Palo Alto's design competition for an iconic bike bridge leading to the Baylands reached a dramatic and surprising conclusion Monday night when the City Council overruled a jury of architects and selected a subtle, slender structure over a prominent span with a red arch and an indisputable "Wow!" factor.
After a long discussion, hundreds of submitted comments and nearly 20 speakers, the council voted 7-0 to choose a design favored by local environmentalists over the one that was chosen as the winner by an architectural panel during the city's design competition.
With Mayor Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Scharff absent, the council directed staff to begin negotiations with a design team consisting of Moffatt & Nichol, Steven Grover & Associates, Lutsko Associates, Jiri Strasky and Mark Thomas and Company to build the new bridge over U.S. Highway 101.
With an estimated price tag of $10 million, the bike bridge at Adobe Creek will provide south Palo Alto residents with year-round access to the Baylands.
In deciding to move ahead with a design contest for the new bridge last year, council members made it clear that they were looking for an "iconic" structure that would proudly announce to passing vehicles that they are now passing Palo Alto. Yet in its Monday deliberation, respect for nature trumped the desire to dazzle. With its earth tones, a slender shape and a lack of supporting cables, the Moffatt & Nichol bridge was the darling of the environmental community, with members of the the Sierra Club, Acterra and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society all favoring it over the more dramatic design proposed by the HNTB Corporation, 64 North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn.
The HNTB bridge, a curvy span with a prominent arch and a lattice-work of shimmering cables, was widely acknowledged as the most dramatic and eye-catching of the two. That helped it win the design competition in December, when a jury of architects chose it over two other finals (the Moffat & Nichol structure and a third design inspired by a kayak). Members of the city's Architectural Review Board and Planning and Transportation Commission also gushed ecstatically about the arch, arguing that it comes closer than the other designs to meeting City Council's "iconic" criteria.
But even though Moffat & Nichol didn't prevail in the contest, it ended up winning the council's support. With the overwhelming majority of public speakers supporting the Moffat & Nichol bridge, the council debated the merits of both designs before choosing the subtler approach. Once built, the span will stand out as one of the most dramatic and expensive components of the bike and pedestrian plan that the council approved in 2012. The city has already received $8.3 million in grant funds for the project, with city funds making up the balance.
Councilman Eric Filseth acknowledged that the arch design is "more dramatic" and makes for a "stronger statement" when considered outside the context. But for him, much like for most of his colleagues, context was paramount. He pointed to the commercial development happening in neighboring communities and predicted that in 20 to 30 years "what will be really distinctive in this part of Palo Alto is not the architecture, but the absence of it." The gem here, he said, is "the Baylands and not the bridge itself."
"What's unique is open space," Filseth said. "Our natural landscape will be more dramatic and iconic than anything you can make out of glass and steel."
Councilman Tom DuBois said the decision boiled down to "whether the bridge should be the hallmark, or the Baylands."
"I tend to think it's the Baylands," DuBois said.
Many of the speakers from the environmentalist community focused on the issue of bird safety. HNTB maintained that the metal disks installed in the bridge's cables would divert birds away from the structure, thereby mitigating any danger.
Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate with the Audubon Society, said she wasn't convinced. While the disks work well for power lines, allowing birds to fly over the lines when they see the disk, they may be less effective on a bridge, where the disks are surrounded by a lattice of cables.
"We're asking you not to do something with a bridge that divides the community instead of bringing it together," Kleinhaus said. "It doesn't have to be a bridge that imposes such a huge urban presence on our Baylands."
The issue of bird safety got the council's attention, with Councilman Pat Burt initially proposing having staff conduct an independent analysis to see if HNTB's mitigation is adequate. Yet, in the end, it was not the decisive factor. What swayed the council was an overarching sense that the real draw should be the Baylands, not the bridge leading up to it.
Councilman Cory Wolbach noted that the jury's decision followed what was largely an "architecture contest." The council, he said, also has "other criteria it has to consider." Councilman Marc Berman made a similar point and said the Moffatt & Nichol design "fits better" and is "more respectful" of the environment.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid agreed, saying that while bird safety is a big issue, it is "not the most important for me."
"The place is," he said. "We are proud of the Baylands. It is one of three, at most four, spots on Bayshore Highway where you actually have a full view of the Baylands and beyond them and it is a valuable resource. And I think the towering arch bridge is a distraction from the openness."
Not everyone favored the lighter touch. Judith Wasserman, a former chair of the Architectural Review Board and the chair of the jury that picked HNTB's design, urged the council to go along with the jury's recommendation.
The city's process is "strange" and "nonstandard," she said, in that it didn't conclude with the jury's recommendation. Instead, both the winning team and the runner-up ended up making their case directly to the council after all the reviews were conducted.
Palo Alto's process with the bridge is "extremely unusual" and possibly "unprecedented," Wasserman said, in that in requires two teams to "come out here and duke it out in public." She said she was "appalled" by the turn the process has taken.
"What you have is these two teams trying to sell you a bridge," Wasserman said.
Several other speakers also urged the council to respect the process and the jury's recommendation. Local resident Kirsten Daehler said she liked "the beauty" of the HNTB bridge.
"It looks like DNA. It looks like innovation and inspiration," Daehler said.
But Dierdre Crommie, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, took the opposite stance. Speaking for herself and not the commission, she said she does not believe the bridge should be a "destination."
"I think it should be a mean of access to the Baylands that integrates into the Baylands" Crommie said "That's true to our heritage as a city."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a leading proponent of having a "landmark" bridge leading to the Baylands, initially went with Wasserman's recommendation and proposed accepting the HNTB design. But after receiving no support from her colleagues, she ended up voting with the majority on the Moffatt & Nichol proposal.
Though the council ultimately reached a different conclusion than the jury, council members were quick to defend the extensive process that got them to the finish line.
Proposed by Holman, the contest drew interest from 60 teams and culminated in 20 submissions, which the jury ultimately narrowed down to three before choosing HNTB. Burt credited the process for netting "at least two exceptional designs," with the one more sensitive to the context ultimately prevailing.
"I think the community was provided two exceptional designs, and I think the process in that sense did work very well and it will benefit the community greatly over what we might have had as an alternative over the process," Burt said.