Trying to Respect Work Toward a Halfway Decent North Spring Street Bridge Project

May 15, 2011 § 11 Comments

Back in 2006, the city of Los Angeles proposed tearing down the 1929 North Spring Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River. The city planned to demolish the locally and nationally recognized historic bridge and construct a brand new bridge. The project included widening North Spring Street  from about 43 feet to about 96 feet. More than double. Really. Spring would have gone from a large neighborhood-scale street to a freeway-scale street.

It was particularly irritating to me that city engineering folks would present this project as needed for bike safety and for river revitalization… though no cycling or river groups were pushing for it, and, in fact, many opposed it. Grrrrr. Cyclists sure don’t need fifty-feet’ worth of widening.  Wider bridges and streets just mean faster-moving cars… making conditions less safe for biking and walking. And if you really wanted to spend ~$50million to make the river healthier and/or to make streets safer for bikes, there are a lot better and more effective ways to spend it. To me, it’s clearly about wider roads for more and more and more cars… in a dense central part of the city where high percentages of people walk, bike and take transit… hence it’s about jamming more non-local car traffic into Lincoln Heights and Chinatown.

Enjoy and defend our historic bridges while you still can. Pictured: Detroit Avenue Bridge over the Rocky River - Cleveland, Ohio - demolished

Due to a lot of pressure, mostly from historic preservation folks, that massively wrong-headed version of the project is now off the table. Whew.

As presented at the public meeting last Tuesday May 10th 2011, the newest version of the North Spring Street Bridge project is… better. It preserves most of the historic bridge. It only widens from 43 to 68 feet. It does take a bridge that’s currently configured to be not too great to walk or bike on and, in some very expensive and inefficient ways, makes some space for walking and biking… but I still think it’s a) not necessary, b) too wide hence unsafe and c) not all that respectful to the wonderful existing bridge.

This post got really long and very cranky and critical… but before I launch into invective, I want to first acknowledge the folks that were successful in taking this one from massively wrong-headed to just somewhat wrong-headed. I do know that it takes a lot of effort to get the city of Los Angeles’ bridge-builders (and their follow-the-bridge-money consultants, in this case including URS and Psomas) to reign in their disrespectful excesses. It took a lot of work to reduce this project from 96 feet to 68 feet.

So… First thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy, L.A.’s top historic preservation non-profit, and an organization you should donate to if you like historic bridges. The Conservancy launched the 2010 alert that derailed the city’s approvals of the tear-down project. Creek Freak ran the alert here. It’s due to the smart and effective campaign run by the L.A. Conservancy that this bridge stands today. (Note that the Conservancy has great on-line historic bridge info here and further North Spring campaign info here.)

Second, thanks to Los Angeles City Councilmember Ed Reyes. Reyes is, of course, the foremost L.A. River advocate on the City Council, and is also arguably the Council’s strongest voice for safe streets for walking and bicycling. Though, I have to say that river progress is slow, and the streets sure ain’t safe for walking and cycling… so he doesn’t have toooo much competition for these honors. (Another caveat: I worked for Reyes in 2002-2004.)  I just wish Reyes could have had the audacity to kill this project – preferably to have already killed it early on… but I know it’s not easy to turn down a ~$50M capital project in one’s district. He had the sense and perseverance to wrestle this project down, reigning in much of its disrespectful excesses, and for that I am grateful to him.

And now that I’ve mostly editorialized, how about some specifics from this week’s meeting?

First the lane width measurements - for bike facility geeks like me, the devil is often in these details. Bike lanes are minimum 5-feet. Car lanes in most cities minimum 9-feet to 10-feet, though in L.A. mostly minimum 11-feet. On freeways lanes are generally 12-feet. (I’ve listed all of these upstream to downstream. They’re not the overall bridge width, just the transportation area width – ie: railing not included. sw=sidewalk. bl=bike lane. tl=travel lane. m=median.)

current: 4′sw-9.5′tl-10′tl-10′tl-9.5′tl
(43′ total, no downstream sidewalk)
2006 teardown proposal: 10′sw-6′bl-12′tl-12′tl-10′m-12′tl-12′tl-6′bl-10′sw
(96′ total, from now-defunct northspringstreetbridgeproject.org)
2010 teardown proposal: 10′sw-5′bl-11′tl-11′tl-10′m-11′tl-11′tl-5′bl-10′sw
(90′ total)
2011 widening proposal: 5′sw-5′bl-11′tl-11′tl-4′m-11′tl-11′tl-5′bl-5′sw
(68′ total)

Under the leadership of the Bureau of Engineering’s Clark Robins, the North Spring Street Bridge was seismically retrofitted in 1993.

In the early 2000′s the city crunched the numbers and figured out that it could pull down federal and state bridge monies for projects that would mangle nearly any of its historic bridges. The city sought and received about $50M for North Spring.

The city hosted initial scoping meetings in 2006, which I attended and remember with a sense of impending doom. The project kept being described as a sort of replica that would preserve the character… which was clearly false when I looked at their preliminary designs, which had more freeway character than historic bridge character.

