It won't be a bridge to nowhere, as an often maligned federally funded bridge in Alaska has been described. But it may go down as the most poorly implemented capital project in Palo Alto history.
And it has shown us why we should perhaps adopt an "avoid the iconic" principle of municipal governance.
With good intentions but no self-restraint, the Palo Alto City Council decided back in 2011 that a simple bicycle/pedestrian highway overcrossing connecting south Palo Alto with the Baylands and the Googleplex — the kind that one drives under on freeways everywhere — would not be good enough for Palo Alto.
A consultant's feasibility study and city planners envisioned a "signature piece of community infrastructure that connects the general community, the Baylands Nature Preserve and technology/business campuses with a safe and convenient pedestrian/bicycle pathway." The cost was estimated at $9 million. In a surprise twist, the council unanimously decided to add a complication — a design contest.
The contest idea, suggested by then-Councilwoman Karen Holman, included the caveat that if funding wouldn't allow for a "really stellar design," the fallback should be a "good utilitarian design" rather than an "underfunded artistic endeavor." With no idea of what a "stellar" design might cost, nor how it would be funded, the city began searching for grant funding while figuring out how to conduct the desired design contest.
Almost three years later, in September 2014, the contest was finally rolled out. Then-Mayor Nancy Shepherd said the council was seeking a bridge that "balances engineering with art, efficiency and beauty, while recognizing the integration with our Baylands."
"We hope the architects and engineers submitting will be inspired by the beauty and innovation in Palo Alto when creating their designs, and we look forward to seeing what they come up with," Shepherd's statement said. She was joined by her eight colleagues, including Holman, who was responsible for coining the much-maligned "iconic" descriptor for what the council was seeking in a bridge that would be seen by every vehicle traveling on 101.
The contest was expected to take just three months and result in the selection of a winning concept in December 2014. At that time, the estimated cost had risen to $10 million and was expected to be funded primarily by grants. The plan was to have it built by 2018.
But in March 2015, facing public pushback on the concept of a showy and expensive design, a defensive council surprised everyone by rejecting the dazzling design that won the competition in favor of the more subtle and restrained design of the runner-up. As current Mayor Eric Filseth said at the time, "Our natural landscape will be more dramatic and iconic than anything you can make out of glass and steel."
To the shock of everyone, within six months the selected design firm had revised its cost estimate to almost $17 million due to increased construction costs. After the city staff warned that the price tag could go even higher due to site complexities, the council voted to abandon the design and start over with a simpler and cheaper bridge — nothing like what had been originally envisioned.
In November 2017, the environmental assessment for the scaled-back bridge was approved amid great frustration about a process that had wasted six years in search of an "iconic" design. And this week, still talking about the ever-increasing costs — now $20 million — the council quietly approved the construction and management contracts for a bridge that will get bicyclists and pedestrians across the highway but won't attract any attention as an architectural achievement.
The history of this project is emblematic of what often happens in Palo Alto with major infrastructure projects. With ambitious and complicated ideas, the process drags on so long that it loses continuity and momentum, leading to changes that further prolong decisions and implementation. This not only drives up costs, it is deflating to everyone involved, including the public, city staff and consultants.
Palo Alto needs this bridge, and it will get enormous use. It should be a permanent reminder of how in Palo Alto we too often become mired in ideas that seek to solve a simple problem in complex and "iconic" ways that are not worth the time, money and frustration.