UC Planners Envision “Bay Line” Park on the Old Bay Bridge Span

climbingwall.jpgImages: Rael Fratello Architects

When Joshua David formed Friends of the High Line in 1999 and started raising money to transform abandoned train tracks in mid-Manhattan into an elevated urban park, more than a few people thought him nuts. With the opening of the High Line in June and the warm reception it has received by the public, however, planners who have their eyes on other abandoned rail infrastructure are feeling emboldened and hopeful their projects will receive more serious consideration, including a new proposal to preserve the existing east span of the Bay Bridge for a park and development.

Ronald Rael, Principal at Rael San Fratello Architects and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley’s graduate program, has developed a plan that would preserve the existing cantilever and truss section of the Bay Bridge and transform the span into a park and mixed-use development. In homage to the High Line, Rael’s project is dubbed The Bay Line (PDF).

Rael and Berkeley have submitted their proposal to a design competition sponsored by UCLA, but have not made a formal proposal to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) or Caltrans, both of which are not likely to support any more changes to construction of the Bay Bridge.

Though MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler hadn’t seen the proposal, he called any attempt to preserve the old span a "pipe dream." "We won’t leave it up for the same reason we
are taking it down. That is, there is a real chance this bridge segment
won’t stand up in a quake. Also, keeping it maintained is cost

He added, joking, "Past that, it would be a great permanent location of the Summer X Games."

Rael, however, is quite serious about the project, pointing to many examples of re-purposing bridges and rail infrastructure to house dwellings and parks, including the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Promenade Plantee in Paris, and the Belt Line in Atlanta. Rael envisions the project as an important use of existing infrastructure to promote urban density and has a proposal to pay for the necessary seismic retrofits, which he points out, would be billions cheaper than the ballooned cost of the new self-anchored suspension bridge that is being built for cars.

"The bridge does need further seismic upgrades, however it was initially considered that a seismic retrofit of the old bridge would cost $200 million—something we’ve taken into account in our proposal," said Rael. "Instead, it was decided a new bridge would be better because it was estimated that it could be built for a few million more than the $200 million retrofit, at $780 million. As I understand it, the new bridge is now estimated to cost $6.2 billion to complete."

By promoting many uses of the bridge, including rents for retail and residential, the project would help pay for its own maintenance. Rael does project an upfront capital shortfall of $350 million, which he proposes recouping through bridge tolls or commercial rental over 40 years.

The upper deck would include a 1.9 mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway (with amazing views, no doubt) as well as tennis courts, a climbing wall, and 15 acres for planting gardens and growing crops. The lower level mixed-use development would include a number of pre-fabricated residential units, swimming pools, retail development and
cultural amenities, such as museums and an open-air amphitheater.

Given the successful fundraising for the High Line and a very real need to maximize the potential of existing urban infrastructure, is The Bay Line less of a pipe dream than one would think?

  • It is easy to get to the High Line in Manhattan, but how would people get to the Bay Line?

    In addition to the cost of converting the old bridge span, you need to add the cost of building and operating transit connections to SF and Oakland, which would clearly be prohibitive.

  • I’ve met Joshua David and interviewed him at length about how Friends of the High Line got started. Not sure how we could get around the whole issue of earthquake safety-ness, but it’s great to see the same kind of High Line thinking start out West.

    After all, when David started working on the High Line — it was slated for demolition soon, and most people thought he was nuts to keep that structure around. My interview with David:

  • Isn’t the High Line surrounded by neighborhoods and buildings? Not 200′ above the bay and buffeted by high winds? I think there any many better places to try and preserve or convert to public uses.

  • Ronald Rael’s been reading some William Gibson.

  • anonymouse

    Surprised nobody pointed out yet that the Bay Bridge was in fact rail infrastructure. Long before BART, one could ride a train across the bridge from Oakland, Alameda, and even Sacramento to the Transbay Terminal. Of course, the new east span is designed to be too weak to ever support trains. Keeping the old one around for train and park purposes might be a nice idea.

  • ZA

    It’s great to dream big. Realistically though, the cost of retrofitting the old span to adapative reuse, to say nothing of the risk a falling old span might mean to the new span and navigation*, are prohibitive enough to warrant its dismantling and recycling.

