Monday, July 28, 2008

Tiptoeing across the Sellwood Bridge

Sellwood Bridge

Downtown Portland from Sellwood Bridge

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I seem to have stumbled into a Project, without ever really intending to. It started when, on a lark, I thought I'd try walking across the Morrison Bridge, maybe take a few photos, maybe do a post about it. That turned out ok, in that I didn't die, so I figured, hey, the Ross Island Bridge is pretty close in, and nobody walks across it either, maybe I'll give that a try. So I did that, again without dying. If you're like me, which I guess is unlikely, the next logical step is to go, hey, what other bridges can I walk across and do a post about?

It's not quite as simple a question as it sounds. I figure it'd be kind of pointless to post about the Hawthorne, Burnside, Steel, and Broadway bridges. They all get plenty of pedestrian and bike traffic, so it wouldn't exactly be urban exploration. I'm not about to go blabbing on like I've just found the source of the Nile about bridges that host hundreds or thousands of daily bike commuters. That would be rather lame, even by this humble blog's usual standards.

Updated: Well, pointless or not, I went and did it anyway, hence the new links. Sigh. I'd get a life if only I knew how. I really would. Honest.

And the Fremont and Marquam are out too, seeing as they're vehicle-only interstate bridges without freakin' sidewalks. No, I'm not going to walk along the shoulder of a freeway bridge. This is all about not dying, remember?

So the remaining options are a bit further afield. There's the Sellwood Bridge down in, uh, Sellwood, and the St. Johns Bridge up in, you guessed it, St. Johns. A bit further upstream, I understand you can also walk across the old bridge in Oregon City, although the newer I-205 bridge is Off Limits. I'm pretty sure the I-5 bridge in Wilsonville is also Off Limits, but it seems that both the Interstate Bridge and the Glenn Jackson Bridge let you take a long walk over the Columbia. Oh, and the new Sauvie Island Bridge will be open to pedestrians, but not for a few more months yet. I think that probably covers the greater Portland area, unless you count bridges over smaller rivers, maybe the Columbia Slough, maybe stuff like the Vista Bridge (which technically does bridge something called "Tanner Creek", although said creek was diverted into an underground pipe many decades ago.) At least for the time being, I'm going to limit the scope of the project to Willamette bridges, and maybe Columbia bridges, if I feel like it.

Sellwood Bridge

The Sellwood seemed like a good place to start. It's not very big, not very far away, and may not be around for much longer, if the powers that be get their way. The one thing everyone knows about the Sellwood is that it rates a 2 out of 100 on some sort of federal scale of bridge sufficiency. Everyone figures this means it's liable to collapse any minute now. I don't know how accurate that is, but I figured I ought to go see it while I still can.

Also, unlike the Morrison and the Ross Island, I'd actually never walked over the Sellwood before, not even once, ever.

Sellwood Bridge

This may be a sort of golden twilight era for the Sellwood, where pedestrians and bikes are concerned. Due to weight limits imposed a few years ago, the bridge no longer carries buses and large trucks (or at least it's not supposed to), and I seem to recall they dropped the speed limit, and I imagine the remaining vehicles are driving a bit more gingerly than before. It's also more necessary than before -- since there aren't buses across the bridge these days, if you're in Sellwood and you want to catch one a bus on Macadam (to downtown or elsewhere), you're going to have to cross the bridge yourself and meet the bus on the other side.

In the last two installments of this apparent bridge series, one of the big challenges was simply figuring out how to get onto the damn bridge. It was a bit more straightforward this time, at least the way I approached it. Since the bridge is a bit out of downtown, and I figured I'd pop down there quick and take a few photos in the morning before work, I decided to drive there. There isn't much of anywhere to park on the west end of the bridge. There really isn't much of anything at all at the west end of the bridge. So I figured, I'll just drive across to the east side, park, walk back to the west side, turn around and go back, and then drive home, back across the Sellwood again. I guess I figured driving over the bridge repeatedly in a sensible midsize sedan would provide the pseudo-danger element this time around, it being heavier and thus more likely to make the bridge collapse.

So there's lots of parking at the east end of the bridge. You probably ought to be aware that, as with the Ross Island, the very first building you encounter on the east bank is a rather down-at-the-heels-looking, uh, "gentlemen's club", this one apparently with a country-western theme. It's not that I'm judging or moralizing or anything; it's just that if you park in their lot, and walk across the bridge because some guy on the Interwebs (i.e. me) told you to, and then your car gets towed, you may find it difficult to credibly explain the situation. Just sayin'.

Once you've found somewhere to park, then you just find the sidewalk on Tacoma St. and follow it across the river. Note that there's only a sidewalk on the north/downstream/westbound side of the bridge. The south side doesn't have a sidewalk, probably as an economy measure. The whole bridge was built on the cheap, at the tail end of Portland's bridge-building scandal back in the early 20th century, and it shows. It's a small, cheap, absolutely no-frills bridge

Not that the sidewalk on the north side is all that great. It's narrow, there's no barrier between you and traffic, and the light poles are on the inside of the guardrail, taking up precious sidewalk space. It would be a bad place to ride a bike while towing one of those fancy superwide stroller-trailer gizmos. Although I did encounter one coming the other way, and everyone survived the episode, as far as I know.

