Sunday, October 1, 2017

Outside the Park, the Minto Bridge Struggles to be Visible

(Not once, but twice!)
Truly it is nice to see praise for the Minto Bridge. Last week the City announced that
The American Public Works Association (APWA) Oregon Chapter recently selected Salem's Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge for the 2017 Project of the Year in the Structures Category for $5 - $25 million projects.
It would be interesting to learn more about the competitors this year in the category. On the surface the award looks more like guild back-patting than a real honor against worthy peers. In 2014 it looks like a retaining wall won the award! (The chapter's public records aren't very thorough or organized.) Maybe that's wrong or cynical.

The focus on the announcement, though, seems more to be on the effort to brand the bridge as "iconic" than to advertise the substantive grounds for having won the award.

At this point it seems easier to say the bridge is more famous as "taco" than icon. The half-modern dome of the Capitol and its Golden Man are icons. The Minto Bridge? Not yet. Some things are instantly iconic, but others take time to win that status.

Maybe the bridge never will. Another hallmark of the Capitol, like that of many other icons, is that it is visible from other places in town.

The Minto Bridge has limited visibility from points outside of the park system.

Minto Bridge from the Conference Center,
inside on the southwest corner of the second floor.
You may recall that one of the questions about the "flatiron" Park Front building going up on the northwest corner of the Boise parcel was whether its height would interfere with views of the Minto Bridge from the Conference Center.

(Folks who worked at or visited the Center regularly would have known the answer long ago, but I haven't seen anything written on it.)

It turns out the bridge is hardly visible from the glazed foyer on the second floor. In winter once the trees are bare it will be more visible, but the dish at Magoo's is still totally in front of it. Magoo's is the building in-line.

Park Front from outside, in the driveway off Commercial Street
The Park Front building is nowhere near the bridge from this vantage. Here you can see it (the moisture barrier still visible) behind the parking lot across the street, completely on the north side of the liquor store in the Burke building. (Glare and reflection from the windows made an interior shot too tricky, so this is from street level outside.)

So if there is anything that interposes in the sightline from the Conference Center to the bridge, it will be the nursing home building, not the Park Front building. Overall, because it is nearer, the Burke building of 1890 is a much larger barrier to views than any new construction farther away (at least at our present building heights). And it is the voids created by our surface parking lots that create most of the views. Your mileage may vary, but those aren't very picturesque and it is not obvious that the cars, asphalt, and gravel are more beautiful than any building "blocking" views. It would take a really ugly building to be worse than a parking lot! We should not want to preserve parking lots in order to preserve views.

View towards the Minto Bridge from Commercial St Bridge
From elsewhere around town the Minto Bridge isn't very dominant either. Here's the Minto Bridge from the Commercial Street Bridge over Pringle Creek. Overall, while near it the arches on the bridge have seemed oversized and out of proportion, from a distance, the bridge is not high enough off the ground to make it readily visible from multiple places in town. It's got a problem with bifocalism: Up close it's too big, from far away it's too small.

Just in general, as a matter of the way it presents itself at multiple scales and from multiple perspectives it doesn't seem to manage very well. It doesn't have a lively sense of itself as unfolding and revealing different facets as people view it from different places. And it's not all that distinctive from a distance.

Maybe this is a consequence of having engineers rather than architects lead the design. During the design selection phase, an architectural firm might have created additional renderings from other places and at different scales, and given a better sense for any narrative procession as people view it from a distance and then walk to it, and for its real iconic possibilities as a landmark. It might have been easier to discern both limits and features of the design, to make adjustments, or to scale back the ambitions to a plainer bridge. These are elements of design and expertise that that can be worth a little extra up front. (Keep that in mind on the Police Station design process.)

I love the connection the Minto Bridge has created. This summer I've had some delightful long walks between downtown and the park. But as a bridge, as a structure, it is the Union Street Railroad Bridge I still love best.


Walker said...

We have entered the Age of BS and official pronouncements are a reliable geyser of it. Calling a brand-new structure "iconic" is up there with the BSers who promote still-touring performing acts as "Legendary," lifted from Madison Ave. attempts to brand everything old but still being flogged as "Legendary."

Taco bridge is a functional success because it does something obviously necessary and useful. That it could have been done for far less, in far less time, is just symptomatic of our conflicted relationship with history, where we energetically destroy the old and graceful to build new, generic, and car-friendly, and then try to latch onto anything at all that stands out from all the charmless new stuff and call it "iconic."

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Many people tried to point this view problem as well as the extreme design that cost more than necessary, but they were shut down by the Mayor and City Council. I am hoping that this is a process from the past and that movie forward the new Council and Mayor will be more responsive to the citizens.

We have two projects where this will be tested. First, the Downtown Streetscape Project starting this fall and second, the new police station. I for one will not allow the voice of citizens to be stamped out again without making a lot of noise.

This is our town and we need to ensure that good process is followed that allows as many voices to be heard as possible. I hope others will make this same commitment.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's another view! On FB a person writes "We drove home over the bridge in the dark the other night and thought the bridge was beautiful all lit up."

I assume this means driving a car across the Center St Bridge and looking at the Minto Bridge from the car.

It's very possible that the best sightline on the Minto Bridge is from an auto rather than on foot! (That would be an interesting irony.)

Will have to check that out sometime.

But the Minto Bridge should not have to depend on nighttime illumination to stand out.

Re: costs...

Let's be careful not to retcon the debate from about 2008 to 2011. There was no credible cost estimate or design for "far less" at that time. One of the tied arch designs was at $4,815,000 and the equivalent concrete span for $3,780,000. That's only about a 20% savings. (Now, the cost escalation from $5 million to $10 million is another matter!)

Re: Streetscape...

Walker/Macy is the firm engaged for the Streetscape project and they are reputable. I worry less about not listening to citizens but to listening too much to calls for free and plentiful parking and for zoomy auto through-put downtown. It's our too vocal autoism that will threaten or compromise the project!

Anyway, it's early to have any settled opinions on it, and we'll have to see what the early process and concepts are like. It could go sideways, but hopefully it will not.

Walker said...

If there was ever a place where the least obtrusive thing was the right thing, this bridge was it. Although pretty thoroughly poisoned with toxic mill waste at the north end where the bridge is, Minto is a beautiful spot and this bridge was definitely a case where less would have been far more.

Anonymous said...

I never thought I would live to see the day the bridge was finished. It is beautiful. It is functional I have nothing negative to say about it..I am glad it's here and i have used it many times.