SAN FRANCISCO — They have formed a sort of creative cabal, this small cadre of elite architects, with a mission that is simple and a little subversive:
To rescue the soaring San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge from the plebeian state of California. To wrest it from the Department of Transportation--an agency, they sniff, that has feet of asphalt. To remake the bridge--or at least the bridge designers--in their very own, more artistic image.
"Caltrans says it's their bridge, but it's in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and it will be a part of the visible landscape of this city," said Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art here. "Our interest is very much to say: 'It's not just a bridge. It's not just a piece of engineering. It's a piece of the landscape, a piece of the culture of San Francisco.' "
In a process that already threatens to become oh-so-San Francisco, the Bay Area is trying to figure out how to rebuild the eastern span of its No. 2 visual icon, which was patched up after the powerful Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Caltrans is floating several designs for a replacement, possibilities that range from a stripped-down Kmart version all the way up to the Saks Fifth Avenue model. From design through construction, the project could cost more than $2 billion and take up to seven years.
The obstacles are enormous: The design process must be fast enough to outrun the next big earthquake but measured enough to create a functional monument that will withstand the tests of time.
It must be accommodating enough to include nests for endangered birds, bicycle lanes and possibly pedestrians, but flossy enough to satisfy a city that prides itself on its sense of style.
No one must be left out of the process. No advocacy group can be silenced. And no way can this city--which presumes to call itself The City--live with a bridge designed by the likes of what they see as an aesthetically challenged state agency.
This is, after all, San Francisco, home to "the best and worst of democracy, where everyone wants to have a say," contends architect Clark Manus. "But great ideas get watered down. Could a Golden Gate Bridge be built today? Probably not."
Just a minute, says Greg Bayol, spokesman for Caltrans District 4, fuming at what he views as unfair criticism by special interests. "Just look at what we've done," he said.
"The most recent bridges we've built, designed directly by Caltrans, were the [nearby] Antioch Bridge and the Dumbarton Bridge, and both have won national beauty awards," Bayol said. "There's a lot of expertise here. . . . And we're open and willing to talk to people beyond the doors of Caltrans."
Bayol would be the first to agree that public outcry--over anything and everything--has been raised to an art form in the Bay Area.
San Francisco is where debate over pesticides in public places forced officials to enlist a squadron of gopher-eating barn owls to counter rodents in Golden Gate Park.
Where animal rights activists went up against Chinese residents in what became an international food fight over the selling of live beasts for human consumption.
Where the hubbub over the death of the fruit flies in a Mill Valley student's science fair project got him temporarily kicked out of the competition.
Where talk reigns, spices things up--and threatens to slow them down, way, way down.
"The public debate in this community is essential," said Mary V. King, an Alameda County supervisor and head of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's bridge design task force. "We still believe in the Free Speech Movement of [1960s firebrand] Mario Savio."
On the other hand, King is quick to add, there's a bad side to the free speaking tradition. Parts of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland are still down, she notes, victims of the 1989 Loma Preita earthquake. In contrast, the Southern California freeways damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake were up and running in a matter of months.
The difference, she contends, is talk. "We have people here who will lay their bodies across that bridge" to get their point across, King said.
"I don't think my counterparts in Sacramento appreciate what my office has to go through in our day-to-day business," Bayol says with a sigh. "We get calls and letters from people who are very vehement. . . . In the Bay Area there are a lot of interest groups that know how to be heard."
A circumstance Bayol describes as "the inferiority complex of Oakland and the superiority complex of San Francisco" also has produced trans-bay bridge design tensions.
It isn't the first time that East and West Bay have clashed over the historic structure, which is actually two distinct bridges that span San Francisco Bay and meet in the middle at Yerba Buena Island.
UC Berkeley engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-asl was researching the original 1936 structures when he stumbled over the minutes of a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting early in that decade.