In Africa and Central and South America, hundreds of suspension bridges built by a Denver-based nonprofit group have connected rural communities to health care, schools and jobs — serving as literal lifelines across rivers, especially during flood season.
Bridges to Prosperity’s latest footbridge project is much closer to home, and the group’s leaders have similar aims, if on a different scale.
In Denver’s River North Art District, near the group’s Five Points headquarters, it is working with community leaders to adapt its standard cable-suspension bridge design for its first U.S. span: a South Platte River crossing that, as soon as next summer, could connect Globeville to the burgeoning area near Brighton Boulevard.
It’s tentatively called the Art Bridge. The nonprofit’s involvement came about as Denver-based Zeppelin Development and community advocates looked for creative ways to speed up the building of a long-sought pedestrian and bike bridge across the Platte, roughly aligned with 35th Street.
Denver city officials long have endorsed the idea. But if left to the city, a lack of funding and higher priorities in the area would keep a bridge from materializing for several years.
An overhead photo shows where the River North Art Bridge might be built in 2018. The photo was taken from atop the roof of Taxi ll on October 26, 2017, looking southeast across the South Platte River. The bridge would be aligned roughly with 35th Street. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)
“Right now, the infrastructure in the area is pretty car-focused and discouraging for people who want to access the river,” said John Hayden, a neighborhood leader to the southeast in Curtis Park, which, like RiNo, overlaps with Five Points.
“Children trying to get to school at Garden Place (Academy) in Globeville from Curtis Park are dependent on buses and rides from parents because there is no safe way for people to walk across the river,” he said. “Thirty-eighth Street is a terrible street for people and bikes, and only the most confident or desperate are likely to use that street for biking or walking.”
To get the bridge built sooner, Zeppelin, which has developed its large Taxi mixed-use campus on the west side of the river off Ringsby Court, has taken the reins as project manager. It’s kicked in $1 million toward an expected $3 million cost, including design, construction and an expected public art component.
The cost — less than half what a city-planned steel-heavy pedestrian bridge typically would cost — and the elegant suspension design are where Bridges to Prosperity comes in.
With nearly $1.8 million in donations and pledges collected, organizers of the effort are working with city departments to fine-tune the design while they raise more money, including by applying for state and foundation grants.
Their goal is to start construction in the spring.
Bridge builds on city projects remaking RiNo
The bridge’s construction would come in the wake of a $40 million-plus city project that is remaking the nearby Brighton Boulevard into an urban street that’s more friendly to bikes and people on foot.
The $3.2 million plan for River North Park, located west of 35th and Delgany streets. Funding is included in Denver’s proposed 2018 capital budget.
On the east side of the river, the bridge would land — near the current intersection of 35th and Arkins Court — right where the city plans to break ground next year on the new, $3.2 million River North Park.
And just a few blocks southeast of where the new bridge would land, the city recently opened the $6.8 million 35th/36th Street Bridge, which ferries pedestrians over railroad tracks to Blake Street, near a commuter rail station.
A new pedestrian bridge, pictured Aug. 16, 2017, is now open to the public on Blake Street between 35th and 36th streets in Denver.
Add all those projects together, and RiNo-area neighborhood leaders envision an easy and convenient bike and pedestrian corridor. It would be akin to the 16th Street connective route near downtown that links together the Millennium Bridge, Commons Park, a river bridge and the Highland Bridge across Interstate 25.
The city also has plans for a $12 million river promenade running along the east bank, from 29th to 38th streets, that would improve the existing river path. The first $5 million for that project would come from a $937 million city bond package that’s on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Tim Sandos, the executive director of the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a coordination office for the area, said officials welcomed the private partner setup on the river bridge. The NDCC contributed $250,000 to help with early design work.
At one level, the bridge would tether Zeppelin’s Taxi campus more firmly to the rest of River North, providing an economic motivation.
But Kyle Zeppelin, who runs the company with his father, Mickey, said he has a wider aim — to keep the majority-Latino neighborhoods to the north, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, from getting cut off from the wealthier RiNo area. The bridge, he said, would help by “really inviting people from those surrounding communities in and actively creating opportunities to not just have (RiNo) turn into a typical gentrified neighborhood, but to be a model for something that’s very different.”
More than 270 bridges built outside the U.S.
That’s a motivation shared by Avery Bang, the CEO of Bridges to Prosperity.
She’s a civil engineer who did her graduate work at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She began volunteering for the nonprofit about five years after it was founded in 2001 by Ken Frantz, a construction contractor from Yorktown, Va., who saw bridges as a way to foster economic opportunity in impoverished places.
In 2008, Bang became the group’s first paid staff member in the United States. She chose Denver for its headquarters, where several staffers now work in a building at 33rd and Arapahoe streets. Bridges to Prosperity spent $4.1 million in its 2015-16 fiscal year, according to its IRS filing, and built 67 bridges in six countries, while supporting the building of four more.
For the group’s first U.S. project, Bang sees another potential upshot: showing that it’s possible to provide new connections more cheaply than government often does. (The Highland Bridge cost $5.2 million and opened in 2006, while the iconic Millennium Bridge — with its slanted mast — cost $9 million when it was built in 2002.)
“We’ve built over 270 of these things in over 20 countries,” Bang said. “We were really hoping, actually, that if we could get (U.S.) policymakers to see that you could build beautiful infrastructure affordably, and that it can be built, quite frankly, more efficiently than a lot of existing technologies. There’s no reason that our technology and what we’ve spent 15 years developing couldn’t be used in urban centers.
“Selfishly, I want Denver to be the first.”
A 2012 project by Bridges to Prosperity built this footbridge in Chaqui Cocha, Bolivia.
A higher cost than group’s typical project
Bridges to Prosperity says its projects typically cost closer to $50,000 — though that sum isn’t possible in the United States, given the more stringent design and engineering rules here, including load standards.
But even with weightier materials and a wider foot path, at 10 feet, the group still hopes to use the cable-suspension design. That would avert the need for any supports in the flood-prone river, Bang said, noting that metal cables “transfer loads in a way that you don’t get with something that’s not flexible.”
The project’s organizers say they also envision a role in the project for Felipe Pantone, an Argentinian-Spanish street artist. Public art by Pantone could adorn the bridge or areas nearby.
Besides the financial contributions by Zeppelin and the city’s NDCC, the $1.8 million raised so far includes an anonymous $500,000 contribution, $25,000 from the River North General Improvement District and a $25,000 pledge from developer Koelbel + Co. Organizers are seeking grant support from Great Outdoors Colorado and several foundations and companies.
Nancy Grandys-Jones, the president of Globeville Civic Partners, said the bridge, if built, “opens up and expands access to recreational and nature activities” and provides a vital connect for the southern part of Globeville.
But other connection challenges exist, she said — though the city bond package and its ongoing National Western Center project include plans to improve the neighborhood’s patchy sidewalk network and to construct two vehicle bridges across the river north of Interstate 70.
As for the planned Art Bridge, neighborhood advocate Jeff Allen got a look at the design recently. He liked what he saw.
“It’s an attractive design,” said Allen, the outgoing president of the Cole Neighborhood Association, whose board is considering issuing a letter of support. “We have a preponderance of what I think are ugly and cheap-looking things being built in the city right now. … It’s not ugly, and it’s cheap — so it’s a win-win, in my opinion.”