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Three Perspectives on the Riverside Figueroa Bridge

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The bid to transform the Riverside Bridge to a High Line-style urban project has been in contention for the past few months.

Since we last covered the issue, the original proponents, RAC Design Build, has partnered with non profit Enrich L.A. in an effort to encourage even more public support. Over the last few months, they've garnered an impressive amount of community support from a wide spectrum of groups, including 18 neighborhood councils, Los Angeles Walks, and the Goldhirsch Foundation, according to Tomas O'Grady, founder of Enrich L.A. At the same time, Mayor Eric Garcetti has expressed doubts about the project. No other city council members have also stepped forward to sponsor the endeavor.

We checked in with three of the major players in the debate to ask what future they see for the Riverside Bridge.

Tomas O'Grady, founder Enrich L.A.

Enrich L.A. is only two and a half years old, but we've already built more than fifty school gardens. We've been focusing on edible gardens in schools, but overall we want to convert any piece of the city to a wilder, greener, more natural state. This partnership with RAC Design Build (RACDB) then made perfect sense.

Since we've taken on the project with RACDB, we've seen so much community support for this. All the neighborhood councils we've talked to have either supported this or supported looking further into this.

We're not asking to build the exact design RAC Design Build had proposed, but it's food for thought. Let's have a design competition for it and see what comes out of it.

What do you say to officials who have stated that it's too late for any changes?

It was too late then. It was too late four months ago. They're saying it's too late today. As we gather more and more support, I've been getting calls from the Mayor's Office and the Bureau of Engineering, asking us to put a stop to the support letters, but it's not stopping. At the pop-up park event we held, more than a hundred people showed up in support. We also keep getting calls and inquiries from other organizations. I'm convinced, as we've seen before working with school districts when we do this kind of wrestling of the community, that policies change, things change. By god, this will change too.

What if it doesn't happen? What then?

If in the end, it doesn't happen, then we've still sent a signal to the city of Los Angeles that the next time you guys plan on knocking down something beautiful or old, you have to think twice about it. We've already lost so much of history in the city with that kind of mindset.

The city is just keeping mum about all this issue. We cannot even get the city to come up with an official action on this matter. There's no letter from the city that says, "we will not do this." It's disrespectful to see how the city is treating people who are really trying to get involved and say something.

Rendering of LandBridge by RAC Design Build
Rendering of LandBridge by RAC Design Build

Deborah Weintraub, Bureau of Engineering

What is the current status of the Riverside/Figueroa Bridge construction now?

The new Riverside Bridge, which will replace the old Riverside/Figueroa Bridge, is more than 50 percent complete. We expect the new bridge to be completed by late 2015. The demolition of the old bridge, which has been planned as part of completing the new bridge, will begin in April.

Why would it be difficult/not difficult to halt the progress of construction for this proposal?

As you can imagine, changing gears in the middle of a project this size is complicated -- the new bridge is a $68 million project, with 88 percent of the funds coming from the federal government, and the work must follow the related federal rules and regulations.
Construction of the new bridge was approved back in 2006 and the City was given the okay to start building in 2011.

Six months ago when the designers approached us with their idea, we told them that we could do a feasibility study of their concept, which needed to be completed by December 2013 in order not to unduly impact the timing and cost of the new bridge. The City did not have the funds to pay for the study, which the designers proposed to raise. When they were not able to raise money for the study, the City did a preliminary assessment of their proposal.

We found that just stopping demolition of the old bridge would cost the City up to $4.9 million based on our contractor's estimate, and that turning a portion of the old bridge into a park would cost between $15 to $25 million, depending on a whole host of unknown factors that would need to be fleshed out. In preliminary discussions with our federal funders, they indicated these costs would be fully borne by the City, and any funds saved by not demolishing the old bridge would revert to the federal government.

