.”
EPLN: Some EPLN readers might want to know if the art work is paid for by the city, the SWLRT Project and/or grants?
Ellis: Because these features were considered “betterments” [non-essentials], the city was required to provide the funding for those improvements. The cost to create and install the pier artwork and accent lighting on the Prairie Center Drive bridge, as well as the artwork on the Valley View Road and Shady Oak Road bridges was $516,772. These artistic pier molds are reusable … on future city projects, as well.
Steven Weitzman was not involved with overseeing the casting or installation of the panels. He fully understands the challenges faced by planners, budget watchers, engineers, construction contractors and communities when an enormous bridge is in the works. His website speaks of “site-specific aesthetic treatments” that respect environmental surroundings and community values.
Earlier this week, Weitzman told EPLN, “We loved doing [the planning]and hopefully it is successful and it does what it is intended to do, which is to add a little beauty and context to this wonderful City of Eden Prairie.”
Editor’s note: Writer Jeff Strate is a board member of Eden Prairie Local News. From February 2015 through February 2017, he served on the SWLRT Community Advisory Committee as an at-large member.