The US earns its reputation for encouraging urban auto dependency, largely by eschewing any good provisions for pedestrians and reducing far too many of its streetscapes to vehicular sewers. Nonetheless, now and then we can come across some remarkable little pedestrian provision that surprises us. And it doesn’t have to be in a historically pedestrian scaled city like New York, Boston, or Chicago.
It’s all the more remarkable for how not-little it is. It’s so elaborate and so deliberately engineered that one might think at first glance that it accommodates cars, if it weren’t for the trees in the foreground, proximal to the bridge and oversized compared to the bridge itself. (Or the obvious stairwell just outside the photo’s frame.) Most distinctive of all is that this bridge is in Springfield, Missouri, the third largest city in the Show Me State. Not to take a crack at Springfield, but it’s hardly a pedestrian paradise like Manhattan, San Francisco, or even St. Louis. And while Springfield’s historic center and oldest neighborhoods remain quite walkable, the bulk of the city’s growth since 1950 (when it claimed approximately one-third its 170,000 people today) has fallen within typical automobile oriented patterns.
But here, on the north side of Springfield, we encounter this footbridge, an oddity in almost every respect. It does not cross a river. Unlike Missouri’s two largest cities, Springfield lacks any major body of water. As the photo above indicates fairly well (at least when one takes a closer look at it), a large rail yard cleaves the city at this point. It earned the name Jefferson Avenue Footbridge because it links two sides of town, with Commercial Street the primary corridor on the south side and Chase Street flanking the more residential north side. Jefferson Avenue is the perpendicular that the footbridge effectively connects, north and south. The map below should illustrate these fundamentals:
The Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, in operation since 1902 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, gave pedestrians a safer method of getting across 16 tracks in a switchyard that, at that time, served the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad. Local workers were “commuting” by walking directly across the row of tracks to get to businesses on Commercial Street, obviously a dangerous feat. The “Frisco Line” (as it was known) strong-armed the City of Springfield to finance the footbridge, threatening to pull its division headquarters out of a city whose rapid growth depended on rail commerce. The City capitulated, and, at a cost of $8,500, built the 562-foot long bridge to protect local commuters (not many private citizens owned motorcars in the early 1900s) and to keep the rail company operating.
It’s unreasonable for me to assert that Jefferson Avenue Footbridge saved Springfield. But it certainly didn’t hold it back: in those early decades, Springfield boomed into an employment magnet for all of southern Missouri. It continued to enjoy double-digit population growth throughout the 1910s and 20s, and, while the Great Depression squelched population growth across the country in the 30s, Springfield still grew by a reasonable clip (over 6%) during this time. (Compare this to the state’s biggest city, St. Louis, which lost population in the 1930s and practically every decade since, and Springfield seems to have enjoyed a fair degree of economic resiliency.) The Queen City of the Ozarks showcased a thriving downtown during my visit in 2016; plenty of locally-owned restaurants and shops, and people mulling about to patronize them. And Commercial Street, 1.5 miles to the north of downtown’s Park Central Square, is far enough away by 1902 standards that it probably operated a sort of second-tier commercial satellite.
As the map somewhat indicates, Commercial Street (“C Street”) lives up to its name: it comprises four or five blocks of mostly two- and three-story brick structures dating from the end of the 19th century. The eclectic mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, and tchotchke shops that comprise most of Commercial Street suggest what most newcomers to Springfield could easily infer: C Street is a newly resurgent neighborhood arts corridor that is revitalizing after decades of lassitude.
The plywood shielding the windows of vacant buildings was a fresh tan color, rather than a weathered gray, suggesting that these boards served to protect the renovation that was taking place from within, rather than deter looters from plundering an abandoned building. Commercial Street is the spine to a gentrifying Midtown neighborhood…
…and the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge is the area’s most prominent landmark.
I’ve covered some elaborate footbridges in the past, but this one may surpass them all. Aside from its length, this footbridge has achieved some notoriety for the sophistication of the design. I’m not a structural engineer and cannot 100% vouch for this descriptor, but my research suggests that it is a cantilever truss bridge, segmented to help distribute the load across numerous supportive columns, necessary due to the weight of the structural steel trusses, all of which concrete piers help to stabilize. It’s an unusually elaborate design for a footbridge but was probably necessary due to the considerable length and the fact that two points of entry are lower than the bridge itself (that is, it cannot operate through suspension the way it could if the bridge draped across a river valley. However, the overloading of piers and supports on the ascendant portions (seen in the above photo), means that the middle spans can function more like a suspension bridge, precluding the need for a huge number of columns and piers amidst all the railroad tracks that might obstruct views.
Taking these details into account, one might expect that this footbridge was inordinately expensive. But the best I can determine is that the $8,500 translates to about $285,000 in contemporary dollars. Not horrible for a footbridge of this length. Granted, the City’s bond issue was $40,000—$1.33 Million today—but this also included funding for two roads to tunnel underneath the Frisco switchyard. The City hired engineers who ensured that this footbridge would endure. And it did, certainly more than the economic fortunes of nearby Commercial Street. But how long did it take to yield a return on the City’s investment? And what does it cost to maintain it?
When I took these photos in the summer of 2016, authorities had closed the footbridge a few months prior.
