It started innocently enough. In a meeting with the LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) about another issue, architect Kevin Mulcahy asked why the existing steel span of the Riverside-Figueroa bridge over the LA River was being demolished. It didn’t make sense, given that the replacement bridge had been moved further upstream during seven years of planning. Soon Mulcahy and his colleagues at RAC Design Build worked up an alternative proposal that preserves the old steel bridge as a High Line-style pedestrian park. They began asking questions. Would the reuse proposal, which Mulcahy calls the Figueroa Landbridge, compromise the new span’s structural integrity? It wouldn’t. Would it jeopardize the replacement bridge’s environmental approval? No again. For weeks, the Figueroa Landbridge seemed more and more likely to become a reality. But now, as the clock runs down—demolition of the steel span is slated for April 2014—Mulcahy has hit a wall. The problem, he says, is politics not pragmatics.
According to Mulcahy and Rick Cortez, principal at RAC Design Build, the city’s Bureau of Engineering manipulated the project’s cost estimates “in a strategic way” to prevent City Council from requesting a feasibility study. Without a feasibility study, the project can’t move forward. “We still believe the council members and the Mayor have the city’s best interests at heart,” Mulcahy said. “They’re just ill-informed. It appears more of a risky venture on their end. Because there aren’t groups or people asking for the Landbridge, it makes it seem like they’d be going out on a limb.”
Deborah Weintraub, Chief Deputy City Engineer at the City’s Bureau of Engineering, said “we took a very serious look” at RAC’s proposal, and noted that there was no cost manipulation. She said the $4.9 million estimate that the project’s contractor, Flatiron Construction, gave her department was their “first take,” and likely would have changed following a closer look. Any changes to the original plan, she added, would likely not have federal funding, making a change this far into the process more challenging. “The funding implications required close consideration by our policy makers,” she said. “The cost didn’t justify the benefit.”
Mulcahy and Cortez argue that their bridge-reuse proposal would be relatively inexpensive and easy to implement quickly. The architects want to preserve one section of the existing bridge, the steel span built in 1939 as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ work to channelize the Los Angeles River. Renderings show a concrete pedestrian and bike ramp leading to an elevated pedestrian mall, with plantings and wooden benches and chaise lounges. The Landbridge park in turn connects to an articulated pedestrian and bike bridge over the railroad tracks. If built, the Figueroa Landbridge would provide a link between existing north/south and east/west pedestrian and bicycle corridors.
Whatever the merits of the design, Mulcahy and Cortez seem to be near the end of the line. “If we can drum up some political support this week it might make all the difference, time’s not on our side,” Cortez said. He and Mulcahy believe they made a mistake by not first mobilizing public support for their proposal. If they had, the Bureau of Engineering’s estimate might not have scared the City Council away from investing a relatively paltry sum—$64,000—into a feasibility study. Now all they can do is hope, and continue pleading their cause a bit longer. “It does smack of incongruity” in the face of contemporary excitement over LA River revitalization, Mulcahy said. “There’s been 20 years of advocacy. We’re advocates, but also makers—we like to make things happen. We like for people to use things.”