Palo Alto officials agree that the city's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 should be a "landmark" structure that showcases the region's spirit of innovation while at the same time providing a gentle transition into the marshy nature preserves of the Baylands.
Yet while council members are buzzing with excitement about the new structure, coming up with a suitable design for the marquee project promises to be a complex and potentially lengthy affair. After much discussion, the city is now preparing to launch a design competition featuring international, national and local firms; a five-member jury selected by the American Institute of Architects, California Council; a public hearing with the Architectural Review Board; public comments and ultimately, approval from the City Council.
The design process has already been delayed by several months because of concerns from federal regulators, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, about construction near the Baylands, said Elizabeth Ames, project manager from the Public Works Department. Now, the city believes it has addressed the federal concerns and the competition is set to begin. According to the tentative project timeline, invitations will be sent out to design firms next month, officially kicking off the five-month contest.
Several details, however, remain to be hashed out. Earlier this month, the city's Architectural Review Board considered the design criteria that would be used in the competition and offered some criticism about the contest rules. Vice Chair Randy Popp and board member Clare Malone Prichard vehemently opposed staff's suggestion that the contest be limited to firms that have designed at least two bridges in the past decade. Limiting the field so significantly, Popp said, would be a "terrific missed opportunity."
Malone Prichard acknowledged the need to have qualified firms participate in the contest, but argued that there are better ways to achieve this goal than including the "two bridges in 10 years" provision.
"I know this is not how Public Works normally does things, but this is not a normal Public Works project," Malone Prichard said.
Indeed, the design process for the bike bridge will be radically different from the one used for other major infrastructure projects of recent years. While the construction of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and the renovation of California Avenue used the traditional approach, in which a qualified architect wins a bid and submits a design, the new bridge will undergo a more rigorous, iterative and participatory process.
The five-member jury will come up with a "short list" of three or four finalists, each of whom will receive a $20,000 stipend to further develop the proposed concept. The four designs would be presented at a public meeting featuring the jury and the Architectural Review Board. After the meeting, the jury will deliberate and declare a winner by ranking the finalists. The council will then have the option of accepting the jury's verdict or considering other options, according to a report issued earlier this month by the Public Works Department.
"Although the preferred outcome would be for the Council to agree with the jury's determination of the design competition winner, Council will have the option of selecting any of the three designers, or of deciding that the City should move forward with a solicitation for design services independent of the design competition results," the report states.
On Tuesday night, it was the Parks and Recreation Commission's turn to weigh in on the proposed design competition. Like the architecture board, the parks commission offered feedback on the three criteria that staff proposed to use for the competition: innovation, versatility and sustainability. Several members focused on the bridge's environmentally sensitive location and said this factor should be emphasized in the design guidelines.
"We are going to be putting this project in a delicate ecosystem and we need to be mindful of that," Commissioner Abbie Knopper said.
Commissioner Deirdre Crommie argued that the word "sustainability," as used by staff, is too vague and all-encompassing and suggested that staff consider language that emphasizes preservation.
"I think of sustainability as being one kind of movement that is sometimes at odds with conservation and preservation," Crommie said, pointing to the city's recent decision to "undedicate" a parcel of parkland in Byxbee Park and make it available for a waste-to-energy facility.
Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said the bridge should not only be "beautiful" but, more importantly, functional. This means having adequate space for bicyclists to use it safely, without having to dismount near the entrance and exit. Even if it's a "landmark" structure, Reckdahl said, if it doesn't serve its purpose, it's a "waste of money."
"A beautiful project that doesn't work is not beautiful," Reckdahl said.
Pat Markevitch took a different stance from her colleagues and lobbied for "the most simple design."
"Put it in, make it safe and just get it done," Markevitch said.
She pointed to overpasses in San Carlos and Sunnyvale as examples. Each was able to adequately function within the constraints of Caltrain's right-of-way over Highway 101, she said. The design should also pay particular attention to how much money the bridge would cost the city, she said.
"Even if we have grant money, it still makes a statement about how we're watching our costs," Markevitch said.
The design guidelines will be finalized in the coming weeks, but city officials have already agreed to make one change to the process based on commission feedback. Ames said the city no longer plans to limit the competition to firms that have designed two bridges in the past 10 years. Now, each competing team will be required to include an engineer or an architect that has designed one bridge in the past decade, Ames said.
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