New direction urged for Columbia River Crossing

Architects, activist feel current design fails to inspire, embrace its surroundings

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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It’s easy to vilify the proposed Columbia River Crossing.

Depending on your point of view, the 10-lane freeway bridge is a sprawl-inducing ode to a bygone era or a multibillion-dollar experiment in misguided social engineering — or both. It connects two states across one of the great rivers of the world, yet it has all the charm of a parking garage.

The engineers who designed it acknowledge as much: It’s a bridge, not a work of art.

However, as political leaders on both sides of the river struggle to revive consensus, the span’s design does raise a question: Would a bridge with the architectural cache of a Golden Gate generate so much public angst?

The current CRC design came in for a rocky review from a panel of five architects and designers who gathered Thursday evening at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art. The event, hosted by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and the independent PDXplore design collective, amplified growing concern about the biggest public works project in the region’s history.

“It’s an enormous project, one that we will never see here again and we simply have to do it right,” said Florence Wager, a longtime Vancouver parks activist who attended the event. “We don’t want something that isn’t functional and utilitarian, but it should also be inspiring. Why can’t we have that?”

With its pancake-flat road deck and passing attention to the river it crosses, it’s a design that only a mother could love— which may be the root of the problem. The design is not driven by any single architectural ideal.

Instead, it’s the result of an amalgamation of engineering solutions to a diffuse set of problems: Make it high enough to avoid bridge lifts for boats, but not so high as to impinge on the air space of the 175 small planes housed at Vancouver’s Pearson Field. Improve safety while maintaining connections to a mishmash of streets on both sides of the river.

And do it all on an interstate freeway.

“I’m pretty well convinced there’s not a bridge out there that gives everybody everything they want,” said Don Wagner, co-director of the bistate Columbia River Crossing office in Vancouver.

Because form follows function, critics are unlikely to be mollified by an appealing design if the bridge promotes the wrong solutions at too high a price. But several members of Thursday’s design panel noted that it’s not too late to take the project in a slightly different direction, promoting an alternative that embraces the river and spurs improvements in the neighborhoods on each side.

Wager, the parks activist who was honored last year as Vancouver’s First Citizen, contends that a more attractive design might shore up support.

Metro council President David Bragdon said the current design isn’t even close.

“Politically, it’s stalled right now because the states are trying to force this monster down our region’s throat,” Bragdon said in an interview after attending the design panel at the arts college. “It’s not financeable. It has huge detrimental impacts on communities in our region, so the approach they’re taking isn’t going to work.”

This kind of talk frustrates state transportation officials, who say they have bent over backwards to account for the wishes of two major cities, two states, two transit agencies, and regional planning organizations on both sides of the Columbia. As of the end of February, they had plowed $87 million in state and federal money into planning alone.

Wagner noted that the states accelerated the planning process in 2008 after local agencies signed off on a replacement bridge with light rail.

“There are eight signatures. One of those signatures is David Bragdon’s,” Wagner said. “It seems interesting to me that, almost two years after he signed that document, he’s bringing up some fundamental issues about the purpose and need of the project.”

Now estimated to cost between $2.6 billion and $3.6 billion, the crossing includes a replacement for the twin three-lane drawbridges across the river itself, along with four miles of improvements to Interstate 5 and an extension of Portland’s light rail transit system into downtown Vancouver.

Govs. Chris Gregoire of Washington and Ted Kulongoski of Oregon are about to appoint an independent review board to analyze the design and traffic assumptions completed so far.

Wagner noted the states want to ease a notorious bottleneck in the 5-mile-long “bridge impact area” along I-5 on both sides of the Columbia River. Given the space constraints and functional demands, he said, engineers came up with the best design possible. If critics have a better idea, Wagner has yet to see it.

“It’s hard to bring a design sensibility to something that has foundations that are so strictly utilitarian,”said Ed Carpenter, a Portland artist who served on the crossing’s Urban Design Advisory Group.

Architects at the Portland event encouraged local leaders to put forward an alternative vision.

Carpenter appeared on a panel Thursday that also included Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell; outgoing National Endowment for the Arts director of design Maurice Cox, a University of Virginia architecture professor and former mayor of Charlottesville; Toronto architect and urban design consultant Ken Greenberg; and Richard White, a Stanford University professor and author of “The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River.”

Several lamented the impact of the multilane bridge landing on Hayden Island.

Yet they noted the island already belies Portland’s reputation as a hub of progressive urban planning: Big-box stores draw Washingtonians in search of tax-free deals; a Hooters restaurant greets motorists entering the Rose City; and a trailer park sits along the river itself. Professor White equated Portland’s treatment of the Columbia to the forlorn landscape at some tribal reservations.

“The Columbia is treated as an obstacle, something to be crossed as quickly as possible,” he said. “I don’t think you can care about a natural object unless you get involved in it.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.