Design by committee: notes from the latest Willamette River bridge meeting [UPDATED]
Last Thursday the Willamette River Bridge Advisory Committee (WRBAC) had its first meeting since February, and the committee made a recommendation that TriMet go forward with a cable-stay bridge. It was not a unanimous decision, but the committee in recommending the cable-stay has rejected the hybrid form bridge design fashioned by Miguel Rosales.
I was exceptionally disappointed by the decision, but with some qualifications.
In the Rosales hybrid concept, Portland was getting a uniquely tailored bridge that took its formal, geometric cues from the adjacent Ross Island and Marquam bridges while also borrowing some of the St. Johns Bridge's natural elegant curves.
There were two traditional cable-stay options that TriMet and the WRBAC committee were considering, and those would have been a particularly bad choice for the city: oversized, bland, ubiquitous: a cookie cutter bridge plopped into the central city. However, the "refined cable-stay" option that the committee recommended is significantly better. It has more of the hybrid's grace, compactness and elegance - not all of it, but much more than the previous cable-stay options.
So even if the Rosales hybrid concept has lost out, at least its introduction and the support it had in City Hall, the public at large and even on the WRBAC committee has helped TriMet and its designers fashion what I think of as a much better cookie-cutter.
[Note: this paragraph added later.] If you're reading this post and wishing there were more images or renderings of what these two bridge prototypes (the refined cable-stay and hybrid) would look like, so am I. When the WRBAC committee voted last Thursday, they were using the same single image per bridge type that I posted previously ("Willlamette bridge: examing the options"), or at least they were for the hybrid. I think more needed to be done to visualize graphically both these bridges. The committee didn't have enough visually to make their decision, and as a result the focus understandably became more about budget.
As the committee members cast their vote one-by-one, each seemed to say something along the lines of, "I'm no design expert, and I can't tell enough difference between the hybrid and cable-stay to justify the extra cost."
In attendance at the WRBAC meeting was Donald MacDonald, the Bay Area architect who was selected over Rosales's firm. It seemed clear in the meeting and from talking informally with TriMet representatives that MacDonald was chosen largely because of his firm's experience with the design-build process through which the bridge will be built. I heard the phrase "design-build" and "experience" used a lot in reference to MacDonald.
MacDonald and his firm also seem to have a particular design talent when it comes to the details of bridge design. I don't see MacDonald as a big thinker like Rosales. He wouldn't come up with an all-new type of bridge like Rosales did with the hybrid. But MacDonald will be able to tinker with the refined cable-stay design and its details to make the bridge a little less of a cookie-cutter and something a little more uniquely Portland.
The WRBAC committee is full of decent people with a broad array of public and private interests. The committee is an inclusive wide tent, and in a democratic sense TriMet should be proud of that effort.
But the committee seems to include only one or two people from the design community, and those voices are diluted by the many other interests represented on the committee. There are people from Ross Island Sand & Gravel, for example, as well as construction companies, nonprofits, other businesses. It's in their interest, but not in their expertise or experience, to be deciding about the nuances of design.
I don't think the WRBAC committee or any other huge committee, however transparent and open to public involvement the TriMet process is, will produce anything close to a great design. There has to be some extra leadership that sees enduring design as more important than staying under budget. Or at least an array of images to make it more apparent to everyone.
This is why a project this big needs a design competition to produce a great design and a great designer. Look at the Portland Aerial Tram. That project had big problems because of the ridiculously low $15 million initial estimate used to sell the idea. But because of the design competition that produced architect Sarah Graham (of AGPS Architecture), the inevitable budget cuts and engineering did not compromise the quality of the finished product. And it's really the product that matters as much as the process, or more.
Also troubling while watching the WRBAC meeting was the information the committee had to make its decision. The refined cable-stay and the hybrid came with two very different estimated price tags: about $89 million for the refined cable-stay and about $112 million for the hybrid. It became clear during the discussion, though, that many of the extra costs piled onto the hybrid may or may not be legitimate, listed as "requirements risk" and "design development risk". The construction costs for the hybrid were also listed at $75 million compared to about $62 million for the cable-stay, even though the materials would be about the same.
"This is a little bit riskier, a bit more innovative," TriMet's Rob Barnard said of the hybrid. That's probably true, but it seems like TriMet, although not trying to deceive anyone, may have loaded up the hybrid's extra risk-based cost. I'm not an engineer or an estimator, of course. This is entirely supposition. But I do know that the cost estimator TriMet used, the National Contractors Group, is really just one retired engineer who works from his home and has ties to TriMet's engineer.
Oh, and while we're talking about budget, note that TriMet's willing to spend somewhere around $135 million. So technically the agency could afford either one.
After the meeting, one WRBAC committee wrote me an email saying, "I'd like to have a Ferrari, but I can't afford it." The hybrid, he implied, was the Ferrari.
I'd venture that the choice here is more like that between a Geo, a Toyota, and a Mercedes. The traditional cable-stay is the Geo: cheap, ugly, bland. The refined cable-stay is the Toyota: not bad looking, and affordable, but not unique or special. The hybrid is the Mercedes: more expensive, but gorgeous and timeless.
Notice that I said a Mercedes, however, and not a Ferrari. I think the committee believes the hybrid is a Ferrari: something too ridiculously expensive and unrealistic to choose. It's too bad, because the Mercedes is really the better metaphor: something Portland would have to stretch a little more to have, but would really love.
Ultimately a great building project, whether it's architecture or a piece of engineering like a bridge, needs a great client and process. I think TriMet and its WRBAC committee are just a Toyota client, and there's nothing wrong with that per se. Maybe it's too naive or idealistic for me to want a Mercedes for Portland and not a Toyota. But if you were keeping your car for a hundred years, and the financing for that Mercedes was absolutely doable--within your allotted budget, in fact--what would you go for?
I know metaphors are merely stand-ins for the real bridges, and you shouldn't have to take my word for it (nor anyone else's) that the hybrid is better than the refined cable-stay. And besides, the two are much closer now, especially since the hybrid has lost a little of its design grace since Rosales left the project - it's now missing the suspension bridge curve.
The WRBAC committee's recommendation of the refined cable-stay does not mean the decision is final. The City Council will hear from TriMet's steering committee tomorrow, and vote, I believe, on June 17. On June 22 comes a 'request for adoption' from the steering committee. There is also a Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project Open House on June 11 where you can make your voice heard.
Ultimately I think MacDonald's bridge very well may be pretty good. Perhaps how the rest of you feel about it will depend on how much importance you place on this bridge being better than just pretty good and instead being something great.