Atwater Bridge a Go Despite 4x Original Cost

A rendering of the proposed Atwater bridge. Photo: City of Los Angeles.

The North Atwater Bridge received official approval from the city in May, but what was to be a nearly $4 million gift to the city in 2011, fully-funded by a private philanthropist, is now going to cost Angelenos millions more, as total expected expenses have surpassed $16 million.

On May 26th, the Los Angeles City Council adopted recommendations to move construction on the bridge forward, despite the heftier price tag.

Days later, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed off on the bridge’s construction as part of his “Vision Zero” initiative to reduce traffic-related fatalies to zero by 2025. The bridge, after it is constructed, will be used by pedestrians and bicyclists and will connect Atwater Village’s horse stables with Griffith Park.

The city’s Dept. of Public Works will oversee construction. According to Public Works Project Division Manager Shirley Lau, the project is also necessary as part of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.

“This bridge will be safer for people and animals than crossing through the river’s channel or [crossing] major intersections near Griffith Park,” she said.

Expenditures will now total $16.2 million, building on philanthropist Morton La Kretz’s $3.67 million gift from 2011.

Additionally, another $12.25 million in public money will fund the project from the city’s Dept. of Water and Power and Dept. of Public Works, Los Angeles County and other public entities, amounting to about 75% of the cost.

The bridge is also eligible for several grants, including $75,000 from the California Community Foundation and $3.6 million in California Active Transportation Program funding.

River L.A., the nonprofit entity that manages La Kretz’s gift, has secured additional contributions, including nearly $3.7 million in California Dept. of Transportation funding.

“This is one of the first bridge projects [for the city] that [also] has private funding, and is an example of how public-private partnerships can accelerate infrastructure development in Los Angeles,” Lau said.

The idea for the bridge dates to then Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge—who represented the river’s west end—and Garcetti, who then represented the east end as Los Angeles Council District 13 City Councilmember.

Together, they authored a council motion to accept La Kretz’s initial $3.67 gift for the bridge in 2011.

When originally proposed six years ago, the bridge’s expenses were to be fully funded by La Kretz and LaBonge, who had secured $300,000 to offset the cost of fees and city permits.

Then construction costs rose as Los Angeles emerged from the Great Recession and while $4 million may have meant something in 2011 dollars, project delays—including a re-design to offset flood risk—pushed back the 325-foot span bridge’s construction timeline.

To preserve the project’s state funding, Caltrans asked River L.A. to turn construction over to the city.

Despite the city council’s approval, several of the bridge’s supporters—including councilmembers David Ryu (Council District 4) and Mitch O’Farrell (Council District 13)—have been critical of the project’s mounting price tag.

At a May city council hearing, O’Farrell said: “So here we are, at this 11th hour, with a $16.12-million bridge that the community didn’t really ask for.”

Ultimately, though, both Ryu and O’Farrell voted to advance the project.

Ryu said he believes this investment amoutns to important infrastructure improvements and safe access to Griffith Park.

“This is another important step toward achieving our vision for a community friendly and environmentally responsible Los Angeles River,” he said in an emailed statement.

River L.A. originally managed the design of the bridge. The project was then outsourced to design firm BuroHappold Engineering, which finalized the cable-stayed bridge to be constructed, Dept. of Public Works’ Lau said.

“The end product turned out to be somewhat more opulent than many of us expected,” O’Farrell said in an email. “Going back to the drawing board at this point would only be more costly. On balance, whether we like it or not, it makes sense to move forward with construction on the project. I will continue to do my part to keep tabs on any cost overruns.”

Despite ballooning costs, River L.A. Creative Director Eli Kaufman said La Kretz’s gift has become the necessary catalyst for what is now a much more ambitious project.

“This private philanthropy helped subsidize public investment. As the scope of the bridge changed over time, so did the budget,” he said.

Gene Gilbert, Council District 13 representative on the city’s Dept. of Recreation and Parks’ Los Angeles Equine Advisory Committee, said she and her group, as well as organizations such as “Atwater Village Always,” a preservation coalition of residents and merchants, and the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, were united in their preference for a pre-fabricated “less expensive, community friendly” option costing around $10 million.

Given the city’s advancement with the $16.2 million version, Gilbert, an experienced equestrian who keeps horses and runs a riding school in Atwater Village, said she welcomed the move, despite it not being her first choice.

Such a bridge, she said, will “offer a safe equestrian access into the park. Right now, the only way to access it is through the river.”

While experienced riders can manage crossing through water, “for the average rider, it is unsafe. Sometimes the water is higher,” she said.

Construction for the bridge will start next spring and be completed by early 2019.

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