Jeff Jardine

Can new Modesto bridge avoid being taggers’ easel?

Graffiti is seen on the underside of the Ninth Street Bridge in Modesto on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.
Graffiti is seen on the underside of the Ninth Street Bridge in Modesto on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. aalfaro@modbee.com

Earlier this month, Stanislaus County and Modesto officials invited the public to weigh in on how the new Seventh Street Bridge should look.

The old one is crumbling, worn by nearly a century of use by increasingly bigger and heavier vehicles, settled by the periodic high waters of the Tuolumne River including the 1997 flood, and held in places by metal supports. The iconic concrete lions that greet travelers lost their ferocity a long, long time ago.

The bridge, dedicated with a splash of milk in August 1917, has outlived its usefulness. It needs to be replaced, but with what?

A wider replica of the original? The new one will have four lanes, two in each direction, costing about $40 million. The bridge also must be 3 feet higher at the water clearance point and 7 feet higher at road level than the existing bridge, levels established by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board after the 1997 flood.

Something more modern? Something streamlined?

Ornate and decorative akin to the grandeur of the era when it was built? Everyone I’ve asked wants the lion statues to be restored or replicated, and that is likely to happen in some manner.

David Leamon, a Stanislaus County public works official taking the lead on the bridge effort, said there already have been some informal conversations with local sculptor Betty Saletta, whose works include the Lucas statue at Five Points and the Chief Estanislao statue in the courthouse park. She wants to replicate the lions in bronze, which would last longer than concrete.

They’re also open to ideas of incorporating something mimicking or replicating Modesto’s famed arch on the sides of the bridge.

Now for a dose of reality: Any beauty designed into the bridge will last about as long as it takes for vandals to get cans of spray paint and tag it. Sadly, the taggers respect nothing. They get a sick thrill from defacing property. Think not? Just look at the footings of the old one. Or the columns of the decade-old Ninth Street Bridge several hundred yards to the east. They’re scarred with taggers’ “art” and gang graffiti.

“The lions have been graffitied for the last 60 years,” Leamon said. “It’s not a recent problem.”

Ultimately, taggers will have as much to say about the new design as you, or the bridge’s architect or any of the government officials. Planners already are thinking in terms of a bridge that will be less vulnerable to vandalism. The lions would be placed “out of harm’s way” and not at their current street level, Leamon said. Like the Ninth Street Bridge, the new Seventh Street Bridge likely will provide a smaller easel for the taggers, with smaller columns and less surface area for them to work.

“The old design has a curtain wall,” he said, meaning more expansive sides. The new design, he said, will need to do a better job of protecting the columns.

Protective coatings can make it easier to remove spray paint. However, the coating lasts for only a couple of removals, Leamon said. It’s simply easier to paint over the tagging with gray paint that matches the concrete rather than to keep re-coating the area.

The best defense against the taggers, he said, could be residents who use the trails expected to be built by the city as part of the Tuolumne River Regional Park concept. More people using the area, in theory, should affect taggers’ current unfettered access to the bridges and its footings and also demand a greater police presence in the area.

The county and city are working with Don MacDonald Architects, the firm that also designed the new Ninth Street Bridge that opened in Modesto in 2005, as well as the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. The state, which built the Bay Bridge, came under fire for using Chinese-made steel that has been problematic. Not going to happen here, Leamon said.

“With the new federal guidelines, we’ll have a ‘buy American’ clause for the bridge,” he said. “That applies to all the iron and steel.”

Officials continue to seek input. Comments can be emailed to leamond@stancounty.org or mailed to David Leamon, Department of Public Works, Stanislaus County, 1010 10th St., Suite 4202, Modesto 95354. The project website is www.7thstreetbridge.org.

Give them ideas. Tell them how you want it to look – without, of course, the spray paint.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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