The Great Divide

As the city decides how to build its first new bridge in decades, should Portlanders push for form or function?

By Mike Thelin May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Architect Miguel Rosales’s hybrid proposal for the next bridge over the Willamette River.

It’s been thirty-six years since the city of bridges built a new span over the Willamette River. The tenth and most recent came in late 1973, when the Fremont Bridge, a steel-arched, double-decker emblem of the car-centric 1970s, took its position in the Northwest Portland skyline.

With the coming of the Willamette River Bridge in 2011, Portland has the chance to build a showcase structure that captures the city’s momentum as a national leader in smart mass transit, sustainability, and urban planning. The bridge—which would connect the Central East Side Industrial District just south of OMSI with the South Waterfront, and run a new MAX light-rail line to Milwaukie—would be the first in the nation built solely for mass transit and pedestrians. And yet what have the planners plucked from the idea box? Essentially an off-the-rack design that might as well say, “Welcome to Portland—we’re unoriginal!”

After narrowing the design options created by renowned Boston-based bridge architect Miguel Rosales from twelve to two, TriMet’s Willamette River Bridge Advisory Committee preliminarily chose a typical, towering cable-stayed span over Rosales’s “wave” bridge, whose design features parallel wavelike arches and is unlike that of any other bridge in the country.

At about $113 million, the cable-stayed option is decidedly cheaper than the one-of-a-kind, $176 million wave design, which helps explain why, in America, the cable-stayed is as ubiquitous as Starbucks. But, with 270-foot towers, the cable-stayed design is too big for what planners call “the pedestrian experience”—some worry the bridge would dominate the landscape.

In hopes of landing the best bridge possible despite the worst budget constraints since the Depression, Rosales has proposed another option: a hybrid cable-stayed-and-suspension span—a sort of minimalist rendition of New York City’s famed Brooklyn Bridge.

With graceful, floating cable arches, the design echoes the aesthetics of the Ross Island Bridge and the esteemed St. Johns Bridge, and would, the MIT-trained Rosales says, cost just slightly more than the cable-stayed bridge. TriMet, though, has yet to analyze the hybrid’s cost.

“I’m excited about this,” says Guenevere Millius, a designer with SRM Architecture and Marketing and a member of the advisory committee. “[Rosales is] finding a great solution given the constraints.”

In March, the committee recommended a cable-stayed option to TriMet. But they are leaving it up to TriMet and the Federal Transit Administration—which will pay for part of the project—to choose between the hybrid and the original design, a decision that will be made in the coming months.

Rosales, who holds the TriMet contract and will be paid the same amount no matter which design the committee selects, believes the city deserves better than bland. Bridges here have historically served more as functional necessities than artistic emblems, but building a bridge is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and Portland is no longer just another small town between San Francisco and Seattle. The city has evolved into a creative-class demographer’s dream, filled with designers and architects and chefs. “A great bridge could symbolize that creativity,” Rosales says. And become a postcard-worthy landmark for generations to come.

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