Palo Alto leaders want their new bike bridge to be many things -- elegant, eco-friendly, unique, eye-catching, and above all affordable.
One thing they don't want it to be is just another bridge. Another thing they don't want, in the words of Councilman Pat Burt, is a "Bay Bridge Mini-me." But these restrictions notwithstanding, council members signaled on Monday, June 24, that they would like to see a wider-than-usual range of design options and agreed to launch a design competition.
Once built, the bridge will span U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, giving residents and employees in south Palo Alto a new bike and pedestrian route to the Baylands. A key component of the city's recently adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, the project has an estimated cost of about $10 million.
Even with the hefty price tag, the design contest will likely be more than an idle exercise. The city has already secured $8 million in grants -- $4 million from the Santa Clara County and another $4 million through the One Bay Area Grant program. The latter was awarded earlier this month. The city also plans to use $1 million from the pool of funds allocated to it by the Stanford University Medical Center as part of the development agreement that enabled Stanford's major hospital expansion.
The design contest is a highly unusual approach for Palo Alto, which normally relies on the traditional process of soliciting bids through a request-for-proposals and having staff and the council select the winning firm. In this case, the competition will be coordinated by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the designs vetted by a jury of architects from throughout the region. The jury will solicit proposals from about 20 design firms, with each describing the firm's experience and its approach to meeting the design criteria for the bridge.
Ultimately, the jury would select three or four proposals and award each of the firms between $10,000 and $20,000 for further design services. Each firm would then provide details, renderings and cost estimates before the jury decides on the winning entry, according to a staff report.
The jury's deliberation would be private to keep the competitors from seeing one another's work, according to the report. The winning entry -- though not necessarily the design that would ultimately be chosen by the city -- will receive an award during a ceremony at which all the finalists' renderings would be displayed. Residents and local boards and commissions would then have the chance to weigh in and make their own recommendations before the City Council makes the final decision in March 2014.
Brad Eggleston, a manager in the Public Works Department, told the council that the competition has the advantage of attracting a wider array of design options than the traditional process would. It would give the city a better opportunity to find a "unique and different design," he said.
"When it's a part of a competition, you may attract design firms into the process that typically wouldn't be in the process for responding to RFPs (requests for proposal)," Eggleston said.
There are also some negatives, he added, including a higher cost, a greater investment of staff time, a "slightly longer process" and a transfer of some control over the process to a jury. The cost of the competition is estimated at $150,000, roughly twice of what it would cost to pursue a traditional path.
That didn't deter the council, which voted unanimously (with Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman absent) to let the games begin. Councilwoman Gail Price, who served as president of the San Francisco Chapter of AIA until January 2012, was particularly stoked, joking immediately after the vote that she's "never been happier with a vote in my entire life."
Her colleagues agreed that a competition is the way to go, though they also stressed the need to set reasonable criteria that would both be consistent with the city's values and keep the project within the budget.
"I don't want someone to design a great bridge that will cost $100 million," Councilman Larry Klein said.
But members also indicated that they would like the new bridge to be a visible landmark and an attractive destination. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who as former Santa Clara County supervisor played a leading role in getting the city the $4 million county grant, pointed to Cupertino's cable-strayed Mary Avenue bike bridge, which spans Interstate 280 and which lights up at night.
"It's a very pretty look," Kniss said while a photo of the lit-up bridge was displayed on the screen in the Chambers. "It's rather elegant. I think of us as a rather elegant city. We should have that kind of a bridge."
While she said it's important to keep in mind that the bridge should stay within the budget, it should be "unique" and a "landmark bridge for Palo Alto," Kniss said.
Burt said the bridge should also feature eco-friendly elements, whether solar panels or sustainable LED lights. The design criteria should include "integration of themes that promote sustainability." Another criteria, he suggested, should be "how to get excellent design cost-effectively."
"That's a good goal for a government to have," Burt said.