Art commissioners favor arch design for new bike bridge

City Council set to decide on new Highway 101 overpass in late February

The Public Art Commission became the latest Palo Alto board on Thursday to weigh in on a proposed bike bridge over Highway 101, with most members favoring the design with a prominent arch.

Elizabeth Ames, Palo Alto's senior project manager for public works, visited last night's meeting of the commission to give a presentation and ask for comments on the three final designs of the proposed bike and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 at Adobe Creek.

The five commissioners present at the meeting were each given a chance to provide informal comments on the pros and cons of each design. Before making their remarks, the commission viewed three five-minute videos about the designs and listened to statements by Judith Wasserman, the jury chair from the bike bridge design competition, and the design team of Submission A -- which the competition jury selected as the winner. No representatives from the other design teams were present at the meeting.

While the quality of each proposal was recognized, most commissioners gravitated towards Submission A as the preferred option, citing both aesthetic and practical reasons.

"I do see Submission A as really a functional work of art," said Kathleen Kavanaugh, chair of the commission. "I mean I think the whole thing is truly a coherent piece."

The Submission A design, otherwise known as "Confluence," is distinguished by a system of steel beams which forms an arch over the bridge span. Beneath the arch on either side of the bridge would be a network of crisscrossing cables, with steel discs designed by artist Ned Kahn to be suspended at each intersection point.

Apart from providing an ecological function in preventing birds from resting on or colliding with cables, the steel discs were integrated to provide a striking visual effect for both pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists, according to Marcel Wilson, who represented the team of HNTB Engineering, 64North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn.

"They create a shimmering, extraordinary kind of phenomena that's the creation and the convergence of man-made and natural forces," Wilson said.

Ben Miyagi, vice chair of the commission, complimented the proposal as satisfying the stated criteria of being "iconic" and said that "the design in itself is the art." Commissioner Amanda Ross likewise stated her appreciation for the deliberate integration of artistic elements from the beginning.

"So often everything's pretty much put to bed, and then the public art is the afterthought and it's very clear to the overall design," Ross said.

Commissioner Nia Taylor also noted her appreciation for the arched bridge, likening it to the work of sculptor Richard Serra. However, she did raise concerns about the reflections from the steel discs potentially resulting in collisions on Highway 101. Miyagi also suggested that the design team think about how the discs might affect pilots landing or taking off at the nearby Palo Alto Airport.

The Public Art Commission had less positive things to say about the other two proposed designs, though each had significant artistic components.

Submission C, which was described as a linear and looping design, includes a plaza on the Baylands side of Highway 101, where there are designs inspired by local plant life pressed into the concrete. The design, considered the subtlest of the three, was submitted by Moffatt and Nichol, Steven Grover and Associates, Lutsko Associates, JIRI Strasky and Mark Thomas and Co.

Taylor and commissioner Dara Silverstein said they liked these artistic touches, but Kavanaugh disagreed, calling them "pedantic and expected."

Submission B, or "Portage," also raised questions for commissioners, but more for practical concerns than aesthetic ones. Inspired by the form of a kayak, the bridge design includes wood as a primary material and was intended to have minimal impact in terms of energy and carbon footprints. In addition, "Portage" also collects rainwater and directs it into a basin, also designed by Ned Kahn, before it runs it into Adobe Creek. The kayak design was submitted by Endrestudio, OLIN, SBP and Biohabitats.

Kavanaugh applauded the creativity, integration of art and attention to sustainability given by the proposal, but she ultimately drew attention to the likely wear and tear on the wood construction -- an issue which Miyagi also raised.

"Municipal projects don't get replaced really when they probably should," she said.

After hearing the various comments, the project manager Ames thanked the commission and indicated that she would add them to a matrix capturing the thoughts given by the various city commissions, the competition jury and the public. She also asked the commissioners to attend the Feb. 23 meeting of the City Council, where the council is tentatively expected to make a final choice between the proposals.

Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla can be emailed at ssciolla@paweekly.com

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