One cries for attention with its prominent red arch and a row of changing lights. The other is an understated ribbon that tries blend into the Baylands. The third in inspired by a kayak, even though it's meant for bicycles.
The designs offer starkly different visions for Palo Alto's "iconic" new bike bridge, the subject of a recent design competition, but the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and Architectural Review Board both agreed this week that each is spectacular in its own way.
"I think it's hard to go wrong with either of the choices," Commissioner Michael Alcheck said during Wednesday's discussion of the new bike bridge.
"I think we have three awesome bridges here," concurred acting commission Chair Adrien Fine said at the end of the discussion. "Palo Alto would be lucky to have any of them."
The three finalists were chosen out of a pool of 20 proposals that the city received as part of its design competition for a bridge that would span Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, giving south Palo Alto residents year-round access to the Baylands. With an estimated budget of $10 million, the bike bridge is a one of the most ambitious and expensive components of the bike and pedestrian master plan that the City Council approved in 2012.
On Dec. 17, a jury chose as the winner the boldest and loudest of the three -- the arch concept proposed by HNTB Engineering, 64North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn. The jury agreed that this design comes the closest of the three to achieving the City Council's stated goal of creating a prominent landmark structure that would serve as a gateway to the city.
The final choice will be made by the council, which will consider the jury's recommendation in late February. This week, both the planning and commission and the Architectural Review Board discussed the options and offered generally positive feedback about the starkly different designs. Neither body voted on its preference, though several individual members made a case for one option or another.
In the Wednesday night discussion, the planning commission waxed ecstatically about all three designs, though members refrained from taking strong stances in favor of any of the three. Instead, the general consensus was that despite their stark differences, any of the them would make for a proud addition to Palo Alto. Only Alcheck expressed an opinion about his preferred choice, giving the nod to the subtlest of the three proposals: the ribbon-like bridge designed by Moffat and Nichol, Steven Grover and Associates, Lutsko Associates, JIRI Strasky and Mark Thomas and Co.
Fine, who last week was elected vice chair and who ran the meeting in the absence of newly elected Chair Greg Tanaka, offered words of high praise for all three proposals. He was a bit puzzled, however, by the kayak shape of the design proposed by Endrestudio, OLIN, SBP and Biohabitats.
"It might not come across as a bike bridge the fact that it's imitating a kayak," Fine said. "It's nice to know a bike bridge is a bike bridge."
Roy Snyder, a bicyclists and birder who lives in the Palo Verde neighborhood, made a pitch for keeping things simple and focusing on the bridge's function rather than the frills. The overcrossing, he said, "is the means, not a destination, nor the attraction itself."
"Nor should it be a distraction from the natural Baylands environment," Snyder said. "The Baylands are where the action is. The Baylands is where we want to go. We want to get there as expeditiously and easily as possible."
Commissioner Mark Michael expressed similar leanings. He called all the designs "impressive" but wondered if the HNTB design, known as "Confluence" is a little "too grandiose" and suggested that there might be a benefit to having a bridge that is simpler and has a lower profile.
"I do like the arch but i'm worried that it's gonna be quite the landmark," Michael said.
Despite his misgivings, Mark Michael calling both the arch and the Moffat and Nichol proposals "impressive and inspiring" and concluded that they'd "both be terrific for different reasons."
"It's a shame there has to be a winner and someone who doesn't win," Michael said. "But whoever gets the second place, maybe that bridge should be considered for the span between Town and Country and Paly."
The debate over the bridge's "iconic" status re-emerged Thursday morning, when the architecture board took up the subject. Board member Catherine Ballantyne made a case for keeping things subtle near the Baylands, a part of the city that she said is marked by a "low-profile elegance" and that should "speak for itself." While she acknowledged the arch bridge to be "definitely iconic," she wondered if that should really be the deciding factor.
"Does 'iconic' really need to be an attribute, or is it just a product of Palo Alto's ego?" she asked.
Board Chair Randy Popp and Vice Chair Robert Gooyer both went over the tradeoffs inherent in each of the proposals before stating a preference arch concept over the other two. Gooyer said that the choice should come down to which attribute the council values most: an "iconic statement" or a "subtle, low-keyed and delicate" structure.
The kayak bridge, which finished third during the jury's deliberations last month, retained its underdog role, though Popp called it "beyond beautiful" and praised its "exceptional design." The problem, he said, is that it doesn't seem to be very compatible with the freeways beneath it. The trucks and the diesel exhaust will "override the beauty of that in a very short period of time," Popp said.
He wasn't the only one who struggled to pick a favorite. Judith Wasserman, a former member of the Architectural Review Board and chair of the jury that selected the arch proposal, said she was "blown away by how beautiful and poetic all of these were." The decision, she said, was very difficult to make.. Ultimately, the jury went with the arch so as to best comply with the council's hunger for a prominent icon. The subtlest design finished second in the voting and the kayak third.
"That's what most people who preferred the arch said -- that you will see this more than the other bridge," Wasserman said. "The other bridge was very elegant, structurally amazing, and looked like it was self supporting. We looked for sky hooks and didn't se them."
But much like the planning commission, Wasserman had nothing but love for all three bridges.
"I personally felt that you can close your eyes and throw darts and come out good," she said.
Popp made a similar point on Thursday and praised the city for going along with the design competition that netted these three finalists.
"It's really remarkable what we got here today," Popp said Thursday. "I think we're really on a spectacular path to having something amazing added to the fabric of our city."