THE PROPOSED SEVERN SPAN: A BRIDGE TOO HIGH?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Maryland officials launched an international design competition in 1989 to replace the old Severn River Bridge in Annapolis, part of their charge to contestants was to create "a monument to Governor [William Donald] Schaefer and his administration," as one of the organizers put it. After all, what more fitting symbol of the governor's accomplishments could there be than a picturesque new bridge providing a gateway to the state capital from which he governed?

Two years later, with the design selected and construction documents out for bid, the $40 million replacement promises to be a symbol, all right -- but not the way its planners intended. Primarily because of a misjudgment of public sentiment that ought to qualify for the Saddam Hussein Hall of Fame, planners have come up not with the inspiring memorial they may have envisioned but an embarrassingly out-of-scale behemoth that has become the most controversial building in Maryland this summer.

Despite the noble intentions behind the planning effort, the winning design could not have been more ill-suited to the setting. The chief problem is that the sheer size of the bridge -- half a mile long, 50 feet wide and 75 feet above the water -- would be devastating to the scenic waterway, the wetlands and the fragile Colonial seaport to which it leads.

The Annapolis City Council and Anne Arundel County Council are so alarmed by the prospect that both bodies called unanimously for a new design. More than 2,000 Marylanders have signed petitions protesting it. Even a member of the jury that selected the winning entry, historic preservationist St. Clair Wright, has voiced her opposition to it. As a goodwill gesture, this beastly bridge backfired big time.

At issue behind all of this is the planning process initiated by the State Highway Administration and the Governor's Office of Art and Culture. Their competition was so one-sided in favor of a 75-foot-high bridge that it seemed practically guaranteed to spark the controversy that later erupted. Their intransigence in the face of criticism has only made the opponents more vociferous. Unless Governor Schaefer steps in and demands another solution, he could well go down in history, rightly or wrongly, as the politician who aggrandized himself by building what's being called the "Monster on the Severn."

The competition-winning design for Route 450, by Greiner Inc. of Timonium, calls for the construction of a fixed, continuously curved steel and concrete bridge with a center opening of 320 feet and a clearance of 75 feet -- more than six times the 12-foot clearance of the 67-year-old drawbridge it would replace.

The 2,800-foot-long span would be just east of the existing bridge, connecting Jonas Green State Park with the Naval Academy on the opposite shore. It would consist of two trapezoidal steel box girders supporting a concrete slab carrying the roadway, with two lanes in each direction, plus shoulders and sidewalks. Tall and thin octagonal columns would support the girders and rest on granite-covered bases just above the water line.

Greiner's design was selected over four others submitted by firms from around the country, finalists narrowed down from an original list of 21 contenders. All of the designs were for a fixed bridge at least 75 feet high, since that is only kind of bridge state planners were willing to consider. The state also dictated the alignment of the bridge, the width, depth and other specifics.

From a functional standpoint, the chief advantage of Greiner's design is that it would be high enough to lift vehicular traffic up and over the boats on the river, eliminating the bottlenecks that now occur as the decrepit drawbridge goes up and down. Given the clearance requirements, Greiner's chief bridge engineer, Thomas Jenkins, did a remarkable job of keeping the bridge as low and clean and uncluttered as possible, which is largely why his firm won the commission. Jurors praised it for being the least intrusive on the waterway, "a thin curving ribbon arching over the Severn River."

But the public uproar about the bridge is not about Greiner's selection. The issue at hand is whether any bridge with a minimum clearance of 75 feet would be appropriate for the setting. Is the convenience gained by separating cars from boats really worth the adverse aesthetic impact that such a large bridge would have on that scenic waterway? As hard as Greiner worked to make its design palatable, its bridge still has the following drawbacks:

*It is the wrong size and scale: As laid out by Gov. Francis Nicholson in 1696, Annapolis' tallest buildings are the State House and St. Anne's Church, both located in circles and given extra height to denote the significance of church and state in society at that time. Most other buildings are three to four stories high. The existing flat drawbridge fits nicely into the hierarchy because it reflects the bridge's role as a utilitarian structure rather than a civic monument.

