Los Angeles City Council to vote on fate of 6th Street Bridge


The 6th Street Bridge is history. The iconic structure, which stretches gracefully over the Los Angeles River, inspires rapturous words from poets and engineers. But it ails from a rare and incurable concrete cancer that is cracking and crumbling the monumental span.

The doomed 1932 viaduct is the last built, the longest and — to many — the most iconic of the dozen historic bridges that vault the river east of downtown. It is a much-beloved and much-filmed symbol of a proud city that embraced elegance and the automobile.

On Friday, the Los Angeles City Council could decide to demolish it and replace it with a modern bridge, ending an anguished debate over its fate. But preservationists are still urging the council to build a bridge that replicates one of the most recognizable features: the double-arched main span.


“It pained us to recommend that there was no other alternative but to replace this bridge,” Gary Lee Moore, the city engineer told a council committee earlier this week. He said a contemporary bridge could become a new symbol of the city and catalyze efforts to revitalize the river. “We’re very hopeful that will occur because these bridges are gifts to all of us.”

The council is scheduled to vote on an environmental impact report that recommends the city build a cable-supported span that “could invoke a uniquely modern statement over the river.” But some council members, worried that the federal government cannot be counted on for its share of funding, have questioned whether the city should move ahead on the six-year, $401-million project. And others, citing the bridge’s deterioration, wonder whether the city should shut it down now.

The bridge has sparked vigorous debate since 2002, when it was diagnosed with alkali silica reaction, which produces a gel that expands and ruptures the concrete. Preservationists adamantly pressed city engineers to repair it, but after consulting experts worldwide, both parties reluctantly concluded nothing could halt the damage. As a stopgap, the fissures have been injected with epoxy.

The cable design has divided mayoral appointees on key two panels: The Board of Public Works backed it in October, but the Cultural Heritage Commission rejected it earlier this month, denouncing it as “a major blow to the city’s cherished collection of historic Los Angeles River bridges.”

The commission, which has no power to delay a city-sponsored demolition project, acknowledges an exact reproduction, which could cost $100 million more, is not feasible. But it is pressing a compromise that would at least include the steel arches; some of its Art Deco and Streamline Moderne features; and, perhaps, replicas of some, but not all, of the bridge’s 41 pairs of piers. It cites two examples of decaying historic structures that were rebuilt: the Hollywood sign and the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena.

“We are dismayed that we will be entirely losing a tremendously significant historic cultural monument,” Roella Louie, the commission’s vice president, said this week.

The commission, joined by the Los Angeles Conservancy, is arguing that the river bridges should be viewed together as a de facto historic district with the 6th Street Bridge as the centerpiece of the ensemble. A showy contemporary bridge, they say, would overshadow the others.

But the idea that L.A. has a chance to build a new icon appeals to many, including Friends of the Los Angeles River. Alex Ward, an architect who is chairman of the group, urged a council committee to build “a structure of equal grace, equal distinction and one that can act as a new symbol of L.A. and its river in the 21st century, a forward-looking bridge rather than a backward-looking bridge.”

Christopher Martin, an architect who oversaw renovations to City Hall, which his grandfather helped design, said a suspension bridge would be beautiful. “I see no point in trying to replicate old architectural ideas,” he said.

City engineers say it’s impossible to build an exact replica because the new bridge must be realigned and widened by about 30 feet. A variation, they suggest, would be a “Disney” version. They argue that a structure reflecting today’s technology and aesthetics is in keeping with the City Beautiful movement, the philosophy in vogue when the bridges were constructed that called for grand architecture to inspire civic virtue.

Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy city engineer, showed council members a slide show of sleek new bridges in Greece, France, Turkey, England and elsewhere. She noted: “It’s possible to do sensitively done modern structures within historic context, and that’s what we hope and intend to do here.”

If the council rejects the recommendation and favors a closer replica, city engineers would have to redo the financial plan and environmental impact report. “It would mean time and money,” Moore said.

The council will decide on the conceptual approach, but the design will be completed later. Ward suggested the city sponsor a competition to choose “a daring design of world-class distinction.”

The estimated cost of the bridge has increased by $42 million since last year. The city’s share is just $5.5 million, with $365.6 million coming from Washington and $29.9 million from Sacramento.

But Los Angeles would have to borrow $98.5 million to cover gaps in financing. Given the city’s budget woes, some council members wonder if they can count on being repaid. Congress, stymied by partisan rancor, has not passed a new transportation bill.

“You’re trying to sell us a bridge and then asking me to trust the federal and state government and then Caltrans on top of that,” Councilman Mitch Englander said earlier this week.

And the council may also fret about whether it should allow more than 13,000 vehicle trips every day across a bridge that is one of the state’s top priorities for replacement and has been determined to have a 70% probability of failing in a magnitude 7 earthquake.

“If it could collapse in an earthquake, and we know there’s a decent chance of it, why are we not shutting it down?” Councilman Paul Koretz asked this week. “It sure does make me uncomfortable.”