Big Four Bridge

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The waterfront in Clarksville is ripe for development. (Aaron Renn)
The waterfront in Clarksville is ripe for development. (Aaron Renn)

[Editor's Note: Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, writing on urban issues across the country. He is a native of a small town in Southern Indiana near Louisville, and frequently comments on the area's development. Here, he looks around Southern Indiana and likes what he sees.]

As part of a small project I’m doing in Southern Indiana, I spent two days touring around Clark and Floyd Counties to see what was up. As a guy who grew up in the area, it was great to get to see a lot of the positive things that have been occurring there. While perhaps places like New Albany and Jeffersonville might be considered small cities, the Southern Indiana portion of the Louisville metro area has about 280,000 people and is integrated into the larger regional economy. So it is participating in the economic and urban growth that’s also happening on the Kentucky side of the river.

The commercial development, particularly restaurants, in New Albany was impressive. Several Louisville establishments have set up shop there, joining locally-based businesses that offer a wide range of high quality goods. I’m talking about places like New Albanian, Quills Coffee, Toast, The Exchange, Bread and Breakfast, and more. There have also been a lot of infrastructure upgrades since I last lived there. For example, a recent streetscape project on New Albany’s Main Street was underway while I was visiting.

Toast in New Albany. (Aaron Renn)
Toast in New Albany is one of the city’s many retail offerings. (Aaron Renn)

Talking with some of the employees of the various businesses, some of whom moved from out of town to the area, it was clear that many of them made a deliberate choice to pick downtown New Albany, seeing it as a place with huge upside potential—they didn’t just land there by accident.

There are some similar developments in downtown Jeffersonville, where the impact of the full opening of the Big Four Bridge as a pedestrian and bike crossing has been huge. I’ve walked across it several times now and am always amazed by the crowds. With extremely limited commercial development on the Louisville side of the river, Jeffersonville is raking in a ton of businesses, with an ice cream stand, several quality bar and grill places, and even a cigar bar tapping in. I expect this is only the start of a significant uptick in activity there.

The Big Four Bridge has been good for business in Jeffersonville. (Aaron Renn)
The Big Four Bridge has been good for business in Jeffersonville. (Aaron Renn)

Clarksville remains the commercial center of the region and appears to be staying strong. It’s also got a huge redevelopment opportunity on its hands with the Colgate property and other prime real estate directly across the river from downtown Louisville. Not only is this the best skyline view of the city available, it already has pedestrian access across the Second Street Bridge to Louisville, albeit on a very narrow sidewalk.

Most people never see it since you don’t pass it on any major highways—yet—but the Port of Indiana industrial park near Utica is humming with activity. Likewise, I saw a ton of building in the River Ridge industrial park that spans Jeffersonville and Charlestown. That huge amount of space on a major highway is primed to explode when the East End Bridge opens, though tolls remain a huge question mark.

Overall, I was happy to see the kind of redevelopment that had long been talked about when I was a kid finally happening—though I must confess I miss the “LRS 102” lights on the Big Four. I’m expecting things to only continue to get better as these developments mature and grow.

Aerial view of Big Four Station in Jeffersonville. (Courtesy The Estopinal Group)
Aerial view of Big Four Station in Jeffersonville. (Courtesy The Estopinal Group)
Aerial view of Big Four Station in Jeffersonville. (Courtesy The Estopinal Group)
Aerial view of Big Four Station in Jeffersonville. (Courtesy The Estopinal Group)

On Thursday, July 19, Wayne Estopinal didn’t know what kind of response he would receive when he stood in front of a crowd in Jeffersonville to display his firm’s latest concepts for Big Four Station, a park surrounding the northern approach to the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge over the Ohio River. “I came here ready for a battle,” Estopinal said. “In reality, people really liked it. It was really well received.” Estopinal is principal at The Estopinal Group, an architectural firm with offices in Louisville and Southern Indiana who designed the latest component of the Big Four project with Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group.

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Big Four Bridge today (Courtesy @Downtown_Lou/Twitter)
Big Four Bridge today. (Courtesy @Downtown_Lou/Twitter)

Now that the 60-foot-tall elliptical spiraling ramp up to the top of the Big Four Bridge in Waterfront Park has been completed for some time, officials are ready to begin work on the next phase of the bike and pedestrian bridge conversion.

