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The Rising Cost of the North Atwater Bridge Puts Its Future in Question

Los Angeles River with waterfowl
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[Update: The North Atwater bridge as originally designed was unanimously approved by City Council May 26, 2017. The remaining funds donated by Morton La Kretz remains however the bridge will no longer be named for the private donor.]

When the City Council approved the North Atwater Bridge that would cross the L.A. River to connect Atwater Village and Griffith Park in 2013, it was hailed as a “prime example of what public and private partnerships can accomplish together.” It would have been the first bridge to cross the Los Angeles river in the 21st century. It was also supposed to cost an estimated cost of $6 million. Four years later, the same proposal is one step closer to full approval – but with a staggering $16-million price tag.

Costs went up as the structural elements of the design were fleshed out and the soil quality was determined. “These were more real numbers,” said Jen Samson, Director of Placemaking at River LA, the non-profit that took the lead on the project before handing it over to the City in 2016.

It is this rising cost that has City Council members concerned, putting the future of the bridge in question. At an Arts, Parks and River committee, chaired by District 13 Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, the Bureau of Engineering presented two alternatives: move forward with the existing, more expensive and innovative design or proceed to a less costly pre-fabricated version.

Rendering for the North Atwater Bridge, aka La Kretz Crossing | L.A. River Revitalization Corps
Rendering for the North Atwater Bridge, aka La Kretz Crossing | River LA.

How this bridge came to be

Costs went up as the structural elements of the design were fleshed out and the soil quality was determined.

Building a cable-stayed bridge that would allow equestrians, pedestrians, and cyclists to safely cross the river between North Atwater Village in Council District 13 and Griffith Park in Council District 4 first became a possibility when landscape designer Mia Lehrer, who was responsible for the 2007 L.A. River master plan, first introduced the philanthropist Morton La Kretz to her client, the Bureau of Engineering.

According to Lehrer, there was a real need for a bridge.  “For kids who live in Frogtown and go to Sonya Sotomayor [Learning Academies], it takes 25 minutes to walk to school.” By making the introduction, Lehrer hoped the “Los Feliz Equestrian/Non-Motorized Bridge,” outlined in the L.A. River master plan would be on its way to being built.

Omar Brownson, Executive Director of River L.A. and Morton La Kretz, donor to the North Atwater Bridge Crossing | River L.A.
Omar Brownson, Executive Director of River LA. and Morton La Kretz, donor to the North Atwater Bridge Crossing | River LA.

La Kretz gave a $5-million gift to that end, managed by River LA. That resulted in a cable-stayed bridge design by Buro Happold.

“That first money in took it from concept to fully permitted bridge, with community outreach and a very substantial amount of vetting,” said Samson. “Private money led to a more innovative outcome, because private dollars aren’t constrained in the same way public dollars are.”

It was this proposal that the Bureau of Engineering approved in 2013. An initial $5-million budget represented estimates before soil testing and design of structural elements. Many bids also came in with favorable pricing due to the dearth of construction work at the nadir of the great recession.   

Estimated costs rose in 2014 to $9 million, then $13 million in 2016. The final bid presented on May 1 priced out at $16,145,369.

An initial $5-million budget represented estimates before soil testing and design of structural elements. Many bids also came in with favorable pricing due to the dearth of construction work at the nadir of the great recession

The La Kretz gift was partially used for design and permitting processes and $3.8 million remains. $12.25 million in public money is needed to finish the job. The current design is eligible for $75,000 from the California Community Foundation, and a $3.6 million grant from the California Active Transportation Program (ATP), available only through September 30, 2017.

When River LA moved to secure the ATP fund, the State determined they were able only to disburse money to municipalities. After a year of legal maneuvering, River LA was encouraged to partner with the city in order to receive the funds. They did.

“As a private builder we could have done this much cheaper than a municipality,” said Samson. Private builders are subject to less stringent labor and wage regulations.

Once it took over the project, the city necessarily had to budget more for contingency and overhead - $3.6 million total, on top of $12.5 million in construction costs.

 “That number – 12.5 – is guaranteed because it’s a bid,” said Samson. That bid expires on June 2, according to the BOE.

The alternative prefabricated design would cost an estimated $11,430,000. Though less than the $16.1 million quote for the shovel-ready cable stayed bridge, the prefabricated design would not be eligible for La Kretz’s $3.8 million or the $3.6 ATP grant. There would be a funding shortfall of at least $2.9 million and at least two years before the project completed environmental review and permitting.

Maintenance costs differ between the two designs; the cable stayed bridge would cost $900,000, while the prefabricated alternative is quoted at $300,000, both over ten years.

The uncertain future

For now, the city continues to move forward with the cable-stayed design. Councilman O’Farrell approved most of the BOE’s recommendations, at the May 1 meeting, which dealt with funding. But he expressed reservations about the rising cost of what he called a “somewhat opulent” design for the location.

Jon Switalski of River LA ... warned of a “chilling effect in the philanthropic community” if the project isn’t approved. “It shows the process doesn’t work,” he said.

“Funding is the primary concern, and that is where I have focused my attention. We must look at alternative, fiscally-responsible designs if it turns out no donor or partner dollars become available to fill the funding gap for this particular design,” O’Farrell said.

Community members spoke out for and against at the May 1 meeting. Olivia Frost owns an equestrian facility on the river and voiced her support.

Karen Barnett, of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council expressed frustration with what she saw as a lack of communication with the community. Another resident of nearby Elysian Valley also felt left out of the process.

Elaine Brock, longtime Atwater resident and equestrian, took issue with the cable stayed design’s price tag. “I don’t want to see any flags on the mast,” she said, citing the cable’s possible danger to birds flying overhead.

Steve Chucovich, of Buro Happold and the bridge’s designer, spoke about five years of exhaustive community and agency review.

Jon Switalski of River LA also mentioned outreach and warned of a “chilling effect in the philanthropic community” if the project isn’t approved. “It shows the process doesn’t work,” he said.

The bridge project dates back to a 1998 motion filed by then-District 4 Councilman John Ferraro. Equestrians were crossing the often fast-moving LA River at great risk. Horses could slip and fall in the algae-lined river basin. It exposed the city to liability. Ferraro proposed a concrete and steel-reinforced bridge at a cost of $1.35 million with financing coming from the Equestrian Trust Fund.

“It takes ten to 12 years to get a project built on the river,” Lehrer said. “You need momentum.”

With approval from one council, the North Atwater Bridge is close to picking that up, but at what cost remains to be seen. The project still needs to secure approvals from the Public Works Committee today and Transportation Committee May 24 before going to the full L.A. City Council.

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