    *How about that for a HOA fee? Maritime disruption insurance.

  • The great thing about this idea is it gets people to think differently. The old Bay Bridge has gotta go, but there are other places we could look at- we have a lot of old railway line in SF hat could make some wonderful open space.

  • citicritter

    a UC Berkeley architecture grad student had a similar proposal with his thesis project a few years ago…

  • mike

    How much is the steel and other materials worth in scrap metal from the old bridge, minus the cost of dismantling? If it is a large sum, it could be used to accelerate the buidling of bike lanes or pedestrian path. Only the span from Oakland to Treasure Island has those paths. The span from TI to SF doesnt.

  • anon

    Remember that crack Caltrans had to repair on Labor Day weekend ’09? There is a reason the cracked member was supplemented and not replaced. Plus bridges are typically designed with a 75 year lifespan. Sure we could retrofit it, but would you want to live on a 70+ year old structure bandaided with retrofits and supplemental structures that further inhibit regular structural inspections? Interesting idea, but I hope common sense prevails and no one wastes time on this proposal.

  • Keno

    I congratulate the author on a creative proposal. Sure it would be costly to maintain and seismic issues would remain but that doesn’t mean it’s not good for anything. Perhaps residential & commercial space wouldn’t work but a park or pier could possibly have a sufficiently low population density to keep the risks reasonable.

    Maybe part of the span could serve as a structural foundation for wind or tidal power? Maybe it could serve as a corrosion test case for truss structures where civil engineers could study long term aging and failure of complex structures?

    Let’s not be too quick to bash or rule-out. After all, the kind of creative thinking displayed in this proposals could lead us somewhere interesting.

  • DZ

    How about covering the freeway in the Mission & Potrero area? Maybe with a “cheap” lightweight structure for a linear park or something stronger for housing and parks.

  • mmc2068

    Oh, GAWD. I’m a raving liberal, but THIS goes against every artistic bone in my body. It’s an old, unsafe bridge, arching across a beautiful bay, ruining the sight lines! It’s not meant to be a park! The fewer structures that cross the bay, the better!

  • Walter

    Sure, this proposal is not really feasible on this span because of the earthquake problem (this part of the bridge is, after all, that had a section collapse on its causeway section back in 1989) but this should wake up other areas of the country.

    An old, moderate-length bridge over a northeastern or midwestern river could easily be transformed into a park or a park/transit combo. New York could even potentially use something like this; look at the foot traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge now and imagine it with no cars.

  • SpankyM

    It is a pretty ridiculous idea to make a park I think. How would you get there? How safe would it be? How much would it cost, etc?

    It is a wonderful idea to repurpose the bridge somehow though. Why not use it to build something at Alameda Point? The city seems on its way to deciding how to get developed finally. Concrete could be reprocessed on site and I am sure all the steel can be used for something.

  • Joe D

    Great art project but realistically the bridge is not safe and it’ll cost to much to fix for a short lifespan after. I would like to see more green spaces in cities and particularly downtown San Francisco, in the financial district, where green is almost a four letter word.

  • chad w

    i like the creativity. i see the highest and best use in relocating the old span to Treasure Island and recycling the materials into public spaces and new construction projects there. unfortunatley sometimes the best way to treat historical structures kindly is to dismantle them and re-use the parts to pay tribute to what was.

  • The current eastern span of the Bay bridge is ugly and dangerous. Tear it down. Use the steel for something good. To create more public green space, restore wetlands around the edge of the bay complete with biking/walking trails. Yes, I can imagine other bridges in other cities where this might be a good idea, but not this one at this time.

  • Sounds nice…but impractical

    Recycle the bridge, don’t try to reuse it. The cost of maintaining and continuous inspection would be tremendous and wasteful. It is being replaced for a good reason. Built 70 years ago and not designed for earthquakes…as 1989 proved.

  • Hefe

    I concur with all of the other statements–cool idea, but so impractical from every stand point.

    The worst part though–calling it the Bay Line? Seriously? How does that make any sense? Quite revealing.

  • keith saggers

    Yeah 6.2 billion last week. 6.3 billion this week, see chron.

