A look at the First Avenue Street Bridge
By Leo Wilson
One of the distinctive features of Bankers Hill is the presence of three historic bridges. The largest bridge, and the only one used by vehicular traffic, is on First Avenue between Nutmeg Street and Redwood Street — not surprisingly known as the “First Avenue Street Bridge.”
It is 104 feet high and 463 feet long, and crosses over the Maple Canyon Open Space. Both sides of the bridge have spectacular views of the canyon below with its stately eucalyptus trees and other vegetation; the western side also has a magnificent view of San Diego Bay.
The original First Avenue Bridge in 1930 (Courtesy of Digital Archives, sandiego.gov)
The original First Avenue Bridge was built in 1911. It was nicknamed the “People’s Bridge” because its construction was at the instigation of local property owners. This bridge was replaced in 1931 with a steel truss arch bridge, which is the only one of its kind that now exists in San Diego. The replacement bridge was actually built and pre-constructed in Ohio, then dismantled, shipped to San Diego and erected at its current location.
Seventy-seven years later in 2008, the First Avenue Bridge had a major seismic retrofit, which cost almost $13 million dollars. The bridge was closed for about two years while the retrofit took place. In addition, the existing lead-based paint was removed and the bridge was repainted.
The project was mostly funded by two California State Highway Bridge Programs, whose purpose was to provide funds for seismic upgrades and lead paint removal. The city of San Diego also contributed approximately $500,000 for the retrofit project. Besides being seismically unsafe, many corroded metal components of the bridge structure were replaced. The surface deck of the bridge was also rehabilitated.
Aside from the retrofit, another goal of the project was to restore the bridge to how it originally looked when it was built in 1931. This included installing the original type of railings and light standards, as well as restoring the bridge’s bronze color. The retrofit project was done in a timely manner, with the bridge rededicated on Feb. 22, 2010.
On March 19, 2010, shortly after the re-opening of the First Avenue Bridge, stop signs were installed at several intersections on Fourth and Fifth avenues, between Laurel and Upas streets. Installation of the stop signs was delayed until the First Avenue Bridge was reopened.
Although placing stop signs at these locations had been fiercely opposed by many city officials, the decision was supported by petitions with over 500 signatures of local residents and business owners. Many western Bankers Hill residents opposed the stop signs, fearing First Avenue would be negatively impacted by increased traffic.
Uptown Planners voted overwhelming 14-1 to support placing the stop signs, and then-City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer directed that they be installed. Once the stop signs were placed, traffic accidents dropped almost 80 percent along the section of Fourth and Fifth avenues in which they were located. There was no major increase in traffic along First Avenue.
Subsequently, additional stop signs have been placed along Fourth and Fifth avenues. Although initially controversial, the stop signs are now looked upon as a success story.
However, the controversy raised an important issue. Even with the retrofit, there are limitations on how much additional vehicular traffic the First Avenue Bridge can safely handle.
Several engineers involved with the retrofit project indicated that its purpose was earthquake safety, not strengthening the bridge so that it could accommodate additional traffic. They expressed concerns over the impact of too much additional vehicular use.
Future mobility planning in Bankers Hill needs to take this limitation into account.
— Leo Wilson is administrator for Metro San Diego CDC and is a Bankers Hill resident.