Talk of Bay Bridge Condos Gets Serious

Sunday, Nov 1, 2009  |  Updated 7:14 AM PDT
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Talk of Bay Bridge Condos Gets Serious

How would you like to live on the old Bay Bridge span?

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The Bay Line, a proposed retrofit of the Bay Bridge's eastern span with a park and housing, has become a sleeper hit in the blogosphere, and now even has its own website.

The thought experiment was initially put together by Oakland's Rael San Fratello Architects and submitted as an entry to WPA 2.0, a public works design competition put on by a UCLA think tank. The idea: what if, after the eastern span gets replaced, we kept it around and used it for something instead of getting rid of it? And what if we, say, loaded it up with 7,000 homes? Thought-provoking! But the Bay Line didn't make the final cut at WPA 2.0, while another Rael San Fratello proposal did: the U.S./Mexico border project, which includes seesaws among its varying delights.

Now a local journalist has created a site for the Bay Line, cheekily called "Bay Bridge to Nowhere." The site's informational, but also a cattle prod to the collective imaginations of Bay Area residents, soliciting ideas and napkin sketches from citizen visionaries. Says the bridge's father, Ron Rael: "If there is a movement and a wave of support, just as we've seen in the High Line, then something like this could really happen."

2009_10_highline.jpgHe's talking, of course, about the Bay Line's most obvious influence: New York's recently opened High Line, a linear park on a former elevated railway. There's also Promenade Plantée, a pedestrian and bike trail in Paris built on an old railway viaduct. So the linear, elevated park isn't an especially hot new idea. Neither are the bridge-strapped buildings: the Ponte Vecchio in Florence would have a hypothetical Bay Line beat by a few centuries. The proposal also follows in the footsteps of William Gibson, whose 1994 novel "Virtual Light" describes squatters taking up residence in the partially destroyed Bay Bridge.

2009_10_houseboat.jpgIn our scenario, though, squatters would be replaced by condo buyers and renters who find themselves irresistibly drawn to the idea of dangling in box-shaped cocoons attached to a disused bridge in middle of the bay. Said buyers and renters would be entertained by an array of gardens, a swimming pool, a theater— all the great things they know and love on dry land. In fact, there's a little more to it: there'd be vacation rentals, dorm rooms, row houses, perhaps even houseboats.

The idea's so intriguing it's also spawned a graduate-level studio at Berkeley this semester. Professor Marc L'Italien: "We find ourselves with these great structures ... that are now vacant. They're no longer used for whatever reason. They're prime for development." For the purposes of the studio, they're assuming the bridge is strong enough to support buildings. Which brings us rather inevitably to the Bay Bridge's worrying snapped parts: weren't we getting rid of the eastern span because of damage from Loma Prieta?

Well, says Rael, it was the causeway that was damaged by the earthquake, not the trusses or cantilever spans. And would the bridge be able to hold that much weight, as the Berkeley studio assumes? As Rael points out, the Bay Bridge was built for freight rail, and to this day can accommodate 40-ton big rigs— compare that, he says, to 5,000-pound 3-bedroom houses. (Oh, is that how much a 3-bedroom house weighs.) The estimated cost for this — admittedly at this point, almost convincing — flight of fancy? $723 million.

Compare that to Millennium Tower's total bill of $350 million to build a 419-home high-rise, or the Infinity's cost of $500 million for a collective 665 units. And the Bay Line condos would have, no doubt, much better views of the bay.

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