  • Frank

    I’m a structural engineer and I have to say this is one of the most impractical ideas I have heard regarding the Bay Bridge. I understand the desire to be creative and giving new life to existing structures. I have done it myself in several retrofit jobs I have done during my career. However, to think that a bridge with seismic problems, which is why it is being replaced, can be used for housing or a park! Please we have a lot better existing structures that could be renovated and be useful again. I know this will not actually happen. There is no way Caltrans or any other state organization will permit this to happen. As an engineer and an expert on the topic, the seismic concerns in the bay area are serious and very real. The next big earthquake in the bay area will devastate many cities. Let’s invest our resources in retrofitting schools, hospitals and other essential facilities that will be needed when the next quake comes.

  • perhaps the inspirations regarding the lifecycling of the bay bridge should be boston’s big dig: http://www.ssdarchitecture.com/works/residential/big-dig-house/

  • Hank Chapot

    I suggest cutting the idea down to size, recycle the cantilever section and build a park on the causeway.

    I’m a horticulturalist, I would sign up in a heartbeat. During the 1990s I was employed by an industrial historian, doing private research on Bay Area infrastructure from the gold rush to the present and I wrote the following letter promoting this idea to the Berkeley Daily Planet in 2006….


    Berkeley Daily Planet
    Save the old San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge!

    Editors, Daily Planet:

    Now that the bids for the final section of the new eastern span of the Bay
    Bridge are being considered, perhaps we should start a campaign to preserve
    the existing eastern span, for logistic as well as historical reasons. It
    would be a backup bridge in the event the new one is a failure and it would
    be a nice place to walk or ride bicycles and picnic. Saving the old bridge
    would be a nice homage to the builders of the 1930s and a prudent effort
    perhaps, considering the problems we’ve had building a new one.

    Hank Chapot

  • Nancy Pelosi

    Hey why don’t we use the old structure as a road from oakland to SF? We could even let cars on it so people could commute from the east bay to SF while I fly my team every week back and forth to DC costing the tax payers $60000 a flight.

  • Mr. Engineer

    You need to consider the cost of maintaining the bridge which is considerable. No residents are going to want to pay that much and taxpayers shouldn’t have to.

  • Interesting concepts but is the structure safe? Wondering why the new span was not designed to be multi-modal. (For example, in NYC, several bridges carry vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, and the subway.)

  • Don Neuwirth

    When I was planning manager for the Eastshore State Park, we considered using sections of the old bridge as historic railing. CALTRANS engineers told us that would require abating 70 years of lead paint. Have any of the proponents consulted with bridge experts? While facing real threats of closing 100 state parks, we should get a grip on such folly.

  • Anthony Holmes

    i applaud great thinking, but is this really desirable? The High Line is cool in NYC because it is somewhat aesthetic in the midst of urban browns and greys. Whereas a similar project would DECREASE the asethetic value of the Bay Area- over here, the LESS built up, the better. Short of another Golden Gate Bridge nothing will improve the Bay other than leaving it as unspoiled and unmodified as possible.

  • gil

    what would the cost be to span a bridge jumpers security net?….nice concept but it’ll not fly…too many “practical” issues…accessibility and high wind loads are red flashing tapes…

  • Erik Whittaker

    It should be noted that it was the causeway that failed during the 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake and not the once world record breaking span of the cantilever. Engineering reports concluded that the cantilever to be seismically superior to the causeway. It should also be noted that for various reasons the seismic requirements for structures like bridges is higher than for buildings. I think I remember hearing that for reasons of national security at the time that the bridge was over engineered.

    Below is a clip from some research I did on this idea. The numbers are out of date as they are from 2003.

    “The Metropolitan Transportation Commission was created by the State Legislature in 1970 (California Government Code § 66500 et seq.), to be responsible for the Regional Transportation Plan for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area and as such it screens requests from local agencies for state and federal grants for transportation projects.

    On December 10, 1996, on behalf of the MTC, Joseph Penzien and Charles Seim reported to James Van Loben Sels, Director California Department of Transportation, on seismic issues arising from the 1989 earthquake damage to the East Span. Though costs were close, they recommended a new bridge be built at $1.5 billion vs. a retrofitting of the present bridge at $1.3 billion.

