Palo AltoPlanned Construction January 15, 2015

Palo Alto Bike Bridge Designs Wows

by Gennady Sheyner / Palo Alto Weekly

One cries for attention with its prominent red arch and a row of changing lights. The other is an understated ribbon that tries to blend into the Baylands. The third is inspired by a kayak, even though it’s meant for bicycles.

The designs offer starkly different visions for Palo Alto’s “iconic” new bike bridge, the subject of a recent design competition, but the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission agreed on Wednesday night that any of the three would represent a big win for the city.

“I think it’s hard to go wrong with either of the choices,” Commissioner Michael Alcheck said during Wednesday’s discussion of the new bike bridge.

“I think we have three awesome bridges here,” concurred acting commission Chair Adrien Fine vat the end of the discussion. “Palo Alto would be lucky to have any of them.”

The three finalists were chosen out of a pool of 20 proposals that the city received as part of its design competition for a bridge that would span U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, giving south Palo Alto residents year-round access to the Baylands.

On Dec. 17, 2014, a jury chose as the winner the boldest and loudest of the three the arch concept proposed by HNTB Engineering, 64North, Bionic Landscape Architecture and Ned Kahn. The jury agreed that this design comes the closest of the three to achieving the City Council’s stated goal of creating a prominent landmark structure that would serve as a gateway to the city.

The final choice will be made by the council, which will consider the jury’s recommendation in late February. And while the planning commission waxed ecstatically about all three designs, members refrained from taking strong stances in favor of any of the three.

Instead, the general consensus was that despite their stark differences, any of the three would make for a proud addition to Palo Alto. Only Alcheck expressed an opinion about his preferred choice, giving the nod to the subtlest of the three proposals: the ribbon-like bridge designed by Moffat and Nichol, Steven Grover and Associates, Lutsko Associates, JIRI Strasky and Mark Thomas and Co.

Fine, who last week was elected vice chair and who ran the meeting in the absence of newly elected Chair Greg Tanaka, offered words of high praise for all three proposals. He was a bit puzzled, however, by the kayak shape of the design proposed by Endrestudio, OLIN, SBP and Biohabitats.

“It might not come across as a bike bridge – the fact that it’s imitating a kayak,” Fine said. “It’s nice to know a bike bridge is a bike bridge.”

Roy Snyder, a bicyclists and birder who lives in the Palo Verde neighborhood, made a pitch for keeping things simple and focusing on the bridge’s function rather than the frills. The overcrossing, he said, “is the means, not a destination, nor the attraction itself.”

“Nor should it be a distraction from the natural Baylands environment,” Snyder said. “The Baylands are where the action is. The Baylands is where we want to go. We want to get there as expeditiously and easily as possible.”

Commissioner Mark Michael expressed similar leanings. He called all the designs “impressive” but wondered if the HNTB design, known as “Confluence” is a little “too grandiose” and suggested that there might be a benefit to having a bridge that is simpler and has a lower profile.

“I do like the arch but I’m worried that it’s gonna be quite the landmark,” Michael said.

But after calling both the arch and the Moffat and Nichol proposals “impressive and inspiring,” he concluded that they’d “both be terrific for different reasons.”

“It’s a shame there has to be a winner and someone who doesn’t win,” Michael said. “But whoever gets the second place, maybe that bridge should be considered for the span between Town & Country and Paly.”

He wasn’t the only one who struggled to pick a favorite. Judith Wasserman, a former member of the Architectural Review Board and chair of the jury that selected the arch proposal, said she was “blown away by how beautiful and poetic all of these were.”

The decision, she said, was very difficult to make. Ultimately, the jury went with the arch so as to best comply with the council’s hunger for a prominent icon. The subtlest design finished second in the voting and the kayak third.

“That’s what most people who preferred the arch said that you will see this more than the other bridge,” Wasserman said. “The other bridge was very elegant, structurally amazing, and looked like it was self supporting. We looked for sky hooks and didn’t see them.”

But much like the planning commission, Wasserman had nothing but love for all three bridges.

“I personally felt that you can close your eyes and throw darts and come out good,” she said.