So in previous posts, I’ve alluded to my fascination and love for the High Line, Manhattan’s recently opened, suspended park built on the old High Line railroad line in lower Manhattan. This mile and a half “greenway” is innovative in so many ways, whether from an urban planning, redevelopment, landscape architecture, or design perspective. To me, the success of taking something that was about to be torn down and turning it into a design-driven, green oasis in the middle of a sprawling metropolis is almost amazing.
So much to my amazement and excitement did I come across an article last week about Ronal Rael’s idea of taking the old, to-be-torn-down section of the Bay Bridge and turning it into a park and mixed-use development a la the High Line. Fascinating idea. Rael, principal at Principal at Rael San Fratello Architects and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley’s graduate program, developed his ideas as part of a UCLA-sponsored design competition. While I am very intrigued by the idea, the reader’s comments beneath the article were mostly about why it cannot or should not be done, but I imagine that when the idea of the High Line was first floated around New York, it received similar feedback from naysayers. While I am not saying this is a good or feasible idea, I think that successes like the High Line, or the Promenade Plantee in Paris, which the High Line was inspired by, should have us pause and engage in a real dialogue about such an innovative idea. The article pointed out that if you look at history, the concept of re-purposing a bridge has been around for awhile; look no further than the storied Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, with all its retail shops, for a rather famous and successful example. I never thought of it that way when I was there last summer:
While I am no urban planner, re-developer or engineer by any stretch, I have my own reactions and thoughts about this idea. The three most common obstacles that people pointed out were cost, safety and access. Here are my thoughts on those three:
The article mentioned that estimated price to retrofit this old portion of the bridge was $200 million (I am not sure if that includes converting the bridge into a park, probably not). Yes, that is serious money any way you slice it. But just as financial “backers” of the High Line emerged in New York, I am sure there would be backers of this project as well in the Bay Area, whether individuals, corporations or foundations (in addition to government money). I’d even be open to corporate sponsorships if need be, based on what the project would be bring to the community. I can imagine it now – the Apple Amphitheater, the Gap Gardens or the Clorox Climbing Wall. I know I am probably in the minority, but I would also be open to park entrance fees or bridge toll increases to make this happen.
Another thought would be to not retrofit the bridge at all and save $200 million, reducing costs to just the conversion process. Of course, this issue leads to safety so let’s talk about that…
So here’s the thought about not retrofitting the bridge and going with the current structure. We’ve all gone to public parks and monuments and not all of them, or not many of them for that matter, are safe. Take Half Dome in Yosemite, that is a public park that is NOT safe, particularly the uppermost portion. Why aren’t we retrofitting it with ADA-compliant, seismic controlled, lighted, concrete stairs and ramps? The answer lies with money and not disturbing the natural habitat. If that’s true, why can’t with think the bridge in that way? It is what it is, and what it is is enough to be preserved and shared for the future generations. Yes, there would be some minimal risk to entering this park (in the event there was a catastrophic natural disaster while you were there – even so in the last big quake “only” one section collapsed, and that was under the weight of numerous cars). But how is the risk of entering this park any different than going to any other “public” park and being exposed to those risks like hiking Half Dome or hiking Land’s End in San Francisco and risk falling down the cliff or being swept by waves into the ocean?
My only compromise would be to not have the Bay Line be mixed use – I think it should be for recreation and entertainment only. In my mind this would be help reduce the risk of many people getting hurt since no one would live and work there 24/7. Furthermore, if the bridge was for recreation only and outfitted with only minimal additional new infrastructure, my guess is that the load and strain on the bridge would be much less that it is today, whereby reducing the impact of a seismic event.
This to me might be the most challenging issue since the park is not near any current public transportation aside from car traffic. I know that the new portion of the Bay Bridge bridge has bike and pedestrian access so I am imagine traversing from the new to the old bridge would be doable. Still that would only account for very limited access. I think the easiest solution would be having Treasure Island serve as the park access point (accessible by cars and ferries) and parking area. A more extreme idea is having an aerial tram system (like the Palm Springs Aeriel Tramway or New York’s Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram) from the Oakland side where parking would be located. While this is probably pretty expensive, this would become an instant Bay Area landmark and tourist attraction like the London Eye and probably pay for itself over time. Again, access is a sticky issue…
So this blog post is not supposed to be a deep, insightful analysis or public debate about this project. Instead it’s merely another point of discussion to explore this novel idea. As a Bay Area resident and native, proponent of redevelopment, and admirer of innovative urban planning, I just think that this idea has legs, particularly in the face of similar successes in other places. Why tear down a huge, existing, expensive structure on prime real estate when it can be re-adapted for a productive and inspiring second life? Sure, it’ll be complex, controversial and expensive but the thought of a two mile long park, 200 foot above the water, looking toward one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world is just too good to not at least consider.
To read the original post and download Rael’s proposal, visit: http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/09/09/uc-planners-envision-bay-line-park-on-the-old-bay-bridge-span/