The project then fell off my radar for a while, until last year – 2010 – when the city published their (now rather ironically titled) “FINAL” draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR.) This project phase is described heartbreakingly well by the L.A. Conservancy’s website:

Although environmental review for the proposed widening project started nearly four years ago, the BOE didn’t release the draft environmental impact report (EIR) until March 2010. Less than three weeks after the close of the public comment period, the City issued a hastily prepared final EIR in May, prompting the Conservancy and other community organizations to come out in full opposition.

The Conservancy’s initial comments on the project, submitted in October 2006, sought detailed consideration of an alternative that would leave the historic bridge intact and construct a stand-alone pedestrian crossing alongside it. This option was quickly rejected by the BOE without full analysis in the draft EIR, even though the City is favoring a similar approach for upgrading the Riverside-Zoo Drive Bridge.

In reviewing the North Spring Street Viaduct project on April 15, 2010, several members of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission expressed anger and frustration over the compressed timeline for the project and their apparent powerlessness to alter its course. “I feel that we have our hands tied behind our backs,” lamented Commission President Richard Barron, “and we’re watching the guillotine smash [the viaduct]. It’s sad, it’s sad.”

Despite community opposition, led and organized by the L.A. Conservancy, the EIR was certified by the Board of Public Works in June 2010. And then, mercifully, it hit a snag. The City Council’s Transportation Committee failed to approve the EIR, due to historic preservation concerns. This sent the project back to the drawing board.

The city formed a working group. The folks getting paid for this project realized they were going to lose the project money if they didn’t budge on the concerns that the Conservancy and others had been raising for the previous four years… and so they regrouped and re-tooled the project.

According to Andrea Galvin of Galvin Preservation Associates, speaking at last Tuesday’s meeting, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) compromised to the “absolute minimum we could live with.” This meant 68′, down from 96′. This is a step in the right direction… but still excessive.

(We interrupt your timeline for more editorializing: I know that nobody at the city listens to me regarding road widening, but I personally think the best solution would be no widening at all on this bridge… and, really, no widening anywhere. This no widening policy works just fine for the city of Pasadena and others. Just live within the existing road width. All widenings make streets less safe; widening encourages faster car traffic, which is less safe for peds, bikes, drivers.  This portion of North Spring Street borders the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles State Historic Park, the Chinatown Metro Gold Line Station, Downey Recreation Center and a couple of historic buildings. It should be redesigned to be more like a park road, and less like a freeway. It should de-emphasize cars, and prioritize transit, cycling and walking. This stretch should be made much safer for cyclists and pedestrians by doing what’s called a road diet. Typical road diets convert 4-lane roads into 3-lane roads with bike lanes. The federal government has studied road diets and found that they enhance safety for everyone, including drivers. As there are no left turns to be made on the bridge, the road diet there could go 4-lanes to 2-lanes. So my dream lane reconfiguration within the existing 43′ right-of-way would be something like 6.5′sw-5′bl-10′tl-10′tl-5′bl-6.5′sw. Unfortunately this project would cost very little, so the consultants would have to find other work. Note that this very road diet was in an early version of the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan… but was deemed infeasible during that plan’s EIR.)

So back to the city’s new design: With a 68-foot-wide bridge, it became possible to widen only the downstream side of the bridge. The city would keep the historic 1929 bridge intact (more-or-less other than the downstream railing) and it would build a separate connected bridge, called an “independently supported appendage” by Psomas’ Anissa Voyiatzes. This means that the view from the North Broadway Bridge would be maintained (and, importantly, the bridge’s status as a designated historic landmark would be maintained) but that there would be a new bridge in the way when viewed from downstream.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the city offered participants the choice between three different versions of the independently supported appendage bridge, essentially asking whether it should look contemporary or should be a replica of the existing bridge. I and any others who favored no widening had to stage a write-in campaign… as selecting any of the three choices offered would have been condoning the unneeded widening.

In order to sell the project, the city paid consultants created three syrupy youtube videos: A Ride Down Memory Lane, North Spring Street Bridge Improvements, and You Spoke, We Listened. The vids state that the new bridge will be safer for “pedestrians, bikes, and motorists” (what about bicyclists whose faces are blurred and cropped in the vids?) and that the bridge is a “major access point… to communities like Lincoln Heights, Highland Park and Mount Washington.” (What a coincidence, the bridge connects to a community that’s exactly like Lincoln Heights!) The city’s crack consulting team also created a Spring Street Bridge Flickr site. I was going to show you one of the images from there, but they’re all restricted. When the new project mars the old bridge, we’ll still have these photos and vids to remember what it used to be.

The consultants apparently showed up at CicLAvia to promote the bridge widening. They bought advertising space on L.A. Streetsblog, resulting in this article there… which led to this wonderfully bitingly funny comment: (which I love, and wish that I’d written)

The first thing I thought about when I biked across this bridge was, “I wish the lanes were wider so that all the cars driving by me can even faster.”

