The simple skyway that the Schwarzenegger administration wants to build next to Yerba Buena Island is not the stuff of which landmarks are made.
And that may be just fine.
What's now on the table is what the eastern span of the Bay Bridge should have been all along: a strong and simple line that gains drama from the way it gradually lifts up above the waters of the nation's most distinctive urban setting.
Now we need credible evidence that substituting a skyway for a tower can, as claimed, save the state at least $300 million without slowing down the project. If that's the case, then it's time to opt for the pared-down design - - but only with reviews built into the process to make sure that the final structure is as elegant as possible.
Admirers of the approved design for a self-anchored suspension bridge will point out, rightly, that the new approach is nothing like the "signature bridge" sought with fanfare by East Bay politicians back in 1997 and 1998. It is low-profile and low-key.
But what got lost in the rhetorical posturing back then is that bridges are not works of public art: They are engineering challenges shaped by their locations. The Golden Gate Bridge is wondrous not just because of its design, but because it spans the rugged collision of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The 68-year-old western span of the Bay Bridge is more matter-of-fact, robust rather than romantic; what makes it memorable is the methodical march above a busy shipping channel into downtown San Francisco.
By contrast, the eastern span lifts off from mudflats near Emeryville. The only deep water is on the edge of Yerba Buena Island. That's why the East Bay's "signature" tower would be perched on a subterranean cliff two miles from Oakland. The main reason it would be there is to serve as a structural flourish -- one that holds up only the westernmost 2,100 feet of the two- mile span. It is a 525-foot-tall bid for attention.
But a skyway can offer the most lasting signature of all: wide-open grandeur in a setting like no other.
In either direction, the path laid out for the new span should be stirring. Westbound drivers will gradually ascend amid clear air and the soft outlines of the North Bay, then swing to the left and focus in on the tight green drama of Yerba Buena Island. Heading east, the initial impression on leaving the island will be a sense of freedom -- you're no longer on the bottom deck of a dark trussed structure -- and then the sprawling panorama of Berkeley and the East Bay hills, followed by a gentle descent toward Oakland.
Even with a design approach that critics deride as plain vanilla, that's a mighty tasty feast.
And while the current skyway design hasn't received much attention -- despite the fact that it is under construction and accounts for 80 percent of the span's length -- it actually is pretty good.
Critics of the skyway scheme first unveiled under Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997 were right: It looked like a freeway on stilts, and ungainly stilts at that. But in the years following the 1998 selection of the design now under way, the skyway portion has been honed and improved: It is brawny to be sure, not elegant, but with a functional strength that fits the surroundings well.
That said, any decision to change course now must be scrutinized closely.
This rebuilding saga has been a pathetic fiasco from day one. Given the sorry track record of elected officials and bureaucratic estimates, there's no reason not to be cynical about assurances that the cost savings will materialize, or that the opening date won't be delayed even more.
The credibility gap is every bit as wide as the body of water that must be spanned.
That's why a credible argument exists for biting the bullet and pushing ahead with the approved self-anchored tower. We know what we're getting, mostly. The seismic safety of the new design also has been reviewed and checked, again and again.
Before any decision is made, the Legislature and public deserve to see an all-skyway alternative sketched out beyond the feel-good image on display Friday. Cost and regulatory checkpoints need to be spelled out in detail, well in advance.
If the skyway notion does emerge as a reasonable scenario, then vigilance is needed to ensure a crisp and classic design. Every detail must be mapped out and executed with care, from the railings along the roadway to the concrete piers underneath.
But a simple approach isn't necessarily a bad one.
Some locations cry out for attention-getting architecture; some don't. And in terms of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, this may very well be a case where less is more.
E-mail John King at [email protected]