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Wilkinson Eyre’s concept proposal for the New Johnson Street Bridge

Tonight I took myself to the Victoria Conference Centre to listen to Sebastien Ricard (of Wilkinson Eyre Architects) and Joost Meyboom (latterly VP of Engineering at Delcan, now at MMM) talk about the proposed New Johnson Street Bridge.

Given the scope – more on that in a moment – of the project and what it means for the City of Victoria in terms of expenditure and debt, the event was certainly under-attended. You’d think this would have packed people in – instead, everyone was able to sit well apart from everyone else, which was probably a good thing. There were some people in the audience I really haven’t wanted to get close to since this project got underway, not now, not ever again. These include city staff and politicians, who, in my opinion, are leading Victoria on a fool’s errand. A very expensive fool’s errand.

Sebastien Ricard struck me as a really nice guy, and I don’t doubt that he’s a good architect. But his lengthy slide show of past works consisted almost entirely of pedestrian bridges, whereas what Victoria wants is a multi-modal (car, bicycle, pedestrian, wheelchair/ scooter access – and rail) bridge. The design his firm proposes in answer to these clamoring demands looks superficially snazzy, but actually consists of so many disparate parts – as well as some missing components (rail!) – that it starts to appear clunky.

Yes, clunky.

Sure, there’s a nifty “wheel” (the bascule mechanism) at one end of the bridge (the downtown end) through which pedestrians could traverse. But the cantilevered doo-dads attached to the side of the bridge, and the overly complex system of over- and under-passes designed to satisfy the impossible soup-to-nuts menu that Victoria – or possibly its most ambitious council member – has demanded of the architect unfortunately eliminates all hope for an elegant solution to this crossing.

It needs to be said: this design is a hodgepodge.

It’s a hodgepodge, and if we complain that we currently have “an octopus” of roads at the downtown end of the bridge where a number of roads converge, we will – by the time the new bridge is finished – have an additional octopus of attachments and byways ensnarling the bridge itself.

And Ricard didn’t seem particularly inspired by his own proposal, frankly. He seemed more enthusiastic when he showed us his other efforts – ones that actually got built (I have serious doubts that what he has designed for Victoria will ever see the light of day, at least in the form he showed us tonight): in that part of his slide show – which consisted of simple, elegant solutions offering design affordances in response to a rational set of constraints, as opposed to Victoria’s pie-in-the-sky wish-list – he seemed genuinely confident and engaged. When it came time to run through the slides of the New Johnson Street Bridge proposal, on the other hand, the energy level dropped off significantly.

Perhaps he knows something we don’t – something to do with where this project is heading?

The project has already headed with unparalleled vengeance into scope creep. We have councilor Pamela Madoff to thank for that: it was she who suggested that we need an apples-to-apples comparison, when in fact that comparison was never on the agenda. The people’s question originally was, “do we want a simple repair job or do we want a Cadillac-version of a new bridge?” Madoff ensured that the question of a simple repair job was swept off the council table, replaced instead by the ridiculous scope creep that resulted in “repair” estimates that exceed the estimated cost of a new bridge.

Well, we’ll see what happens on November 20 – that’s when Victoria voters (those of us who bother to vote) decide whether or not the city should be allowed to borrow $49.2million – what will no doubt be a mere fraction of the end cost of the Sebastien Ricard-Joost Meyboom proposal.

PS: Here’s a photo that David Broadland of FOCUS Magazine sent me – it shows how empty the Conference Centre was last night (Mayor Dean Fortin is at the podium, Howard Markson is leaning against the pillar; Sebastien Ricard and Joost Meyboom are seated at the table to the right):


  1. I agree with you Yule, the proposed bridge is clunky. But I’d go further and say it’s gaudy, even ugly. A further Songheesization of the harbour. It’s really just a concrete slab with fins that look like an echo of the era of 1960s gas-guzzling autos. A retro bridge that will look dated within 5 years.

    I thought Ricard’s comments about the JSB on CBC radio this morning were a bit off. He claimed the JSB isn’t unique, that many were built. A good design get’s used over and over. Bad ones end up being unique, which is the definition of a “signature” bridge. And the JSB is the only one of it’s exact type that survives, and that quality -durability- is a much more attractive quality in a bridge than gaudiness, especially for Victoria. But then, how would an architect from the UK know that?

