Earlier this year, Renew Moline arranged a visit here by Tom Murphy, a former three-term mayor of Pittsburgh and a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. Murphy’s visit was, in part, pursuant to the planning for the area where the old Interstate 74 bridge will be demolished. When the old bridge is gone, more than 13 acres of land will be redeveloped. Thirteen acres is about 10 football fields — it’s big. It’s not contiguous, but more than two acres of that is on our riverfront. Also, when drivers take the first exit off the bridge onto River Drive in Moline, they will arrive at an approximately four-acre site that will mark their landing into not only downtown Moline, but the state of Illinois, and the eastern United States of America. What we, as a community, do here will leave a legacy for our city.
Murphy had many helpful observations about our city during his visit, and his message could be summarized this way: "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redevelop the ‘front door’ to your community. Whatever you do there, make it spectacular." The man knows whereof he speaks. During his tenure over 12 years, Pittsburgh rebounded from a significant population and employment decline in the 1980s (sound familiar?) and emerged with a renaissance that has transformed that city physically, economically and culturally.
Following Murphy’s visit, the editorial board in this newspaper put out a call for assistance in helping to make Moline "spectacular" by sharing ideas. What were the editors thinking, asking 25,000 readers what could make Moline great? They were recognizing an important truth: Each and every person in this community has a valid perspective about what it means to live here; how people experience our city, what makes it special and how it might be better.
Perhaps because I assume that everyone finds cities and their future fascinating, I figured the Dispatch-Argus would need to hire additional staff to deal with the deluge of mail that would arrive. But by my count, two people wrote: One talked about areas that need improvement, and the other suggested looking at Charleston Bay waterfront for inspiration. People! This is your chance to design your city! Where are you?
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Right now, in downtown Moline, the new I-74 bridge is taking shape. You can see it as you walk or drive around. The new bridge is wider, and in some areas, lower than the old one, and it will have a larger footprint. Also, the existing bridge is almost exclusively on piers, and the new one will be partially on "fill," where land is built up to accommodate a road or ramp. This change will have an impact on east-west connections and change our urban environment.
Arguably the most important street in downtown’s historic core is 5th Avenue, which has been home to Lagomarcino’s since 1909 and has the beautiful streetlights, planters and paving that we think of — fondly — as quintessentially "downtown." It is home to businesses, loft apartments, restaurants and night life. Fifth Avenue used to continue uninterrupted under the bridge to the east, but with construction of the new bridge, it now "dead-ends" into an exit ramp.
What can we do to make this new terminus special? How can we make it beloved and not forgotten? Many other cities have creatively used remnant spaces for art or public activity. Sometimes space is simply beautiful and only accessible visually. What should our new spaces look like? How should they function?
It’s not too late. What places do you enjoy in other cities? Where in our downtown(s) do you enjoy being and why? How can we express what is special about Moline in new downtown spaces?
Could one person’s idea really make a difference? Absolutely. Don’t be surprised if it’s yours.
Alexandra Elias is president and CEO of Renew Moline and a Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com guest columnist.