They were looking for "Wow!" but, having failed, Palo Alto residents and city leaders are settling for "now."
Such is the change in community sentiment when it comes to the bike bridge that the city is looking to build over U.S. Highway 101, a structure that the City Council has been dreaming about for at least six years. And while construction is still at least a year away, the bike bridge is expected to clear a huge milestone on Monday night, when the council approves the environmental assessment for the project and gives it the final green light.
The council's vote will conclude what has been a long, complex and, at times, contentious design process for a $16-million structure that would give south Palo Alto bikers and pedestrians year-round access to the Baylands. The bridge would replace the existing Benjamin Lefkowitz Underpass, which is prone to flooding and is only open on a seasonal basis.
In 2014, the city facilitated a design competition for what was supposed to be an "iconic" bridge, with panel of architecture experts ultimately selecting as a winner a prominent, arched structure designed by a team led by the engineering firm HNTB.
The council, for its part, tossed out the recommendation and threw its unanimous support behind the runner-up: a slimmer and subtler ribbon-shaped bridge from a team led by Moffatt & Nichol.
But in December 2015, with cost estimates for the Moffatt & Nichol bridge rising to $17 million, the council agreed to terminate its contract with the firm and start from scratch on a simpler and cheaper bridge designed by Biggs Cardosa. The main component of the bridge is the 165-foot-long prefabricated steel-bowed truss spanning Highway 101 (with two smaller sections spanning East and West Bayshore roads).
The design also includes an overlook area decked with a wood finish and amenities such as benches and informational signage. Lights will be installed to illuminate the bike's path at night.
Not everyone is thrilled about the design's evolution. Asher Waldfogel, vice chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, characterized the proposed bridge design as a sign of the city's falling expectations when it comes to major capital projects. The type of trestle bridge proposed for Adobe Creek is what the "village builds over a stream," not what a city builds over a major highway, Waldfogel said during the commission's Sept. 19 review.
By failing to bring its "A-game" to this project, Palo Alto is sending a poor signal to developers and to the community about its priorities on major future projects, such as the downtown parking garage and grade separations at the Caltrain tracks. The message, he said, is that "the only thing that matters is cost."
"I think we should collectively breathe a sigh of relief that something is moving forward, but (at) the same time I think we should just pause for a second and ask ourselves why after all of this time, all this effort, this is the design that we're ending up with."
Nevertheless, the commission voted 6-0 (with Waldfogel abstaining) to approve the environmental analysis for the project. Several commissioners lauded the prospect of both enhancing Palo Alto's recreational offerings and providing commuters with a new option for getting to Google, LinkedIn or other companies in the North Bayshore area of Mountain View. The Architectural Review Board followed suit on Oct. 19, when it unanimously approved the design of the bridge, setting the stage for the council's final approval next week.
Planning Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, a former Google employee, said the purpose of building the bridge is "to encourage cycling and to get people out of their cars if possible." He proposed including signs on the bridge directing two-wheel commuters to their places of employment.
"If you drive to Shoreline or any of those exits, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the traffic is driven by the corporate campuses in that area and what we've built here is a really nice alternative," Rosenblum said.
Chair Michael Alcheck agreed, noting that the proposed structure is both "a recreational bridge" and "a commuter tool." The project, he said, is not perfect but is "good enough." Alcheck said he had found the design competition for the bridge "thrilling" and "fun," despite the fact that none of the designs from the contest ultimately won the council's support.
"I think this result is very emblematic of the challenge of satisfying everyone," Alcheck said. "When we went through that design process we had many members of our community who suggested that there are far better things to spend our money on."
The lower ambitious have not, however, dramatically reduced the costs. Thanks to a hot construction market, the new bridge has an estimated price tag of about $16.2 million, well above the $10 million that the city had originally envisioned. Of that sum, about $6.9 million will come from city spending. The rest will come from Santa Clara County funds ($4 million), the One Bay Area Grant program administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission ($4.35 million) and a contribution from Google ($1 million).
The high cost notwithstanding, residents have been emailing the council and commissioners urging them to get the project built as soon as possible. Penny Ellson, a south Palo Alto resident and longtime leader of the city's successful Safe Routes to School program, urged officials in a May email to "move this much-needed project forward expediently."
The bridge would create a "significant addition to daily bike commutes," she wrote. And for people who like to hike and bird-watch in the Baylands, it would "provide a new car-free connection to this amazing open, natural space."
"The Highway 101/Adobe pedestrian/bike bridge is an important regional connector that is long overdue," Ellson wrote. "Please move it forward quickly."