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Op-Ed: How Historic Landmarks Board Totally Debunked Plans to Demolish Mission Creek Bridge

(Editor's note: The long-running civic debate over the fate of the historic Mission Creek Bridge has resurfaced, with the preservationists clearly prevailing in last week's skirmish before the Historic Landmarks Commission. Here's an on-the-scene report from our correspondent in the conflict).

By Lanny Ebenstein

Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon

It is long past time for the city of Santa Barbara to drop the misconceived idea to demolish the existing, historic Mission Creek Bridge - and to begin investigating far less expensive alternatives that would retain the iconic structure, roadway alignment, and cultural landscape.

Any doubt about the validity of that argument should have been erased at last week's meeting of the Historic Landmarks Commission, whose members evinced little support for the array of proposals to destroy the bridge -- and provided plenty of reasons for keeping it,

Commissioner Michael Drury was the most vehement in his denunciation of the plans.

The first commissioner to speak, he could not have been more clear: "I don't believe the road lacks safety," adding that he does not see "any facts" to support the claim that the existing bridge and roadway are not safe. He emphasized the "natural traffic calming" of the current bridge and road configuration. The proposed plans would, in contrast, "just speed traffic up," thereby increasing the chances of serious accidents.

Drury opposed breaching and realigning existing, historic stone walls attached to the bridge, including the notable "stegosaurus" wall. He observed the existing bridge had not experienced any damage in a number of local and nearby major earthquakes, including in 1906, 1925, and 1952. He also said the bridge had not experienced flooding in its 130 years, including in 1975 and 1983, which were adjudged one in 500-year flooding events.

A sampling of other commissioner's opinions:

  • Wendy Edmunds said she "agreed with Mr. Drury." Noting that she is a biker who rides two or three times a week through the area, Edmunds said that, based on personal experience, she saw "no problem" for bicyclists with the width of the current bridge. Edmunds was clear regarding the overall plans: "I just don't see this as an issue."

  • Ed Lenvik agreed there are not alignment, circulation, or bike problems. He is "not in favor of messing with the arch," and said the bridge and surrounding area are "part of local heritage." He thought the road and bridge should stay where they are. Lenvik also expressed strong support for ADA accessibility.

  • Robert Ooley said it was difficult to "weigh in," because there were nine different possibilities (three bridge plans with three roadway options each), but believes that historic resources should receive "highest protection" and that preserving the existing bridge would respect the original designer. He said he does not perceive a problem with the existing road alignment: "What makes the road scenic is that an engineer hasn't straightened it out." He thought it possible to have enhanced safety without loss of existing historic resources.

  • Dennis Doordan, stating his "general agreement" with preceding comments, observed that the bridge has survived other earthquakes and that all disasters are unique. There is "no guarantee" concerning what would happen in an emergency. He also questioned if any of the bridge proposals would meet the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's standards for treatment of historic structures. That is, all of the plans could result in loss of the bridge's historic status.

  • Steve Hausz did not "buy the underlying premise of replacing the bridge." He thought all of the plans are overreacting to possible, unknown events. With respect to emergency safety, he said that demolition and reconstruction would take a year or more, and that evacuation routes would limited during this time. He also noted there is "no simple detour" for the area during this phase, apart from emergency evacuation. He termed the bridge and surrounding area a "major cultural resource" and opposed the removal of sycamore trees. "I can't support" the plans, he summarized.

  • Bill Mahan called Mission Canyon a "very special place," and said it is important to be "careful and not diminish its aesthetic qualities." He believed it is important to maintain Mission Canyon Road's "country road" feeling, adding that the road is a significant part of the "character" of Mission Canyon that should remain as close as possible to the way it now is. He favors protecting historic resources as long as possible, and believe there are methods to strengthen the underpinnings and foundation of the existing Mission Creek Bridge without replacing it. He favored a westside pedestrian access that would not be close to the existing bridge.

  • Commission Chair Anthony Grumbine summarized the views of all commissioners this way: "Leave it alone." He also said there is not support on the commission for changing the existing Mission Canyon Road alignment, echoing Mahan's comment that Mission Canyon Road has a country road feel. Grumbine said that the bridge and roadway are an important cultural resource and called attention to the proposed removal of sycamore trees.

Almost all commissioners also expressed support for low-cost and non-intrusive changes that could be implemented to the existing bridge and roadways in the near future.

Among the key statements in the staff report for the meeting: "Due to funding shortfalls, the Caltrans Highway Bridge Program Advisory Council is modifying guidelines, reducing bridges' eligibility ... [I]t is anticipated that additional funding will be needed if a project moves forward."

Thus it is likely the City of Santa Barbara would have to spend millions of dollars more of its own funds on a project than originally anticipated. Staff also noted that Mission Canyon Road is already safer, from the standpoint of traffic, than many city thoroughfares.

Where the process goes now is uncertain.

"The team is looking for HLC comments to help create a project that not only meets the safety goals but honors the historic bridge and landscape," the staff report stated.

It's a plain fact that demolishing and redesigning the bridge is not the best way to honor it -- and a new bridge would diminish, not improve, safety.

Leave it alone.

Lanny Ebenstein, an economist and educator, is chair of the Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon.

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