    This is not to say that the existing bridge is a seismic tragedy waiting to happen. Rather “The design for the retrofit of the old bridge is compromised by restraints imposed by the existing structure and by the need to minimize traffic interruptions.” http://www.mtc.ca.gov/projects/bay_bridge/bbletter.htm

    If the final use of the bridge is not to carry the abuse of continual traffic now averaging 250,000 vehicles a day, and if continuous time can be dedicated to a re-adaption of the bridge, much of the seismic retrofitting required could easily be incorporated as part of the structures built between the upper and lower decks. Such construction would deal directly with the seismic failures arising from the 1989 earthquake. Additional retrofitting required would also be much easier to install on a traffic free bridge and could take up much of space that is now needed for such traffic. Under such circumstances, the engineering and economic feasibility of making the bridge seismically safe could easily be reconsidered.

    The original retrofit estimate of $1.3 billion was inflated by the inefficient expenditures incurred from the complications of working without interfering in the function of a heavily used bridge. Free access to the bridge would dramatically reduce these costs of retrofitting and future maintenance. The costs or removing the bridge would also be a great savings. The $150 million earmarked for the addition of a bike lane could naturally be transferred to the conversion of the old bridge. Sales of over 300 units between the upper and lower decks would also contribute to making the project feasible.

    Modern prefabricated construction methods and an unencumbered approach to retrofitting should be explored to see what the real costs of saving the bridge are.”

  • Does anyone know how I can reach this guy? There has been a group of us working on a project like this for some time now….I would like to contact him! Please email me at: msackett@reflectur.com or call me at 415-934-6900

    Many thanks!

    Mark E. Sackett
    President/Creative Director/Executive Producer
    Reflectur /THE BOX / Articulation Films / Brainfood Creative Programs

  • Frank C.

    This is idiotic. And I’m a liberal environmentalist who lives in SF. We have enough problems keeping our state parks open. What a waste of time, effort and money. There is so much more that can be done with existing infrastructure and buildings.

  • Tennis is decidedly NOT a game to play on the bridge.

    Even in Emeryville, on a ground level, protected court, wind is considerable and balls quickly get heavy with moisture off the bay … enough to deter enjoyment and send me to the hills.

  • Michael Young

    I think this is an example of an idea of some merit, to re-purpose this thing, although it needs a lot more consideration: It’s like the brief at the beginning of a design investigation. I’m not intending to raise anyone’s ire, but the “design” exemplifies what happens in a program like modo, where the imagination of the designer is conditioned by the digital tools, over-conditioned in this case. The bridge is *beautiful*, but the design seems not to respect this and tortures the existing geometry instead of complementing it. I’d like to see what Lebbeus Wood would make of this… it would be much more deeply considered, and that depth of iteration is what is required. Architecture students seem to have lost the knack for iteration, and although this isn’t student work, it has that tang to it.

  • William Gibson would applaud this.

  • Hubbman

     This would be sweet for those living on Treasure Island, but I fail to see an easy way for anyone else to get to this park.  It could be our version of a bridge to nowhere! 
    Also, how about just making it a single level park?  Do we really need the added danger of the top span crushing the bottom span in an earthquake???

  • Michael Aidan


SPUR Talk: The Dicey Dynamics of Megaprojects

Huge projects, such as the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, can define a region and transform the fabric of a city–but they are often delayed and come in massively over budget. Karen Frick, Co-Director of the University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley, attempted to deconstruct megaprojects and how to manage them more […]
The damaged rail bridge that is part of the 20-mile Dumbarton Corridor.

Dumbarton Study Outreach Begins Tonight

The San Mateo Transit District (SamTrans) released its report today on improving transportation links across the Dumbarton bridge and right of way. The agency will be soliciting public comment on the document–which runs 267 pages–over the next couple of months. The study proposes phased implementations of improved bus services and, somewhere down the line, rebuilding […]

Momentum Builds to Eliminate Dangerous Gap in SF Bay Trail

Prospects for a safer and more convenient San Francisco Bay Trail are looking brighter as momentum builds for strengthening environmental protections along the bay in San Mateo County. On Tuesday, Menlo Park planning staff reported that the city, in partnership with neighboring East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, as well as the Midpeninsula Regional Open […]