Apparently Public Works inspectors had found corrosion and loss of steel in at least one support column on the north side (opposite the location of these photos). A more substantive structural evaluation revealed that plenty of the columns on the southern approach needed strengthening, the stairs needed replacement, and the existing paint needed to be stripped for a superior alternative. The City website budgets the final rehabilitation at $3.2 million, a good portion of which it hopes to cover through federal Surface Transportation Block Grant funds, but that money comes with strings attached: the design would need to find a historically sensitive way to integrate ADA compliancy, making it accessible for individuals in wheelchairs. (A 2018 proposal determined a solution could include small light-duty lift elevators on both approaches.) The footbridge’s placement on the National Register required the City to initiate the involved Section 106 process with a State Historic Preservation Officer, which would determine the impacts on historic integrity and the best method for minimizing these impacts. A goal to galvanize local support (beyond sales taxes levied) helped raise an additional $50,000 through Community Street boosters.
Through all these maneuvers, the clock kept ticking. By late 2021, the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge was sufficiently deteriorated that all engineering companies that responded to the RFP offered bids that were nearly twice the budgeted value. These overruns tabled any further initiatives, leaving the footbridge with an uncertain fate, and a signature feature to the Commercial Street district sits unused, all while the commercial corridor continues to revitalize. At least this defunct footbridge isn’t holding things back.
It’s all the more of a shame, however, that a rehabilitation is stuck in funding limbo, since the City of Springfield had just christened an extensive restoration and revitalization of the bridge at the century anniversary of its completion. Back in 2001-02, the redevelopment included the plaza with historic markers.
But the paint, though atmospheric, wasn’t sufficiently protective; the footbridge needed a three-coat replacement that is more moisture resident, thereby reducing corrosion. And thus it faced an even costlier renovation just fourteen years later.
“Can the City justify the expense?” might seem like the most critical question. But that’s the one everyone is already asking. A more important one may be: “Was it ever really worth such an investment?” Loathe as I am to impugn any thoughtful pedestrian improvements, the engineering sophistication of the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge is like a Rolls Royce solution when all they needed was a Honda Civic. (Does it help that I used a car analogy for a footbridge?!) A pedestrian bypass was certainly effective at staving off the departure of the Frisco Line, one of the city’s biggest employers at the time. But the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard (the contemporary owner) offers only a fraction of economic activity that it did a century ago, manifested by the clear economic decline of nearby Commercial Street. And it’s not clear it’s that useful from a utilitarian perspective. The south side of the switch yard is pedestrian scaled, but Woodland Heights, the northern neighborhood on the opposite side of the tracks, is not even that walkable. Here’a a Street View of Woodland Heights with the footbridge in partial view. lower density (often quarter- or even half-acre lots) and decent but inconsistent sidewalks, it’s unlikely that most people living on this side of the tracks would get around their area by foot. Furthermore, even if they want to access the restaurants and shops of C Street, they have other pedestrian options: those nearby road underpasses have sidewalk tunnels adjacent to the road. Sure, they’re not the most savory way to get around, but they’ll do in a pinch.
These factors only amplify the uncertain fate of the footbridge of the Queen City of the Ozarks. It’s hard to justify the expense of persistent maintenance of this ornately engineered footbridge when a) other options for bypassing the switchyard are readily available within a block or two; b) the demand for pedestrianism is much more lateral than perpendicular (e.g., more people prefer to travel along C Street than cross away from it); c) the general area lacks the density to necessitate pedestrianism in the first place. There’s not yet enough density with either residences or commercial activity to create much of a parking crunch. So people drive, not just because that’s how most people get around in Springfield (and most American cities of Springfield’s size), but because it’s nearly as easy to park around C Street as it is at a suburban mall.
The only situation likely to redeem this fiscal stalemate is an increasing density of activity, though more people living in the area and more businesses filling the vacancies and raising property values. Infill development is a possible solution: I can find no evidence that developers have yet proposed any new mixed-use structures along Commercial Street, in the vacant lots that create intermittent gaps along the street walls formed by the historic buildings.
Frankly, it’s possible that many of these old buildings only benefit from first floor tenants, while the upper levels remain vacant or underutilized.
Furthermore, the eastern portion of C Street still seems to host at least a few perfectly viable, functional light industrial businesses, which on the whole probably generate more economic activity than a three-story commercial building with a successful restaurant topped by two dusty, underutilized floors. Renovating these latter structures to support apartments and offices would certainly help, and the Springfield City Council seems to agree that it could use a boost: last fall it approved a $650,000 Public Works initiative to upgrade the streetscape. These upgrades include public art, superior directional signage, and a schematic design to improve the plaza at the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge. This is fine and good, but the remaining 90% of this initiative will go two public parking lots: repaving, landscaping, lighting, stormwater. Is that going to incentivize developers to start sprucing up the old buildings for upper-level apartments, or to build new ones? Most importantly, will that sort of investment happen quickly enough to stave off the increasingly unsightly rust of the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge? Downtown Springfield enjoys a revitalization that surpasses many other cities of its size, and the increasingly mainstream love of old commercial buildings has radiated northward to the city’s oldest subdistrict at Commercial Street. But that’s not enough to salvage an opulent footbridge that, in 2022, requires more money to refurbish than many of the nearby multi-story old buildings…but without an easily quantified return.
The engineers built this elegant footbridge to withstand the weight of an elephant; little did they know it may become an elephant (and a white one, to boot!). Fingers crossed that a deep pocketed visionary can show it the love it needs without expecting the market to offer much love back.