It also allows people to get their first impression of Annapolis the way it was meant to be seen, at street level, with the domes and steeples overhead. One might argue that a higher bridge would accurately reflect the exalted state of the automobile in today's society. But it would also flout the civic design hierarchy that has guided Annapolis' growth since its beginning, and it would overpower and upstage the river in a way that the old bridge never did.

*It's not contextual enough: The 1924 bridge has a solid, classical look created by a series of heavy piers and arched openings that gave it a sense of rhythm and regularity that seem appropriate for Annapolis. The new bridge has symmetry and clean lines and its own internal sense of proportion, but no arches, no embellishment, none of the weight and richness and texture that might complement a 350-year-old seaport.

*It will be unpleasant for people not in a car: The old bridge is hospitable to pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists, fisherman and crabbers -- an extension of Jonas Green State Park, in a sense. dTC But the slope of the new bridge is so steep and cars would be moving at such high speeds that it would be daunting to all but the hardiest of joggers and bicyclists. Fishing and crabbing from the bridge would be nearly impossible, too, because of its distance from the water. (A fragment of the old bridge would remain on the north shore for those purposes, however.)

*It will harm the environment: To achieve the 75-foot rise, the bridge will have elevated approach ramps on both sides that begin rising 700 to 1000 feet in from the shoreline, disrupting wetlands and casting giant shadows on the ground underneath. Also, because the bridge will be more convenient for motorists without the drawspan, it is expected to carry more traffic and channel it to areas on either side of the bridge that may not be equipped to handle it.

In many ways, this bridge can be seen as the culmination of a trend in which planners and developers have repeatedly turned their backs on the very attributes that made Annapolis such a pleasant place -- its small scale and historic character. In an era when a new generation of "neotraditional" architects, such as one-time Annapolis resident Andres Duany, are emphasizing the importance of human scale and historical reference in making places memorable, it is particularly distressing that Annapolis should again be at the mercy of planners who are so willing to trash what it has going for it.

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In retrospect, the biggest flaw in the design process is that the highway planners failed to invite proposals for any bridge lower than 75 feet. They certainly had valid reasons for wanting to explore ways to separate car and boat traffic, after public hearings in 1983 and 1984 indicated a preference for that approach. But by restricting the entries as much as they did, they largely defeated the purpose of the competition, which could have generated a much broader range of design ideas.

The sad irony of this Great Bridge Brouhaha is that the state planners, for all their lack of prescience, did recognize the sensitive nature of the site early on and did take steps to address it. They wanted to provide a model to show what any community could do to improve the design of its public works projects, and they deserve credit for making that effort. Unfortunately, their work isn't done. The only model they have shown so far is of what not to do. There are still too many unanswered questions for construction to start now.

With 20-20 hindsight, it isn't hard to conclude that if the 75-foot bridge is unpopular and the existing bridge is too deteriorated to be saved, the SHA ought to consider doing what the Maryland Stadium Authority did in replacing Memorial Stadium: offer the public a structure that evokes fond memories of the one that will be lost, is modest in scale, and fits the context of the area. Just as an old-fashioned ballpark with state-of-the-art amenities suits Camden Yards, an old-fashioned drawbridge with state-of-the-art machinery could be perfect for the Severn River. But exactly what would it look like? How much would it cost? Who might come out of the woodwork to oppose it? Those questions all need to be answered.

Assuming that funding can be secured -- state officials say $32 million in federal funds now committed to the project would be jeopardized if it doesn't move ahead as planned -- the fairest solution at this point would be to reopen the bridge competition, this time with less restrictive guidelines and more community input. Having gone to as much trouble and expense as they did to show the right way to go, state officials owe it to the community to finish the job and come up with a solution that satisfies every constituency. That is nothing less than what they promised two years ago: "a work of structural art which will make all of Maryland proud."

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