Saturday, September 27, 2008

Willamette Crossing

The "deck-arch" I-5 bridge scheme

The Local Affairs Committee of the American Institute of Architects-Southwestern Oregon Chapter had historically seen its level of activity rise and fall as “hot-button” issues grabbed local headlines and then faded. The goal of the erstwhile committee had been to work with public agencies to review and participate on public planning initiatives, and to initiate or respond to architectural issues affecting the local community. Today, the role of a de facto Local Affairs Committee is fulfilled by the monthly assemblage of our past AIA-SWO presidents (aka the “Dead Presidents”). This august and capable group recently took a very public stance about the design process for the proposed new I-5 bridge that would span the Willamette River at Eugene.

Eric Gunderson, AIA-SWO president in 2007, championed the “Willamette Crossing” issue because of its once-in-a-generation aspect and the Oregon Department of Transportation’s own promise to construct a “signature” bridge that would be the beneficiary of input from community-minded and aesthetically inclined advisory groups. Eric was a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Group organized by ODOT and thus experienced ODOT’s design input process and the resultant frustration firsthand when the popular “through-arch” bridge configuration was passed over in favor of the less costly “deck-arch” design. Following a spirited exchange of e-mails among the Dead Presidents, Eric penned an opinion piece that was printed in The Register-Guard on September 24, 2008. The following is an excerpt:

“The I-5 Bridge over the Willamette River began with great promise. It was funded as part of Oregon’s goal to revitalize crumbling bridges. Most bridges built today are flat decks, rarely seen from below, and barely noticeable from above. The railings are often positioned so we cannot even see the water we are crossing. But out of many projects across the state, $10 million was added specifically to make Willamette Crossing a signature structure. This was the promise . . .

“Some feel spending money on 'design features' is frivolous. Yet we choose to live in the Northwest because of its beauty. As a community, that is our greatest common value. What we build should complement the rivers, mountains and valleys we are blessed with. Building structures we care about is among the most important investments we can make. We call upon ODOT to offer a vision that will re-energize the public and advisory committees. A hard look at the budget and images of a clear concept should be the next step. Let’s keep the promise.”

The ODOT decision was particularly galling not only because it appeared that budget once again had trumped other concerns, but also because ODOT chose to defend the selection of the deck-arch design as that favored by the most first and second choice votes. Note that the deck-arch scheme did not receive the most first place votes alone: the through-arch design was broadly preferred by a 2-to-1 margin over the deck-arch. AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle weighed in with his own Register-Guard editorial about ODOT’s “new math” and its rationalization of the I-5 bridge selection. Don would pull no punches:

“State officials gave 'careful consideration' to public input. 'Careful' in this case means 'crafty,' 'contrived' and 'Orwellian.' The state tells us the deck arch received more votes for first or second choice than any of the others. It also had the fewest last-place votes. Corvallis may have more math majors, but come on — we can count! Adding first and second choices adds insult to injury. The state is giving us the bridge we hate the least. We were promised a 'signature bridge.' We were promised uncharacteristic transparency. In the end — if this is the end — we got neither.”

Of course, attention to the budget should be an important issue. As architects, we confront the challenge of balancing available project funds with functional requirements and aesthetic concerns everyday. We’re skilled at creatively planning and developing design ideas to maximize the full potential of a project within the limitations of its budget. The new I-5 Willamette Crossing bridge project is no different.

My sense is that ODOT’s announcement of the selection of the deck-arch design was premature and based reflexively upon very raw cost estimates, ones that the Community Advisory Group (CAG) and Project Delivery Team (PDT) were not given an opportunity to adequately review. I also doubt that the bridge design team was sufficiently challenged by ODOT to seek the most creative solutions for optimizing the project budget in light of the clear preference for a signature bridge. Indeed, ODOT Project Liaison Tim Dodson expressed his regret to Eric about ODOT’s failure to provide sufficient time for the CAG and PDT to ask the hard questions about the relative costs of the through-arch and deck-arch configurations. Upon reading Eric’s piece in The Register-Guard, Tim relayed his appreciation for AIA-SWO’s call for continued partnership with ODOT despite initial disappointment, and his belief that architects and the community can exert significant influence on the final visual character of the project. Rather than stubbornly retrench, or worse, ignore the criticism surrounding the selection process, ODOT appears willing to take a step back and further examine the design options.

Yaquina Bay Bridge (1936) designed by Conde B. McCullough

So the key to moving forward will be to explore what can be incorporated into the I-5 span to truly ensure that it is a signature bridge, one that marks the southern entry to the Willamette Valley and the first crossing of its namesake river (1). As Eric pointed out in The Register-Guard on behalf of the Dead Presidents, there is danger in design by accessories. The addition of applied ornamentation, merely pasted on the surface, was strongly opposed by the Citizens’ Advisory Group. Ideally, the signature bridge would be born of an integrated concept in which art and engineering are one, a product of right- and left-brained thinking that would enhance its setting (2). This is the quality of the most memorable spans, such as the widely admired bridges designed by Conde B. McCullough and constructed across river estuaries along the Oregon Coast Highway during the 1920s and '30s. It is the same quality (albeit articulated with a very different vocabulary) for which Santiago Calatrava’s designs are so highly regarded. It is why creativity of the highest order is necessary now to ensure that the result is a beautiful Willamette Crossing that would be both elegant and economical of means. Let’s see how far ODOT’s renewed commitment to working with its community partners will go toward realizing a bridge that our community will wholeheartedly embrace.

It was important that architects weigh in on this topic (3). We rightly should be regarded by the public as leading voices on issues related to the built environment. The I-5 bridge project is too important for the AIA-SWO to not have formulated an opinion about; our silence would have been conspicuous. The Dead Presidents not only took a constructive stance on the issue, but also ensured that our profession presented a consensus view derived from the diversity of opinions that reflects the breadth of our membership. This has always been the goal of the Local Affairs Committee and (in Eric Gunderson’s view) stands as an example of the AIA-SWO at its best.

(1) Carl Sherwood (1990 AIA-SWO president) argues that the new bridge should be regarded as a landmark for the southern entrance to Willamette Valley as opposed to being a gateway to the Eugene/Springfield metro area, which it effectively would not be with no connection planned to Franklin Boulevard.

(2) Current AIA-SWO president Jody Heady takes the contrarian’s view with respect to the proposed bridge. His belief is that the deck-arch design is the most aesthetically (as well as fiscally) responsible because it would be less likely than a through-arch structure to self-consciously call attention to itself and possibly detract from the natural beauty of the river.

(3) UO professor emeritus of architecture and landscape architecture Jerry Diethelm also editorialized about the I-5 bridge project. Check out his May 15, 2008 article in the Eugene Weekly.

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