Thank God for traffic engineers in downtown – always thinking of new ways to eliminate problems like extra park space (a wider bridge would subtract park space from Downey Recreation Center), and needless distractions like all the small businesses in Lincoln Heights that struggle to make rent while the City maintains no parking zones during prime shopping times during the day.

Yes, if only this bridge could support an even larger flood of cars through North East LA – clearly the 110 freeway, Broadway, Main, the 10, the 5, 710, 60 and the 101 are not enough.

My only suggestion: if we can widen the lanes enough to allow higher car speeds I want the middle of the bridge to be deleted from the plans. Only the strong will make it!

That is the City I want to live in, dunno about you. Booyah! Faster cars, wider lanes!

Yes – speed up those cars and make them jump to cross the river! Thank you to the unnamed kindred soul who wrote that.

If anyone reads this far… bless your heart… I make no claims to objectivity on this one. I truly hate this awful project and have dreaded it for the last five years. I am pretty resigned that it will, in its newest somewhat less odious form, get built. And I am a bit relieved that it’s not any worse. And I look forward to the day, someday, when the city will respect its historic bridges, its communities, its cyclists, its pedestrians and its river.

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§ 11 Responses to Trying to Respect Work Toward a Halfway Decent North Spring Street Bridge Project

  • Walt says:

    You hit the nail on the head.

    • Joe Linton says:

      Thanks, Walter. I generally try not to write these cranky rants – even for stuff I am angry about, I think it’s better to use a more rational, more respectful voice when being critical. I meant to write a slightly more respectful, more resigned article (as evidenced by the title) but the invective kinda just spilled out. I figure while the bridge stands intact there’s still a chance, no?

  • Marino says:

    For me Spring street is scary to ride because
    #1 it’s not wide enough and a bike has to take a lane AND
    #2 it has this steep uphill/downhill curve making a bike on the downhill invisible to a fast car coming behind it from the uphill.

    On another note this article could benefit from some illustration (map link, photo, illustration). Even though I cross Broadway & Spring all the time, I had to google map it to make sure what bridge you were talking about. Mostly because I remember the Broadway bridge being architecturally significant and the Spring Street as unremarkable. Maybe because I’m too worried climbing the hill without getting hit by a car that I never noticed.

    • Joe Linton says:

      I agree that Spring Street as currently configured is stressful/scary for cyclists, though I wouldn’t state that “it’s not wide enough”… it’s 43 feet wide… which is plenty of width for me. To me, it’s how the existing width is allocated. I think that not enough existing width is allocated to bikes and pedestrians.

      I agree that the article would be better with a photo and a map… I sort of left it blank in protest of the city, a public agency, posting copyrighted images to Flickr… but that didn’t make it clearer for readers.

      I don’t agree that the Spring Street bridge is “unremarkable.” It’s a beautiful architecturally/culturally significant bridge… and don’t take my word for it. It’s recognized by the federal Historic American Engineering Record and it’s designated as a city of Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    I vote for your road diet solution, and reallocating the remaining funds to skinnying streets with landscape bumpouts that treat stormwater.

  • [...] Joe Linton Recaps the North Spring Street Bridge Controversy (Creek Freak) [...]

  • I vote for the LADOT office commuter road widening. The last thing the city needs is a safer more prosperous Lincoln Heights! That would slow down all the LADOT staffers that commute from outside Los Angeles down Huntington Drive from their suburban homes in the San Gabriel Valley.

    If the City focused on growing its street-car commercial districts into vibrant middle class shopping areas, it is a proven fact that staff working in City Hall would see their property values decreased on their exurban homes. Then how will they be able to afford that equity line of credit to fund their pornography rings?

    Mark me as a “YES!” on widening the bridge and making it a car only freeway. Nobody uses the parks, LA River, or our streets for anything but killing each other and driving – and that is the way it should always be, forever and ever!

  • Robert Baird says:

    Thanks, Joe, for this very articulate description of the project’s history.

    For me, it became impractical to hope for a road diet on North Spring when the option didn’t survive the CASP EIR. I’m not going to get into whether that conclusion was correct or justified (I think it depends on your personal tolerance for vehicle congestion), just suffice to say that the City has taken that option of the table. The top priority, for me, has always been getting the bike connection to the Cornfield established. The more cyclist-friendly, the better.

  • Joe says:

    The current bridge is indeed very scary to bike on. I fully support your plan to upgrade the curb lanes to bike lanes.

    Perhaps we could harness the energies of the Tea Party people towards opposing the proposed wasteful and unnecessary bridge widening. They say they’re opposed to government waste, right?

  • [...] bike lanes on Expo and MLK. Learn the art of track racing at the L.A. Velodrome. L.A. Creek Freak objects to “improvements” to the North Spring Street Bridge that would just allow more cars to go faster. Long Beachers are invited to participate in a bike [...]

  • […] example of this excessive widening was the North Spring Street Bridge. Today’s 43-foot roadway would be widened to a 96-foot roadway. More than double the existing […]

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