The Big Four Bridge in 1906 (Broken Sidewalk)
The Big Four Bridge in 1906. (Broken Sidewalk)

While the Southern Indiana approach must still be built, work is about to begin on installing a concrete deck on top of the 1890s-era bridge. Work involves clearing the existing rotting wood deck, installing two I-beams across the length of the bridge, and pouring a concrete deck on top. It may not be fancy, but it will get you across the river.

While it won’t contain crazy 1960s condos or equally crazy modern sculpture, and it’s not looking good for a happy birthday pavilion underneath the ramp (and while the bridge will not be the longest in the country as officials are wont to claim), the bridge will offer a vitally needed pedestrian and bike link between Louisville and Southern Indiana. Currently, the only option for biking or walking across the Ohio River involves using the Clark Memorial/2nd Street Bridge with the speeding traffic that frequents it.

“This connection between our two communities will be an invaluable amenity for the whole region and will be a springboard for even more improvements in downtown Jeffersonville,” said Tom Galligan, Mayor of Jeffersonville, in a statement.

A total of $22 million has been committed for completing the project from Kentucky, Indiana, and Jeffersonville, including $12 million for replacing the deck contributed from Kentucky.

With the popularity of New York’s High Line park and similar projects proposed across the country, anyone have any ideas on creating a truly unique space on top of the bridge that could fit with the work already planned?

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Condos on the Big Four Bridge (Courtesy Unbuilt America)
Condos on the Big Four Bridge (Courtesy Unbuilt America)
Condos on the Big Four Bridge (Courtesy Unbuilt America)
Condos on the Big Four Bridge. (Courtesy Unbuilt America)

Jasper Ward, the architect behind a proposal to turn a grain silo into a major housing development in the 1960s along with many other buildings including Portland Elementary, was interested in planning housing just about anywhere you could imagine. Among his other memorable proposals was a mixed-use neighborhood spanning the Ohio River on the Big Four Bridge.

Historic view of the Big Four Bridge (courtesy R.D. Schooling)
Historic view of the Big Four Bridge (courtesy R.D. Schooling)
Historic view of the Big Four Bridge. (Courtesy R.D. Schooling)

Now that the elliptical ramp up to the Big Four Bridge has been set into place sans its concrete walkway, Doug Proffitt of Whas11 took a trip up to the top platform to check out what must be one of the best views in Louisville. I can’t wait to check it out myself. See the video below which offers an up-close view of construction along with views of local landmarks.

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Big Four Bridge Construction (Photo courtesy Steve Wiser)
Big Four Bridge Construction (Photo courtesy Steve Wiser)
Big Four Bridge Construction. (Steve Wiser)

Thanks to local architect Steve Wiser for sending in these photos of the Big Four pedestrian and bike bridge in Waterfront Park. Now that the elliptical spiral is completely airborne, it’s much easier to imagine taking a walk or ride to Jeffersonville in peace without using the Clark Bridge with its narrow sidewalks and speeding trucks. The next step involves installing a concrete deck on top of the steel structure, which it looks like has begun on part of the spiral.

Big Four Bridge Construction Site
Big Four Bridge Construction Site
Big Four Bridge Construction Site. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

About two weeks ago, I had a chance to tour the construction site at the Big Four Bridge and snap a few photos of construction progress at the final phase of Waterfront Park. Work has been moving along steadily, weather permitting, since these photos were taken, and additional pieces of the ramp structure have been lifted into place.

Elevated tracks of Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville (courtest R.D. Schooling)
Riverfront rail in modern terms (rendering 8664, mockup R.D. Schooling)
Riverfront rail in modern terms. (rendering 8664.org, mockup R.D. Schooling)

Imagine boarding a train in New Albany and stepping off in Downtown Louisville, all the while watching carelessly from a window at riverboats passing slowly on the Ohio River. Louisville once had a superb train system running everywhere you could imagine throughout the city and region, radiating out like spokes on a bicycle wheel from Downtown.