Sure we Evanstonians rightly agonize over the height of new apartment towers downtown or the number of parking spaces required per unit.  But there are other projects on the drawing boards – projects that will either grace or gash our city’s built environment for decades to come – about which we know very little. 

So let’s talk bridges, and specifically the soon-to-be-replaced Central Street bridge over the North Shore Channel, as well as the next-to-be-replaced Lincoln Street bridge over same.

Months ago the City hired contractors to develop plans and specifications for the new Central Street bridge, but the public has yet to be shown concept drawings of what it will look like. The sparse community input that has been gathered centers on desired lane widths for vehicular traffic, curbside parking, bicycles, golf carts, and pedestrians. (No surprise here – the new bridge will be about 15 ft. wider than the existing.)

But what will it look like?  Anyone who thinks aesthetics can safely be left to traffic engineers should take another look at the ’70s-era bridges being replaced.  Both are plug-ugly steel-beam-on-concrete-pillar  affairs lined topside by tube steel guardrails (Central Street) or worse, at Lincoln Street, by precast concrete sidewalls topped with chain-link fences.

These eyesores mock Evanston’s historic role as a seedbed of City Beautiful, an architectural movement championed long ago by Evanstonian Daniel Burnham, carried on by Dwight Perkins, and most recently, both in practice and in these pages, by the late John Macsai.  

What we need, simply, is a decent design for an urban bridge in a residential area. Spare us, please, from another utilitarian deck of the type that spans nameless creeks along interstate highways.  Bridges are our longest-lived monuments and these two will be built to last 100 years. 

What’s needed, and needed immediately, is some transparency on the part of the city and its design consultant, Iowa-based Stanley Consultants.  As of this writing  Evanston’s elected representatives have not been given a chance to look at aesthetic alternatives so that they – and we – might decide for ourselves what kind of bridge will be “good enough” for us.

We can do better in Evanston, and it isn’t all that difficult.

By thoughtfully rebuilding the Central and Lincoln Street bridges in the heart of the North Shore Channel greenway we have an opportunity to leave simple but distinguished improvements that will speak well of our stewardship long after we’re gone.

John McCarron is a longtime Evanston resident and freelance urban affairs writer.