The revamped look of downtown Eau Claire will take another giant step forward today when the Confluence Crossing Bridge officially opens to foot traffic.

The $1 million bridge crosses the Eau Claire River and connects Phoenix Park with Haymarket Plaza, the outdoor public space component of the Confluence Project between Haymarket Landing and Pablo Center at the Confluence.

City officials originally hoped to have the $1.8 million plaza completed by Saturday’s grand opening of the arts center, but construction delays, including recent rainy weather, have postponed the debut of most of the plaza, likely until late October. Walking surfaces on the south and east ends of the plaza will be open for the Saturday event, which will include some outdoor musical performances.

“When it’s all done, I think this is going to be a focal point for downtown,” city engineer Dave Solberg said. “It will be a kind of gathering place — a new heartbeat — for the South Barstow part of downtown, and the bridge will connect it to Phoenix Park — the heartbeat of the North Barstow part of downtown.”

Haymarket Plaza, the design for which was the product of multiple stakeholder meetings, will include a riverwalk trail, a raised seating platform city officials have nicknamed the “Eau Claire bean” for its kidney bean shape, a fountain, fire features, an area with limestone benches overlooking the water known as “Eau Claire logjam,” landscaping, decorative walking surfaces and a stairway providing access to the south bank of the river along the $2.2 million retaining wall.

“I think this will all be wonderful when it’s finished and people will be very happy with the look,” said Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development administrator and executive director of Downtown Eau Claire Inc.

With its location next to the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers and surrounded by attractive new buildings, the plaza will have a more urban feeling than other parks and hang-out spots in the community, Schatz said.

“I think it will offer a vibe that people will want to experience,” he said.

The Confluence Crossing Bridge, which includes lookout areas on each side, will have its arches illuminated at night. It is capable of having its colored lights coordinated with those on the Phoenix Park and Grand Avenue pedestrian bridges for holidays or special events. 

The new bridge, constructed with a smooth deck intended to be friendly to wheelchairs and footwear ranging from sneakers to high heels, is expected to provide a convenient link between the 746-stall North Barstow parking ramp and the Pablo Center.

“I guarantee the plaza and the new bridge will be popular and well-used and will help to continue our legacy as a bridge city,” Schatz said. “The ambiance of bridges crossing the beautiful waters we have, with people being able to linger and watch the water, is all part of the walking experience people are looking for downtown.”

Solberg expressed delight at how the bridge turned out, saying workers did “an absolutely fabulous job of taking the drawing in the plan and making it a reality.” He also said he has been impressed with the workmanship in the plaza so far.

While the riverside trail will be finished only from the Barstow Street bridge to the northwest corner of the Pablo Center this year, Solberg said, the goal is to extend it all the way to Lake Street by Independence Day.  

Work also likely will continue until late October on the $2.2 million reconstruction of Graham Avenue and several side streets between Eau Claire and Lake streets, although parts of Graham Avenue already are open for traffic and parking, Solberg said.

That project comprises new pavement, new utilities, decorative lighting, landscaping and brick pavers between the sidewalk and roadway to match the streetscape of South Barstow Street.

“It will pretty much be a new, nicer street from the top down,” Solberg said.

All the investment, Schatz maintained, is important to keeping downtown fresh and attractive for residents and visitors.

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