Three different design teams came to Palo Alto City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, each with a bridge to sell to the city.
Their goal? To come up with the winning design for the bike-and-pedestrian bridge that will span U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, giving south Palo Alto new access to the Baylands. Their challenge? Convincing the city's Architectural Review Board, a panel of independent jurors and, ultimately, the City Council that their particular design will be functional, sustainable and iconic enough to satisfy the council's appetite for a landmark that makes people say, "Wow!"
The finalists who presented were selected from a pool of 20 competitors. Each brought a distinct vision. One team -- composed of engineering and architect firms Moffatt and Nichol, Steven Grover and Associates, Lutsko Associates, JIRI Strasky and Mark Thomas and Co. -- took the most subdued approach. In presenting the gently curving bridge, Grover emphasized its role in connecting residents to the Baylands and in staying consistent with the character of Palo Alto. The low-slung bridge, he said, aims to match the Baylands and offers "warm rich overtones, rather than a trumpet that calls attention to itself." Plazas on either side of the bridge offer pedestrians and bicyclists a chance to pause and take in the sights.
Its submission earned great praise from the jury, with nearly everyone agreeing that its light touch offers an elegant, if understated, solution to the problem the designers were asked to solve.
"Subtlety is not something we're famous for in this town," said Judith Wasserman, a former longtime member of the architecture board and the chair of the jury evaluating the bridge. "It might be a good change of pace."
By contrast, the submission from HNTB Engineering, 64North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn went for the jugular. A prominent arch strung, harp-like, with a network of thin cables spans the bridge, which starts in a counterclockwise loop west of the highway and then descends as a broad circle on the east side. Wil Carson of 64North described the proposed bridge as a "cathedral-like place."
"The gesture is toward the sky," Carson said of the proposal, which ultimately took first place in the jury's rankings.
If the Moffatt proposal was the most minimalist and HNTB's was the boldest, the one submitted by Endrestudio, OLIN, SBP and Biohabitats was the most poetic. The design of the bridge mimics a kayak, with wooden sides that jut out diagonally and a water-filtration system that ferries water from the span to a specially designed eddy, which filters the water and releases it back into Adobe Creek. The proposal describes the experience of approaching the bridge and ascending and descending as "magical."
"From the distance, the bridge is distinct and looks like a floating kayak," the proposal states. "The rhythm of the bridge is informed by the experience of sky and horizon and derived from the structural system."
The kayak bridge drew heavy praise from the architecture board and the jury, but in the end it didn't get as many votes as the other two. In choosing the winner, the jury found itself struggling over the same question that has characterized prior debates over the bridge: Should the city go for simplicity or boldness? Should the bridge play a supporting role in the pedestrians' and bicyclists' experience of the Baylands or draw attention to itself as a prominent gateway to the marshy preserve?
The five-member jury wrestled with this question. Sam Lubell, an editor of The Architects' Newspaper, at first declared a tie between the arch and the "cable" bridge (as the minimalist design was referred to) but after hearing final arguments from the three teams went with the former. Wasserman went through the same quandary as she said she was "blown away" by all three designs.
"You can close your eyes and throw darts and come out good," she said.
Like most of her colleagues, Wasserman said she was torn between the "iconic business" and the "Baylands-flowing business." She ultimately went for the arch, as did her jury colleague Steve Burrows, executive vice president at WSP, who said the arch design is "deliverable" and "looks great."
Juror Susan Chin, executive director of the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space, by contrast, went for minimalism.
"It solved the problem very elegantly, and it was economical," Chin said of the Moffatt proposal.
The five members of the architecture board did not get a vote, though each member commented. The board generally reached the same consensus as the jury: All three designs for the $10 million project are dazzling, though the arch and the cable are a notch above the kayak. Robert Gooyer, vice chair of the architecture board, posited that the cable bridge would be "too subtle" and too difficult to notice for drivers passing under it.
"If you're driving by at 70 mph on the freeway you'd think, 'Ooh. I think this is the new pedestrian bridge I just went under,'" Gooyer said of the Moffatt proposal. "What the City of Palo Alto I think would be interested in is thinking, 'Palo Alto is where you see a big arch across the freeway.'"
The jury's recommendation will be reviewed by the Public Art Commission, the Architectural Review Board, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Planning and Transporation Commission.
The City Council will review and possibly approve a design in early February.