Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project Takes Another Step Forward

The new bridge appears to make space for cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Source:
The new bridge appears to make space for cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Source: Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement project

At a press briefing yesterday morning, Councilmember Huizar and representatives from the Bureau of Engineering (BoE) and the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) announced that “the planning and building” of the Sixth Street Viaduct is progressing “substantially.”

As proof, they released two new renderings of the bridge illustrating the efforts of the BoE, the design team lead HNTB, architect Michael Maltzan, the joint venture of Skanska and Stacy and Witbeck, and Huizar’s office to refine the design vision of a ribbon of arches across the entire length of the new Viaduct. The arches will soar up to 60 feet, throughout, and two will feature ascending stairs (rendering below), offering patrons unique views of the city, river, and park space below.

To tell you the truth, though, the briefing took me by surprise.

I didn’t even find out about it until after the fact, something that I find odd for a few reasons.

For one, this is one of the most iconic structures in the city and is widely beloved, including by many in Boyle Heights who have been very vocal in asking that the city and design team do more to involve the community in the process of determining the bridge’s future.

For another, this $401 million project is the largest of the BoE’s $1 billion bridge project portfolio, and will have a significant impact on folks on both sides of the bridge and below it during the four years of construction and beyond (should it impact housing prices, for example).

And, third, over the past couple of months, I had tried contacting project people through the website and facebook regarding project updates, all to no avail.

I had been particularly curious about the progress of the project because, at a public meeting on the project last year, the crowd had been told that the design would be 90% completed by January of 2014 and that a community briefing would be held at that time so the public could review the design. Participants also learned that the reconfiguration of intersections that would be impacted by increased traffic flows once demolition was underway (below) was to have begun this summer.

The intersections slated for improvements to help accommodate the increase in traffic they will see during the period the viaduct is closed. Source: Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project
The intersections slated for improvements to help accommodate the increase in traffic they will see during the period the viaduct is closed. Click to Enlarge. Source: Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project

Those plans and the briefing never materialized. Nor did the work on the intersections.

Instead, it now appears intersection improvements and reconfigurations will likely begin in the fall. And, some time in August (or later), the comprehensive set of updated Viaduct renderings will be completed and presented for public review at a briefing.

Notably, although only two renderings were released yesterday, they do seem to signal a slight shift in the tone of the project.

The first set were sleek and seemed to emphasize the smooth and speedy shuttling of cars back and forth across the 3500 ft. span, as seen in the video below.

There appeared to be no space for the many bicyclists I see commuting across the bridge daily. And, when I asked if bike lanes were part of the plan, I was referred to the renderings.

While I later received confirmation that bike lanes would be included (and they appeared to have been sort of planned for, according to Caltrans’ 2011 Record of Decision), it wasn’t clear where they would fit in.

The newer renderings have remedied that by fully integrating bicyclists (in abundance, no less, below) into the design. The bridge speed limit, which will be set at 35 mph, should also help keep the bridge navigable for everyone.

Rendering of one of the ascend-able arches and the soccer field Councilmember Huizar is pushing for below. Source: 6th St. Viaduct Replacement.
Rendering of one of the ascend-able arches and the soccer field Councilmember Huizar is pushing for below. Source: 6th St. Viaduct Replacement.

What remains unclear is exactly how much will be done to help the Boyle Heights community on the east end of the bridge aid connect with the project.

As noted here, the bridge improvements will stop several hundred feet and a freeway on-ramp short of Boyle Heights.

The bridge ends with the towers, at left. The intersection of Boyle and Whittier is marked by the red pointer, at right. (Google map screen shot)
The viaduct officially ends with the towers, at left. The intersection of Boyle and Whittier is marked by the red pointer, at right. Click to enlarge. (Google map screen shot)

The reason is that the viaduct officially ends at the towers (pictured above at top, left) while the remaining sections are considered separate structures and owned and maintained by Caltrans (extending over the freeways to the intersection at right).

The funding for the viaduct project comes primarily from the Federal Highway Bridge Program and is supplemented with matching funds from the State Proposition IB Seismic Safety Retrofit Program. Thus, it has to be directed towards creating a sound structure for the viaduct, which experts have estimated currently has a 70% probability of collapsing in a major earthquake.

Integrating the viaduct with the Boyle Heights community more organically — or simply making it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to traverse the across the remaining bridges and freeway on-ramp — falls outside the scope of the project altogether, unfortunately.

All that said, there are a few potential wins for Boyle Heights.

