March 21 (Bloomberg) -- I enjoyed lamb ribs, fireworks and music by Lyle Lovett as Dallas celebrated the opening of the $182 million Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge by famed engineer and architect Santiago Calatrava.
The bridge graces the downtown skyline with a 400-foot-high hoop from which an elegant cat’s cradle of twisting cables descends to support the deck as it hops across the Trinity River.
Zurich-based Calatrava, 60, has built bridges, airports and train stations that evoke birds in flight and dinosaur vertebrae. You feel the power of gravity routed through steel ribs and taut cables.
Beauty used to be thought essential to the design of road bridges and rail trestles, at least when they are highly visible in an important part of the city. Think of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge.
Aesthetics went out of style when America’s voracious appetite for freeway lanes squeezed out every consideration but raw auto throughput. So the Hill Bridge is a rarity today. Less brawny than Calatrava’s most spectacular creations, its delicacy delights as it pops into view all over town.
Calatrava is supposed to design two much larger bridges that would necklace downtown Dallas skyscrapers with white towers and cables. How much he can ameliorate these 20-lane monstrosities -- if at all -- isn’t clear yet.
The six-lane Hill Bridge presides over a $2.2 billion visionary effort by the Trinity Trust, a private advocacy group, to unite the city with its long-neglected river. (The trust raised money to cover some of the bridge’s extra costs. It is named for a benefactor.)
Ponds and Lakes
The trust’s plan has begun to turn a sterile, 20-mile-long landscape of mown grass and power lines in the river flood plain into a chain of recreational ponds and lakes that open downriver into a wildlife-rich forest marshland.
It’s akin to the great efforts that shaped the civic identity of earlier fast-growing cities, like Central Park in New York.
I strolled down to the riverfront to have a look at the bridge. As I ducked under railroad viaducts clanking with slow freights, I confronted a spaghetti of elevated highways and ramps that took 10 minutes to traverse. Only homeless men shuffled amid the shadows and hellish din of screeching truck brakes.
This wasteland walls off the 1.5-mile western edge of downtown from the river. Jails and derelict industry punctuate leftover bits of space. I had to scale a 30-foot levee to reach the river and bridge.
That’s not the trust’s only uphill battle.
Lack of Knowledge
Calatrava designed only the bridge’s central 1,200-foot segment. Its costs ballooned because officials didn’t know how to manage the unusual design and contractors didn’t know how to build it. Engineers at an Italian contractor had to come in to bring the segment’s cost down to $73 million from $113 million.
The same lack of knowledge kills bridge designs around America that could grace skylines and add value. A behemoth under construction brutalizes the San Francisco Bay. A proposed concrete octopus will deface the magnificent Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington.
The Hill Bridge could have been so much more than an ornament on the skyline. One end lands in the neglected La Bajada neighborhood, and Trinity officials, working with developers, see the bridge spurring a turnaround.
Epic Traffic Jams
On the other end, though, the road divides into a tangle of ramps that head in six directions to the intersection of two freeways. The ramps cost $100 million alone, half of which was land acquisition. This obsession with moving vehicles has filled Dallas and Fort Worth with a huge freeway landscape and epic traffic jams.
“I told them they didn’t need all those ramps,” Calatrava said when I spoke to him in his Park Avenue townhouse office after I returned to Manhattan. He said they could instead have sold the land next to the bridge and earned money on developments that feature bridge and parkland views.
Cheer on the Trinity Trust, whose vision strategically integrates infrastructure and environment-enhancing investments for economic development.
Stop the road builders who hope to cram a new highway into the river-bottom parkland. It would entomb the park completely in yet another soon-to-be-clogged roadway and kill investment by further walling off West Dallas.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.