    Comment by David Broadland — October 26, 2010 #

  2. Yule, thanks so much for writing this post. I couldn’t make it to the meeting, but it is good to get your run-down. It is interesting to hear that the basic design seems complex and pieced together, which does raise concerns about reliability over the long haul. As we all know from our appliances, the more functions they serve the more difficult to maintain. I also find your comments on the architect’s energy level significant. Perhaps even the creator has concerns about the ability to actually build this bridge and make it work. As far as I know, no actual plans for construction exist and one wonders how accurate cost estimates can be made. Of course that is the argument against renovation, once you start in you don’t know what you will find and what costs will be encountered. But that is surely true of the replacement option as well – especially given the complexity you have described. The ‘apples to apples’ comparison was an obvious plot to paint the ‘renovation’ option as more costly than the replacement. A common sense ‘repair’ of a bridge in need of basic maintenance, has never been on the table and as a tax-payer I have to wonder why that is.

    Comment by Carol Sokoloff — October 26, 2010 #


    Comment by BOB PLANK — October 26, 2010 #

  4. Hi Bob,

    No the $8.6 million estimate for retrofitting is correct. It’s from an email sent by Joost Meyboom to the City of Victoria’s Mike Lai on November 20, 2008. You can read the email here: See “Facts and fibs on the bridge”

    Meyboom is trying to distance himself from his previous work, apparently. Rob Randall reported today on Vibrant Victoria that Meyboom characterized his previous $8.6 million estimate as being based on “raw and incomplete” data.

    What we should all keep in mind is that Meyboom’s first recommendation to the City was to retrofit the bridge. Yet the City and various other organizations in Victoria—the Chamber of Commerce, for instance—have promoted the idea that the bridge cannot be economically retrofitted. Delcan never said that. Both their top engineers on the case, Joost Meyboom and Mark Mulvihill, at widely separated times, recommended retrofitting the bridge.

    Moreover, when Meyboom says those early estimates were “raw and incomplete” he’s not remembering very well where he was in the process when he made the recommendation to retrofit. I have seen two earlier drafts and by the time he made his November 21, 2008 $8.6 million recommendation, the basic approach on how to seismically retrofit the bridge had been worked out in some detail. It was exactly the same overall project as he later estimated would cost $80 million in June 2010 (the “reduced scope” version). Well, not exactly the same. In his original recommendation they weren’t breaking the bridge apart into small pieces, replacing each part with a new one and then putting it all back together again. And they weren’t trying to retrofit to “critical bridge” seismic performance, something you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody doing anywhere on the planet. He was merely recommending the standard used to retrofit all other bridges in BC.

    And we might also ask ourselves: If no design work has been done on the bridge since at least last January, as Randall reports, how raw and incomplete is the data for the proposed new bridge? Is it as far along in its development as the retrofit project was when Meyboom said THAT would cost $8.6 million? Personally, I doubt it. I shudder to think what wild escalations in price might be in store for a new bridge if the people approve that direction on November 20.

    David Broadland

    Comment by David Broadland — October 26, 2010 #

  5. […] director Yule Heibel has written a critical account of last night’s event, which you can read here. As she notes, there wasn’t much excitement for the new bridge, despite the mayor’s […]

    Pingback by An Evening with the Johnson Street Bridge Bridge Architects — October 26, 2010 #

  6. Yes I was one of the few that endured the City’s sell job for the new “iconic bridge”. I thought I was going to die if they used that term one more time. That was before the “fly through” was shown. I thought I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in some kind of games room. With the upbeat, hip hop style music in the back ground, ghost business people standing around chatting on their cell phones. Please shoot me now, I thought. But no there was more spin and images of award winning bridges that I didn’t like. I felt they were imposed on the landscapes and looked like they had fallen off of a U.F.O. This bridge does such a disservice to Victoria and its citizens. Vote No or be a stooge.

    Comment by Sue — October 27, 2010 #

  7. The project scope drawing included in the following city document leads me to wonder if eliminating the rail connection to downtown was one of the unstated goals of this project from the beginning:

    The E&N’s potential for commuter rail seems to alarm a lot of people, and that potential will no longer exist if the new bridge goes ahead as planned.

    Also note the new intersection at Harbour Road. Another unstated goal that many of us have overlooked?

    And the very large consolidated green spaces planned for both sides of the bridge are simply not needed and should have been sold for development to offset the costs of this enormous project.

    Comment by Candu — October 27, 2010 #

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