One is a proposal by Councilmember Huizar for a soccer field on the east side of the river. He is still in the process of sourcing funds to build it, but has made clear the field is part of his effort to make the bridge and the space below it a welcoming destination for the community.

Another is the selection of Glenn Kaino as the artist who will “provide art design services” for the project.

Kaino grew up in Boyle Heights and understands the importance of the bridge to the area. Incidentally, he even has a recent work entitled, “Bridge,” consisting of gold casts of the arm of Olympic athlete Tommie Smith arranged in a kind of metaphorical bridge of memories linking past and present struggles. Smith was one of the athletes that raised his black-gloved fist in a Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, protesting the inequality African-Americans faced at home. (See the iconic photo of Smith, here; see images of the work here; see more on Kaino’s work, here, including a piece inspired by the Zapatistas)

Kaino’s credentials notwithstanding, it isn’t quite clear what it means to provide “art design services.” Whatever that entails seems to be a departure from the aspirations of the DCA to see an iconic art installation that “responds to the architecture” of the new structure and is integrated into the project. If it is indeed a down-scaling in thinking, it is likely due to the challenge of populating such a massive span with art on the small budget allotted for it — 1% of the construction budget, or ~$1.3 million.

Finally, the third potential win is the negotiation of a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). According to Public Works, the Federal Highway Administration just approved their proposed PLA and they are now working to get labor to sign on. Ideally, a PLA provides for the hiring of a specific percentage of disadvantaged workers and apprentices. As detailed here (regarding jobs on the Crenshaw Line), it isn’t a perfect system. And, the fact that project funds are from a federal source means that the hiring pool the contractors will draw from must be a national, rather than local, one. But, it is still a step in the right direction and could potentially benefit construction workers from the area.

We won’t know much more in the way of specifics until the community briefings are held a few months from now. In the meanwhile, you can find the renderings and information from past briefings at the website for the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project, here.

  • Joe Linton

    Regarding “The intersections slated for improvements to help accommodate the increase in traffic…” I suspect that these so-called “improvements” aren’t what we pedestrians/cyclists/transit-riders will have in mind when we use the word improvement.

  • sahra

    Actually, my understanding was that they did include improved crosswalks, repaired sidewalks, and new signals. Of course, the purpose is to facilitate traffic detours, so it doesn’t mean the roads will be more comfortable for anybody. And, if there isn’t a lot in the way of bike infrastructure on a street already, then there isn’t much that can be preserved or enhanced when you’re looking at just intersection improvements… which seems to be their focus (not improving the length of major streets that will carry diverted traffic, like Boyle or Soto, both of which are slated for bike lanes… Not sure how those plans will intersect with the bridge plans…

  • ubrayj02

    Oh, they will be “improved” all right! Gotta keep those vehicle throughput numbers up! But only by dumping more money on the issue and not by traffic calming, traffic circles, or anything else that might mellow the streets for other road users.

  • Cynical Rida

    Please don’t tell me bikes will be given a five foot gutter, er, I mean bike lane adjacent to high speed moving traffic (it doesn’t matter what the speed limit is when there is a crash barrier clearly suggesting speeds will be high) separated only by paint. Anything less than a cycle track or wide shared-use path with pedestrians is unacceptable. See the recently re-built 1st Street bridge for what glorious conditions bicyclists are given…

  • Cynical Rida

    “The new roadway would have a maximum width of 70 ft (curb-to-curb) and would consist of two 11-ft-wide lanes in each direction, a median with a maximum width of l0 ft, and outside shoulders with a maximum width of 8ft, which would incorporate future bicycle lanes.”

    Oh yay! An 8ft gutter instead of a 5 ft gutter. This is BS. Car lanes need only be 10ft wide and there is no reason to have a 10ft median, hand that space over to make spacious cycle tracks and wider sidewalks. If you give bikes “a maximum width of 8ft” shoulder, guess where they are going to ride? That’s right, on the sidewalk.

  • Nathanael

    Why is the design missing elevator / stair access to the warehouse district below? This would be a way of getting people to JOBS on foot…

  • sahra

    There will be access, according to the release i got from Huizar’s office. “Additionally, the bridge will have stairs to provide access from the
    ground below to the bridge deck on both sides of the river.” I thought the original design also included a ramp… but that may have been only to the deck. The previous set of renderings wasn’t as detailed as they could have been, in part because it seemed like they had a lot of work to do with regard to squaring design with engineering and other requirements, and in part because it seemed like they hadn’t gone as far in planning for what would happen underneath the bridge as one might have expected. That said, the bridge is massive, so it would seem that more than one access point from below would be prudent…? I guess we’ll see when they come out with their latest renderings in a couple of months.

