Downtown realignment

Missouri River town turns to architecture students for help

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Albert Einstein

This quote from the German-born physicist and philosopher was paraphrased by the Mobridge riverfront economic development committee chairman as he watched nearly fifty SDSU architecture students discover the north central South Dakota town.

“We need their ingenuity and their creativity to preserve what we have,” Dennis Wheeler says.

Wheeler made the comments on a brisk but sunny Saturday forenoon while standing on Mobridge’s Main Street, only about two blocks from the mighty Missouri River.

It was the Milwaukee Railroad’s crossing of the Missouri River that gave “Mo – Bridge” its name in 1906. The town grew up with the railroad, which made Mobridge its primary rail yard between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Seattle, linking the prairie and the West Coast.

The railroad grew up along the river. Acres of sidetracks, roundhouses, cattle pens and repair shops embodied the industrious nature of the river’s shores.

In 1920, the town was nearly the size of Brookings (3,517 to 3,924). The population of Mobridge peaked at 4,500 in 1970. Two years later the railroad moved its operation from Mobridge to Aberdeen. Tears from a mourning and declining community supplemented the river’s flow.

For years, the railroad’s assets deteriorated and became a symbol of community deficit.

Life without the railroad

However, the river still flowed past Mobridge. Increasing fishing and hunting traffic injected life to the town.

Eventually, the deteriorating structures were removed and in 2005 an extension of Main Street took the north-south road right to the riverbank. Today there is a smooth asphalt road and streetlights, but no rail crossing or development beyond the traditional end of the street.

That’s where the SDSU architecture students come in.

Brian Rex, head of the two-year-old SDSU architecture department, was contacted by Jamie Dietterle ’01, a Mobridge City Council member, and Thomas Unterseher, a businessman and a member of the Mobridge City Council, when the Main Street extension was done. They thought the students could ignite ideas for future design.

A weekend in Mobridge

As a result, Rex and fellow faculty member Charles MacBride brought forty-seven students to Mobridge October 7-9.

Before the students could envision what could be there, they needed to understand what was there. So the Intro to Architecture students measured, sketched, and photographed the central section of Mobridge. Back home, they created a model.

“We spent most of the rest of October working on making models, trying to take all the materials we measured and photographed, and format it,” says MacBride, a first-year assistant professor who has previously taught at Iowa State and the University of Colorado.

Using blue foam insulation, they created a block-by-block model of central Mobridge using a 1/16-inch scale.

Each student contributed a square block, built on a twenty-inch square sheet of plywood and painted white. The challenge, according to second-year architecture student Tom Squires of Webster, was working with other groups to be sure angles of streets and the railroad matched up with the adjoining square.

The end product is fourteen feet square and will be mounted on an adjustable table to show elevation drop.

The next step is to extend the model, adding in the river and the open space between the river and downtown. “The city is really concerned about what the future holds for that area between Main Street and the water. We’d like to be involved with that,” MacBride says.

The next step

Right now the model is in the basement of the Barn, but the plan is to go back to Mobridge in early 2012 to present the model to the community and gain feedback.

Unterseher says, “Growth happens where there are roads. If we can link the road to the river, where there is already energy, it gives more reason for the entrepreneur to open a shop . . . The next step is design what can happen here” at the river.

MacBride says an idea proposed by Rex is to design a pier so recreational boaters can dock in Mobridge.”

A group of University of Utah students came to Mobridge in summer 2010 and did urban planning work. That left Unterseher, Mayor Kyle Jensen, and Riverfront Economic Development Committee Chairman Dennis Wheeler confident in using students again.

Excited by students

Wheeler says, “We hope to take information that they generate and see what things we can incorporate.

“Students usually have more energy and have imagination, and that can be directed by people that are trained to teach. Out of that can come ideas that help our community to grow.

“It’s actually exciting having them come. It’s more exciting when they have their plans. It’s more exciting even yet when something happens and they can look at the plans and see what they helped do.”

Potential for the community

Virginia Torzewski, a sophomore from Rochester, Minnesota, was along the rail tracks looking toward the river and sketching a profile of the area. “There’s so much potential here,” she says. “I saw a picture of the railroad yard and it was so together.

“It would be really cool to see this as a functioning place.”

Tom Squires, a second-year architectural major from Webster, says, “I’m hoping as we continue to build this project that they [Mobridge leaders] will ask us to come back. I want to build the new town that they’re going to have and be able to say twenty years down the road, ‘I was able to build a part of that town.’”

Ultimately, the future look of Mobridge will be up to the people of Mobridge, Kyle McCurry, a freshman from Sioux Falls, says. “The potential is there, but I don’t know how involved the people are going to be. That’s the

big factor. If people want change, it will happen. If not, it is going to be the same.”

The SDSU students and faculty know their position is to offer advice and perspective, not dictate change.

Practice for the students

They also know the opportunity to offer architectural services in a small, isolated community that doesn’t have such skills among its resources provides a two-way benefit.

MacBride says, “In terms of the students being exposed to this kind of information, we have to take every opportunity we can to get them into the field. To do this with first-year students is pretty unusual. Most schools would do this with upper-level students. To me, that’s the biggest success [of the Mobridge project].

“Until you send students out measuring, photographing, drawing, and building, they don’t really see [the design of a city] . . .

“This is only the second year that architecture has been around here. The Mobridge project is a great example of what we hope to do with these students. We will continue to find places around the state that we can have these outreach projects.

“It’s good for the University as a whole too, keeping the ties around the state.”

Dave Graves



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