Rarely in 86 years has anyone dared imagine a typically congested two-block stretch of downtown Stillwater free of interstate vehicle traffic and turned over to the whims of pedestrians on a tree-studded plaza.

Yet it’s that short stretch of Chestnut Street, ground zero in a seemingly interminable debate over St. Croix River bridges, that promises to become the most visible signpost of Stillwater’s future after the city’s 1931 bridge closes to vehicle traffic this summer.

“We’re getting our town back. I think it’s a whole new feel for downtown to get that traffic out of there,” said Council Member Mike Polehna, a longtime resident.

The expected August opening of the new four-lane bridge, 2 miles downriver in Oak Park Heights, will hasten the conversion of the two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge into a pedestrian and bike crossing and clear the way for the plaza to replace the worn street.

In the minds of planners, the plaza would link 1880s-era buildings and set in motion a series of changes to make the historic downtown a year-round attraction and a gathering place for community events even in winter.

It will be safer too, said Cory Buettner, who owns Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop at the spot where drivers turn toward Wisconsin.

“I’ve picked up my share of bumpers off the corner of Chestnut and Main,” he said. “People are racing home to get their kids to baseball practice and they’re in a little bottleneck with pedestrians and bicycles and strollers. We’re just hoping to get the old bridge closed before something really bad happens. There have been so many close calls.”

‘Historic and hip’

Stillwater has struggled with its downtown identity for years. The crush of twice-daily commuter traffic is blamed for scaring off the locals from coming downtown, but city leaders also acknowledge an urgency in broadening the district’s appeal.

The downtown plan aims for a “historic and hip” approach that preserves historic resources while undertaking “sensitive adaptive reuse of historic buildings and landscapes.” The plan, which awaits City Council approval, represents years of ideas hinging on the single biggest change downtown in decades — closing the Lift Bridge permanently to vehicle traffic, currently about 17,000 crossings a day.

The ambitious plan came out of years of study and extensive public involvement, said Bill Turnblad, Stillwater’s community development director. “We’ve engaged the community fairly vigorously and they stayed with it,” he said.

Pedestrians come first in the new downtown, envisioned with wider sidewalks and more connecting trails. “Paths and places are safe and comfortable in day or evening and are accessible by all,” according to the plan. Along Main Street, trees and “pedestrian lighting” would make strolling more inviting.

Kiosks would promote Stillwater’s history. Bike racks and lanes would be added for cyclists coming off the Brown’s Creek State Trail at the north end of downtown. Planners also see downtown someday evolving into a “lively arts and cultural center” that could include regional theater and music performances.

The plan promotes downtown as an “outdoor recreation gateway,” seizing on the St. Croix River’s natural beauty.

The plan’s current draft has been reviewed in City Council workshops and at two public open houses. On June 14, the planning commission will hold another public hearing, as will the City Council on June 20; if the council adopts the plan, a 60-day comment period and a Metropolitan Council review will follow.

Funding for the plaza, which Turnblad described as “the heart of the plan,” will be determined in a future capital improvement budget, he said. The plaza would be built within three to five years.

Turnblad described the plaza as “essentially as an outdoor community center” with broad public support. “It will be a really nice open space,” he said. “The community thinks the same thing, that it’s fun to be part of this.”

For now, it’s traffic first

Mike Peterson, who works at Andersen Windows in Bayport but lives in Wisconsin, has crossed the lift bridge for 27 years. He and hundreds of co-workers experience daily traffic jams, especially when the lift raises to allow boats to pass underneath.

“You have to plan your trip through downtown according to the traffic,” said Peterson, who predicted a noticeable reduction in downtown traffic when the new bridge opens.

One of the bridge tenders, Mike Schmidt, said summer brings a swelling parade of classic cars, motorcycle clubs and occasional farm tractors. When he raises the lift several times a day to accommodate boaters traveling north and south, traffic rumbles to a halt on Chestnut and backs up a mile or more. Most drivers are courteous, he said, but some aren’t.

“Sometimes they just want to go no matter what,” he said of impatient motorists waiting for eight minutes while the lift is up. Drivers sometimes tear the gate arms loose in their haste to cross, he said.

By maritime regulations, the lift will operate, even when the bridge becomes part of a pedestrian loop trail, but “it’s going to be different, not having to worry about the automobile traffic,” Schmidt said.

Closing the street leading to the bridge “can only improve the atmosphere,” said Buettner, who described a truck full of manure that pulled to a stop recently just as customers were being served lunch on the outdoor patio behind his restaurant.

Angela Hudson, owner of Collaborations, a women’s boutique above Leo’s, said she’s seen light poles struck, pedestrians nearly run over and rows of cars having to back up when big trucks couldn’t fit across the bridge.

She described traffic on the two blocks of Chestnut as a “nightmare” and favors a plaza there.

“Stillwater needs some refreshing. It’s been the same for a long time,” she said.