Spanning the City's Horizons : Architecture: Bridges across city streets are being proposed, and vetoed, more frequently. Developers see bridges as 'urban gateways,' but many city officials see them as skyline obstructions.

When developer Alexander Haagen was preparing to revive the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Los Angeles, he was frustrated that the plaza site was divided by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a split Haagen and his architects believed would hinder the complex's commercial success.

Their solution? Create a bridge over the street, linking the shopping center's halves. By lining the bridge with stores, shoppers on the mall's second floor do not realize they are crossing a busy boulevard below. And at street level, its designers argue, the Crenshaw bridge creates an "urban gateway," marking the entry to the View Park district at the foot of Windsor Hills.

But not all such spans are as successful or noncontroversial as the Crenshaw Plaza bridge, the first in a new series of pedestrian overpasses planned in Los Angeles.

In the last 18 months, the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, which has the legal right to review the design of all construction on or over public property, has received applications for more than a dozen bridges intended to span city streets.

These proposed bridges, several of which are hundreds of feet wide, introduce a new visual feature in Los Angeles' urban streetscape.

Their sudden increase has provoked often heated debate among designers, developers and the Cultural Affairs Commission.

Pedestrian bridges have been tried before in Los Angeles, but they were as equally disliked then by many architects and planners, as well as the public they were meant to serve, as they are now.

Rex Lotery, an architect and the president of the UCLA-based Urban Innovations Group, points to the unhappy results generated by the ambitious but incomplete Downtown Pedway system of pedestrian overpasses. The 1970s system links the Bonaventure Hotel with Arco Plaza across 5th Street and the parking garage across Flower Street.

"The Pedway sucked life from the streets below without creating sufficient traffic on its own," Lotery said. "People were split between upper and lower levels, and the Bonaventure, which originally had its main lobby and shops on the Pedway, had to restore its street-level entry."

Besides, Lotery added, pedestrian overpasses "tend to look like hell from a distance."

Michael Chan, a cultural affairs commissioner, agrees. Like most of his fellow commissioners, he dislikes the idea of bridges in principle.

"They're seldom really necessary," he said, "and (they) usually have a negative effect on the street below. Unless there's a special hardship, like when a hospital needs to link its outpatient and inpatient facilities across a busy thoroughfare, we tend to view such proposals with suspicion."

But, Chan added, the commission often has had to "give in to political pressure" to approve street bridges.

The design of the bridges proposed for Los Angeles streets ranges from the grandiose to the merely functional. They include:

* The futuristic, mile-long West Coast Gateway, known as the "Steel Cloud," proposed to roof a stretch of U.S. 101 between the Civic Center and the Los Angeles Pueblo.

* The pedestrian and vehicular bridge over Westwood Boulevard, linking the existing Westside Pavilion with its planned expansion.

* An extension of the Downtown Performance Plaza over Olive Street to link Phases 2 and 3 of the California Plaza project.

* Twin bridges spanning Pico Boulevard between the old and new halves of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

* Bridges joining sections of three major health facilities--the Children's Hospital on De Longpre Avenue, the White Memorial Medical Center on Brooklyn Avenue and the Valley Presbyterian Hospital on Vanowen Street.

* An overpass spanning Lassen Street to serve the Cal State Northridge campus.

* A bridge over Prairie Street to link the Great Western Bank with the Northridge Fashion Center.

More modest structures are proposed over Main Street for the Downtown California Mart, over 105th Street near the Watts train station, and over Vista Del Mar adjacent to the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in El Segundo.

Are these bridges "urban gateways," as their supporters claim, or obstructions on the city's open skyline as their opponents contend? And why have they recently become so prevalent?

Answering the second question first, Robert Harris, dean of architecture at USC and a member of the Mayor's Design Advisory Panel, which advises the Cultural Affairs Commission, suggests that the proliferation of bridge proposals has been spurred by the expansion of existing shopping centers, hospitals and other large-scale developments into campus-style complexes. Busy streets often prevent the expansion or integration of these complexes.

"As the city matures, older developments evolve and grow," Harris explained. "This is a natural progression, with many positive advantages for the city. The use of bridges to integrate the old with the new can be seen as the creation of the kind of connections our fragmented metropolis urgently craves."

But like many urban designers, Harris warns that the bridges' main drawback is their tendency to reduce pedestrian activity on the sidewalks below. And "in a metropolis where people seldom walk, it's a pity to diminish the life of the street in any way," he said.

Whatever the pros and cons of bridges, it is clear the Cultural Affairs Commission continues to view them with suspicion.

The commission has rejected several bridge proposals, including a plan by The Times to enhance its internal security with pedestrian overpasses across Spring and 2nd streets, linking its main building with a new annex and a parking garage.

Typical of the commission's reservations about the structures was the panel's struggle to limit the size of the bridge over Olive Street, north of 4th Street. That span was to join parts of the California Plaza project that runs from Hill Street to Grand Avenue.

When first presented to the commission by architect Arthur Erickson in late 1988, the Olive Street bridge was 300 feet long. The commission was troubled by the way the bridge--effectively a roof--would turn the road underneath into a long, dark tunnel.

The commission, Erickson and representatives of California Plaza's developers--Metropolitan Structures West Inc. and the Community Redevelopment Agency--engaged in often heated arguments over the Olive Street bridge for eight months. A compromise was finally reached in June, 1989.

In the revised design, the Olive Street bridge was reduced to 165 feet. Lili Lakich, director of the Museum of Neon Art, was commissioned to develop a scheme of imaginative lighting effects to diminish the sense of being in a gloomy tunnel while driving or walking through the street below.

That bridges can create vital urban connections is shown in a recent thesis by UCLA student Werner Lang. Conceived as a "Ponte Vecchio for Los Angeles," the Lang design spans the Harbor Freeway at 4th Street with a wide pedestrian deck supporting horizontal commercial structures dubbed "cross-scrapers." It also features lush planting to absorb some of the pollution given off by the hectic traffic.

"This kind of skyscraper, laid on its side, spanning the deep ravines made by freeways and oriented toward people walking, would be an entirely new type of architecture in Los Angeles," Lang said. "It would make vital linkages between sections of the city separated by streams of traffic, much as the Ponte Vecchio spans the river and links both banks of the Arno in Florence."

Richard Weinstein, dean of architecture at UCLA, lauds street bridges as "a desire to connect" in Los Angeles' sprawling metropolis.

"Paradoxically, I think that overpasses are easier to accept in a city dominated by cars than in a more conventional pedestrian metropolis, like New York," he argues. "Well-designed bridges can provide a series of visual grace notes in the urban cacophony of endless L.A. roadways that seem to lead from nowhere to nowhere."

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