Should Palo Alto's new bike bridge preen proudly over Highway 101 like a welcoming landmark or accept a supporting role as a gentle backdrop to the marshy Baylands ecosystem east of the highway?
That's the question the City Council will wrestle with on Monday night, when it considers the design options for the new bridge, a $10-million structure that would go up at Adobe Creek and offer residents of south Palo Alto a new year-round pathway to the Baylands. The bridge, which is one of the most ambitious components of the city's 2012 bike and pedestrian plan, was the subject of a design competition that netted three finalists and, ultimately, one winner: a design team consisting of HNTB Corporation, 64 North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn.
In reviewing the HNTB design, members of both the jury and architectural review board lauded its sweeping arched design, which they felt was most consistent with the council's appetite for an "iconic" structure. Judith Wasserman, a former architectural board member who chaired the jury, voted for the HNTB bridge, though the decision several minutes of anguished soul-searching.
Like others, Wasserman said she was torn between the arched bridge and a slimmer, less showy structure proposed by the team of Moffatt & Nichol; Steven Grover & Associates; Lutsko Associates; Jiri Strasky and Mark Thomas and Company. With its lower profile, a ribbon shape and a self-supporting design, the bridge won plaudits from every board that reviewed the finalists and finished second only to the HNTB proposal. Looking at the options on the table, Wasserman said one can "throw darts and it would come out good." She said she was "torn between the iconic business and the Baylands-flowing business," before finally choosing the former over the latter.
Her colleagues on the jury faced a similar struggle and went through several rounds of deliberation before voting for the HNTB design over the Moffatt & Nichol one. Jury member Sam Lubell, West Coast editor of The Architect's Newspaper, called both designs "excellent" and said "either one would be a good choice." It was only after Robert Gooyer, vice chair of the architectural board, pressured him to make a decision that Lubell went with the arched design.
"I love the span, I love the floating element," Lubell said. "I love how it connects to the environment. If I have to go with my gut and what's going to really answer all the questions, I'm going with the arch one."
Gooyer also said he favors the arch, as did ARB Chair Randy Popp, who had a chance to weigh in on the subject during the board's Jan. 15 discussion of the topic. Popp expressed some misgivings about the subtler design from Moffatt and Nichol. Though he called it "slender and sleek," he wondered whether it will be uncomfortable and "move all over the place."
The Planning and Transportation Commission, which reviewed the finalists from the design competition, was full of praise for the three designs (in addition to the arched and ribbon designs, the group also included a structure shaped like a kayak that finished third in the rankings) but largely agnostic when it came to making an actual choice. Commissioner Michael Alcheck said it's "hard to go wrong with either of the choices" and Vice Chair Adrian Fine said Palo Alto "would be lucky to have any of them."
But if the architects are leaning toward the arch, the environmentalists are pulling for the ribbon. The Santa Clara Audubon Society and the local chapter of the Sierra Club co-signed a letter this week calling for the council to select the less showy alternative. The arched design, they wrote, "prioritized an approach likely to harm birds in flight, emphasizing visual drama rather than a graceful transition to the low scale and open space of the Baylands." Both groups endorsed the Moffatt & Nichol proposal.
Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, expanded on these concerns in her January comments to the Parks and Recreation Commission. She called the ambitious HNTB proposal "the most hazardous to birds because of its size" and because of its "incompatibility with nature." She suggested that the reflective disks that HNTB proposed to install on the cables of its bridge may not be effective at night.
Alex Von Feldt of Acterra struck a similar note when she argued that the ribbon design best reflect's Palo Alto's ethic of "respecting the land, where man-made structures should be sub-serving, especially in a setting lit this with the beautiful Baylands around." Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel also threw her support firmly behind the lower-profile proposal. Renzel called the other designs "exciting" but said they would be a "huge distraction from the beautiful natural areas that we have there."
"Also, they're not consistent with the idea of just enjoying that natural area rather than to be distracted by being in the McDonald's arch or whatever," Renzel told the Parks and Recreation Commission on Jan. 15.
Renzel also said she was concerned that placing sparkling disks on the bridge cables (as proposed in the arch design) would distract drivers and make the highway less safe.
"It's secondary to my concern about having a profile that fits with the concept of Baylands which are low and flat," she said.
Officials from the environmental groups Acterra and the Committee for Greeg Foothills co-signed also criticized arched design, which they argued is "not in keeping with this locality."
"While the dramatic arched cable suspension system would provide a striking architectural statement in a more urbanized area, it is out of place out next to the Bay and as a gateway to the tidal marsh preserve," Joanne McFarlin, a senior ecologist at Acterra, and Alice Kaufman, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills, wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to the council.
Though the two groups didn't endorse any of the options in their letter, they requested that the council is in keeping with the Baylands and "will not pose potential hazards to the birds for which the Baylands Preserve is famous."
On Monday night, the council will weigh these arguments against the recommendation from Public Works staff and the jury to proceed with the arched bridge. In a new Public Works report, staff noted that the HNTB proposal "has been designed to give the users an experience of looking up at the arch, artwork and sky before drawing their attention to the Baylands natural setting or Adobe/Barron Creek confluence and the congruent touch-downs of the trail systems."
"Based on community, board, and commission feedback, this design is an identifiable landmark optimizing artistic expression and the separation of cyclists and pedestrians along their route to work, school and to recreational destinations," the report states.