The costs of stopping demolition are based on a number of factors. First, the contractor would charge the City for delays to the construction of the new bridge. Also, the negotiated cost of the new bridge includes the salvage value of the steel from the old bridge, which is due to the contractor. The construction company would also need to put larger cranes into the river bed so they could build the new bridge over the top of the old one, which is an expensive proposition and would require additional permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the rail companies. The remaining section of the old bridge would need to be braced on the eastern edge where the road bed and structural connection to the east side would be gone.

Federal dollars are hard to get and they have a lot of strings attached. The City had preliminary conversations with the federal government, and they indicated that if we changed the scope of work on the project, we would have to renegotiate the terms of the federal funding.

It is important to understand that the portion of the old bridge the advocates want to repurpose is only about 100 feet long and it does not connect to the east side of the River, because the section over the rail tracks does not meet the clearance requirements of the rail. To connect it to the east side, we would have to find funds to build a series of ramps to go up and over the rail lines. The old bridge is also "fracture critical" based on the nature of the old steel truss. Likely reinforcing would be required, which would be understood after a full structural analysis.

Spending as much as $15 to $25 million on a small park is a fiscal decision for City policy makers. Those funds might be used more effectively somewhere else.

Rendering of new Riverside Figueroa Bridge
Rendering of new Riverside Figueroa Bridge

For other city projects, how could RAC Design Build have approached a similar project proposal differently?

We are always pleased when community groups and residents are fully engaged in what we do and willing to work with us to help us shape the future of their neighborhoods. The City at many levels met with RAC Design and other advocates, and explored their ideas in these meetings.

Projects of this size go through a multi-year planning, design, funding, approval, and community outreach process. We do our best to help residents understand the planning process and to help them have a full grasp of the complexities of securing funding from multiple sources, the environmental reviews we need to complete, the multiple decision levels that need to be involved, and many other factors. We do this by holding public hearings and community meetings, and providing ongoing information through public notices, articles, and other communications from Council offices, City staff and others. This was done for the new Riverside bridge project.

Yes it's a long process, but it is no different in other cities. The 1.5 mile long New York High Line Park, which people have used as a model for this idea, opened its first section in 2012. However, planning for the park began in 1999, 19 years after the elevated rail platform had stopped being used. The park also cost more than $150 million, much of it funded through private donations.

Are there other opportunities to develop the area around the bridge?

One idea is a proposal to recapture space made by the arches under the freeway ramp that connects the 5 to the 110 freeways, along the west side of the River. Tall, elegant arches, which are not going to be demolished, support this under-freeway space and the area could be turned into a unique riverfront park by repurposing an unusual infrastructural remnant that also has historic value. This proposal would extend the bike path to this area and draw attention to a stately, large-scale architectural space, which has been completely ignored, to date.

We encourage community members to familiarize themselves with this concept, which the prior Councilmember had identified as a unique opportunity, in many ways more of an L.A. space than the old bridge as it would repurpose an area under a freeway. Exploring a project like this is more feasible because we have time to assess what it would take without impacting a project in construction. (This idea was an honorable mention in the recent Northeast LA Riverfront Collaborative design competition, and the entry can be viewed here.)

Steve Appleton, project proponent for Confluence Colonnade Parkway

What led you to propose this alternative for the Riverside Bridge?

I made the alternative proposal hoping to create consensus. I give credit to Tomas O'Grady and RAC Design Build for putting our focus on this important site. Yet, I respectfully disagree with the value of saving all portions of this historic bridge.

What are the merits of your alternative proposal?

Saving and re-purposing the 1924 Colonnade section but demolishing the remainder will create up to an acre of public green space at river's edge, 2000-foot extension of the path, and a notable architectural destination.

I propose to clean this portion up, grade it out and seed bomb it. Sandblast and or paint the colonnade and commission murals. Then, we could offer colonnade sections for rent to bike shops, farmer's market, river non-profits, art galleries. This is a world-class destination and the project has the potential to be supported through public/private partnerships.

How much support have you received on this proposal?

Council district 1 and 13 have expressed interest in the proposal. The Bureau of Engineering also requested drawings from me two weeks ago. I'm in conversation with economic development consultants.

Confluence Colonnade Parkway
Confluence Colonnade Parkway

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