You don't feel like you're in a big city on the Sellwood. It's not a very large-scale bridge, only two lanes. It feels like a bridge you'd find in a place the size of, say, McMinnville or Roseburg. There were a few other people crossing the bridge on foot and by bike, and there's a sort of small-town camaraderie about it. As if everyone realizes the bridge is a problem to get across, so we all need to say "hi" and work out ways to get around one another safely without tumbling into traffic.

Detail, Sellwood Bridge

Detail, Sellwood Bridge

The only annoying bit was when I was taking a few closeups of some decayed parts of the bridge. This involved sitting down for a minute to get a better angle. While I was doing that, some punk kid in his tricked-out punk kid car drove past, and he revved his engine as he went by, which was momentarily startling. The cheap-shot response would be to say that sort of thing is to be expected this close to Clackamas County. Ah, well. The things some people do for fun. Like I should talk.

Pedestrian path, Sellwood Bridge

Pedestrian path, Sellwood Bridge

I really ought to have investigated how the Sellwood connects to paths and sidewalks on the west side a bit better. Around the time I got to that end of the bridge, my camera's CF card announced it was full, and I didn't have a spare handy. A more intrepid urban explorer might have continued on down the path to see where it went even without a working camera, but that's not what I did. So I don't know what this bit of path connects to. I can say this bit is a lot more inviting than the equivalents at the Morrison or the Ross Island.

Maybe I'm just all jaded and world-weary-like after the first two bridges, but the Sellwood wasn't too bad, overall. I started out just a bit apprehensive about it, but I warmed up to the bridge before long. Eventually I decided I kind of liked it. Possibly I'm just rooting for the underdog here, as I tend to do. I went in to this thinking, ugh, it's cheap and crappy, tear it down before it falls down and build something big and new and expensive and ultra-luxo-shiny, a Calatrava if at all possible. But now I'm not so sure. I understand the worryingly unstable bit is not the bridge itself but the westside approach to the bridge. If you replaced that, and redid the road surface on the bridge, and found a way to extend the sidewalk out a few more feet (or alternately , added a pedestrian/bike deck inside the bridge truss, below the road ), and generally caught up on the bridge's deferred maintenance backlog, I imagine you'd have a perfectly serviceable bridge. It's hard to imagine a repair job being more expensive than tearing out the current bridge and building a fresh new one. This is especially true in this case, as building a new bridge will most likely involve condemning and demolishing condos and other buildings around the east end of the bridge, and that sort of thing always, always, always results in a protracted court battle.

In any case, that's a matter to be thrashed out between the county, local neighbors, the "design community", and various other interested parties over the next few years. And then they'll see if they can find any money to do whatever they decide on, which at present seems a bit unlikely. And eventually maybe something will happen, and maybe it won't. In the meantime, go ahead and check out the bridge the way it is now -- if you care, that is. You'll be able to tell the grandkids about it. And bore them to tears in the process, most likely. If you aren't completely bored yet, I have a few more photos of the bridge over on Flickr here. Enjoy, or whatever.

Actually I just had a really fabulous idea on how to pay for the bridge project. If you live in Portland, you're already aware, no doubt, that the key to getting a public works project funded is to tie it to the ultra-high-end blockbuster real estate dreams of some well-connected developer (*cough* South Waterfront *cough). And the key to getting the project rubber-stamped by the Proper Authorities is to convince everyone it's European. So my plan is to stack the bridge with a few floors of "market-rate" condos -- once the market improves, obviously -- on top of the inevitable bridge-level retail. It may or may not be a crazy idea, but it's certainly not a new idea. Check out the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, UK, and in Germany the Krämerbrücke in Erfurt, and Die Brückenhäuser in Bad Kreuznach, to give a few prominent examples. You'd need a streetcar across the bridge, obviously, to look tres-European, and create a nice ambiance for the new residents of the bridge, and drive gentrification in the surrounding area, oh, and I suppose to transport a few people (mostly tourists) as well. Just imagine how the New York Times would gush and carry on if we had something like this. Also, Seattle doesn't have one, and we could say "neener, neener, neener" to their smug, Microsoft-worshiping, Frappuccino(TM)-swilling faces, which is the main thing.


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

I love the old Sellwood. It's an early example of recycling, you know. With the current Burnside Bridge was built, parts of that were incorporated into the current Sellwood.

It's mad keen to have access across the river that far south in town. I don't care how; they need to replace the Sellwood.

And, for what it's worth, if you're south of the I-205 split, it's legal for bicycles to be on the freeways. This is against the law in the metropolitan areas (like Salem and Eugene) only, generally speaking the same areas where the speed limit is 55 mph. Especially in Wilsonville, where that's the only bridge connecting the two parts of town (Charbonneau is within the Wilsonville city limits) . It would be kind of scary though; those I-5 drivers over the Boone Bridge are insane.

Anonymous said...

I'm nervous about going over the Sellwood Bridge on my bike. But I don't really have a choice unless I want to wake up two hours early and change buses at least two times. I really just want some kind of pedestrian/bike bridge, but they do honestly need to figure out a way to get buses across there eventually. Before I crash into a pedestrian on that narrow sidewalk. Because I'M NOT GETTING A CAR.