  • sahra

    Truth be told, when I first saw that in the doc., I actually thought it meant that they hadn’t really even expected to put bike lanes in right away… they spoke of them as being in the “future.” So, I think some steps forward have been made. They will have another presentation of the renderings in a month or two, and I hope advocates will raise those questions then. No one raised them at the last presentation.

  • sahra

    And, I should add, Huizar called for the new bike path planned for along the river to connect with the bridge, too, so at least the rhetoric is moving in the direction of making this project more human-scaled. Which, again, is a bit of a departure from what I had seen/heard before.

  • Elbatmanuel

    Just to be clear Boyle heights doesn’t begin at the intersection of Boyle and Whittier.
    “What remains unclear is exactly how much will be done to help the Boyle Heights community on the east end of the bridge aid connect with the project… the bridge improvements will stop several hundred feet and a freeway on-ramp short of Boyle Heights.”

    Boyle Heights begins at the East end of the river, the area under the bridge is BH and it is getting a new Park, staircase and river access it (the community) that doesn’t currently have. As a resident near the bridge those all sound like infrastructure additions that will benefit the community. I don’t understand why you might make it sound as if this bridge is doing nothing for BH?

  • sahra

    I am not making it sound that way at all. But, as I mentioned in the previous story I wrote on it (linked in the piece), there have been some genuine issues with regard to the planning and engagement around the bridge that have left the community feeling slighted. The failure of the improvements to reach the intersection of Boyle or at least get patrons past the on ramp is one. Beyond the safety concerns, it may end up making it look like Boyle Heights is not worth the visit. Kind of like the 5 running through Hollenbeck Park… it’s like BH just has to get the short end of the stick on major projects.

    The lack of information provided to those under the bridge is another that will be displaced is another. They’ve been wondering at what point they’re going to be forced out, or if they’re going to have to move at all — some complained of having gotten conflicting information.

    And the design and approach to art (discussed in meetings in the previous year or two) didn’t seem to fit the community’s aspirations/aesthetics particularly well and seemed to be pushing aside/overlooking some of the artistic traditions in the area. It didn’t seem to be being planned for them and how they recreate with their families, is how people seemed to feel at the time of those earlier meetings. I think something like the soccer field will be a great addition and I feel like the project is becoming a little more human-scaled as it goes. But, the folks involved in the project also seem very reluctant to engage the community for real — their outreach in Boyle Heights has been poor. That needs to change.

  • Elbatmanuel

    Who is being displaced by the bridge? There are no residences directly below, only industrial and commercial buildings. Why a soccer field? There are 2 beautiful soccer fields less than 1 mile away. How about a space that everyone can use not a specialized sports field.

  • sahra

    That’s not true, there are residences and studios below the bridge. And, because they are expanding/shifting the footprint slightly, the number of people affected could be quite large. The 2011 estimate described as many as 33 businesses being affected of which at least 11 would have to relocate. And yes, there are fields located at the rec center, but there are also some complex mobility issues in the area for youth, and some might be able to access the bridge more easily than they can that rec center. And the soccer field won’t be the only park/open space either, at least if the plans stick to previous renderings. Either way, the soccer field was not my idea, so you are welcome to contact Huizar’s office or attend the meeting in August to raise your voice. Some debate about what those spaces should look like might be healthy… right now it seems like folks are simply being told what they’re going to get.

  • Elbatmanuel

    Zima has the entire area under the bridge zoned m2-1, residential dwelling units are prohibited. Anyone who would be displaced would be occupying a structure not legal for occupancy.

    Quite honestly I think any type of recreational area down there would be questionable, look at the rail tracks right next to the bridge. In the video and in person you clearly see black round carts parked on the tracks. Do you know what those are? Chemical tankers, and why do they Park them there, because it’s not a populated area. If for any reason those were to be compromised the potential life hazard would be enormous. Unless they changed where the rail company parked the chemical tankers it would be risky to invite a mass of people to congragate near by.

  • sahra

    I’m just telling you people showed up at the last meeting asking about losing their space. I don’t know if they’ve slipped in under some caretaker clause or what — this I do not know. But the estimate was at least 200 ppl/jobs would be displaced if the businesses were moved, although (at the time of the assessment), the businesses were hoping to stay in the city…but that’s all I know.

    I have always assumed that those train cars you’re referring to were empty, as they sit there for ages at a time, and storing chemicals under the baking sun didn’t seem like the optimal way to go about things. But stranger things have happened…