Stand for a minute along Columbia Street near the railroad berm in downtown Vancouver.
Now look up.
A massive steel and concrete structure that today exists only in technical engineering schematics will materialize high above Vancouver’s riverfront within the decade if the proposed Columbia River Crossing sticks to its current schedule. The Interstate 5 bridge will deliver thousands of cars, heavy trucks and light rail trains into the city at roughly the height of an eight-story building.
Washington-based bridge architect Kevin Peterson is appalled.
“It looks like a big damn freeway crossing a railroad staging yard,” he said.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt acknowledged the new bridge will cast a long shadow. Even though he supports a replacement for the current twin three-lane drawbridges, Leavitt said he’s not convinced the new bridge needs to be so high just to “accommodate a couple of cranes on barges and a sailboat or two.”
“It’ll be a monumental structure,” he said.
Yet, you’d scarcely know it by the tenor of public discussion.
Political leaders have devoted months to minimizing the bridge’s hulking footprint on Hayden Island, an area long ago given over to big-box stores, video poker parlors and a trailer park along the river.
By contrast, elected officials have said little about the project’s looming effect in Vancouver.
That’s despite the fact that tens of millions of dollars in private and public funding has been plowed into improving the city’s once-moribund downtown with condos, office towers and a city-owned convention center. Millions more are about to be spent remaking a former paper mill along the riverfront.
Downtown business representatives hesitate to criticize the long-sought project.
“The indecision about this has been a stressor for downtown Vancouver,” said Lee Rafferty, executive director of the Downtown Association.
Her organization favors a new bridge, which will extend Portland’s light rail transit system into downtown while reducing freeway congestion for the one-third of Clark County’s work force that commutes to jobs in Oregon.
Barry Cain, president of Gramor, a firm that intends to develop an office and entertainment district on the site of the old Boise Cascade paper mill downstream, said he likes the design.
“There’s some simplicity to it,” he said. “A lot of people are big on some sort of big architectural masterpiece of a structure. I think they did a really nice job of not doing that.”
Architects are more critical.
Peterson, who consults on bridge projects around the world from his office in Friday Harbor, has spent his own time over the past four months devising an alternative that would shift the new bridge away from downtown to a parallel straight alignment just upstream from the current spans. Project planners generally dismiss this idea as unworkable, given the timeline and constraints from nearby Pearson Field and the Fort Vancouver National Site.
Whether or not Peterson has a viable alternative, some local officials are beginning to raise questions about the $3.6 billion project’s impact in Vancouver — and the tenuous plans to offset it.
• The project will take about three acres from the national site. To offset the property loss and visual impact, bridge planners anticipate building a tree-covered freeway cap to better connect downtown to the historic reserve. However, officials with the bistate crossing office won’t commit to underwriting the entire cost of this 600-foot-long “community connector.” Costs won’t be calculated until it’s designed, but Leavitt, a professional engineer, said a cap of that size could cost $70 million to $100 million.
• Plans depict three roundabout-style intersections on a new city street grid all the way down to the river. But, even though Main Street will reach the Columbia for the first time in generations, it’s unclear how inviting that will be with the bridge, associated ramps and railroad overpass all clustered overhead.
• Likewise, by lifting the freeway and associated ramps, city officials say it creates an opportunity to make use of the space currently occupied by I-5. A city-sponsored brainstorming session a year ago suggested trails, boat access, parkland and festival space. But the burden would fall to Vancouver to pay for these improvements — an uncertain commitment for a cash-strapped city that’s contemplating laying off firefighters and police.
The six-block-wide footprint and iffy prospect of mitigation gives pause to at least one local leader, who, like many Washington elected officials, generally supports replacing the current bridge.
“Is it too late to make sure you have the very best and most creative design possible?” said Elson Strahan, president of the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust. “The community’s going to live with this for the next hundred years.”
In a worst-case scenario, Strahan worries that the new bridge will offer the same unappealing view from downtown Vancouver as Portland’s Marquam Bridge has from the parking lot of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
“When you build this structure, what will you be looking at?” he said.
No one is exactly sure.
Dick Pokornowski, a former Vancouver city councilor who served on the crossing’s urban design advisory group, said the group never saw street-level renderings.
“We had requested different computer designs of how the bridge would look,” he said. “And some of that stuff they said they couldn’t do because it would cost too much.”
Planners instead produced three-dimensional photo-realistic simulations from a bird’s eye view, which tend to diminish the looming effect people would experience from the ground. One view shows the bridge and associated onramps and offramps from the perspective of an airplane. Another, included in the visual impacts section of the draft environmental impact study, shows the bridge flowing into downtown from roughly the perspective of Washington and Seventh streets. However, the vantage point is level with the roof of the Smith Tower — 15 stories high.
Peterson doesn’t think this is a coincidence.
“The lack of this type of visual tool — given the push-back with respect to bridge aesthetic and mass — suggests to me that the project office is trapped in another era or embarrassed to share visual impacts of what they propose,” he wrote in an e-mail.
A crossing official indicated there is no guarantee that a street-level simulation will be produced before construction begins as early as 2012.
“As the project develops additional detail and specific discussions arise, it is possible that additional visual simulation tools will be developed to support these conversations,” project spokeswoman Carley Francis wrote in an e-mail response to a series of Columbian questions.
Later, Francis added that planners have tried to be judicious in spending $134 million in state and federal money set aside for planning the project. As of the end of June, planners and consultants had consumed $97.8 million.
“It’s not an attempt to hide behind anything,” Francis said. “We’re trying to be cognizant of the fact that we do have limited resources for doing the work that we have to do.”
Pokornowski said he and other members of the design committee didn’t push harder for street-level renderings, partly because the bridge design was still in flux when the group disbanded last year. Now, he worries that it may be too late to incorporate major changes suggested by Peterson and others.
“It would be nice to do them as long as we don’t wind up losing the whole bridge,” he said.
Officials are pushing to finish the design by the end of this year, in time to include the project in the next six-year federal transportation funding bill. Jeanne Harris, a Vancouver city councilor appointed in March by Gov. Chris Gregoire to represent the city on the crossing’s Project Sponsors Council, said she’s more concerned about functionality than aesthetics at this point.
Even so, she recalled a recent unpleasant experience standing below an eight-lane bridge carrying I-5 across the Lake Washington ship canal near the University of Washington.
“You stand under that thing, and it blocks the sky,” she said. “It just feels like you’re kind of a troll living under a bridge.”
Peterson believes that’s exactly the feeling the new bridge will engender for pedestrians in downtown Vancouver, if planners move ahead with the current design. Even though he may seldom actually drive across a bridge more than 200 miles away from his home on San Juan Island, Peterson has taken a keen interest in getting it right.
“Crossing the Columbia River with the I-5 bridge should celebrate crossing the largest and most important river on the West Coast of this hemisphere,” he said. “It’s my state. If they can’t build a decent bridge that serves the communities of Vancouver and Hayden Island, then that’s an embarrassment to me when I do my job.”