Two residents’ groups differ on their proposals
The city of Santa Barbara will resume discussions next week about the future of the historic Mission Creek Bridge and Mission Canyon Road.
The talks will begin with a presentation to the Historic Landmarks Commission Wednesday about improvement options for the bridge and surrounding roads.
This meeting comes after years of discussions over the proper way to preserve the historic nature of the bridge while making sure it is safe for the community.
Back in 2018, the Santa Barbara City Council allocated more than $1 million in funds to begin the Mission Canyon Bridge Project, which sought input from Wallace Group consultants on ways to potentially improve the bridge structure and safety of the road while maintaining its historical charm.
After completing studies and assessing the area, the Wallace Group has developed three potential options for configuration of the bridge and three options to improve the safety of Mission Canyon Road.
One proposed option suggests retaining the stone structure, while the two other proposals recommend tearing down the bridge and constructing a new one. The Historic Landmarks Commission will hear these proposals during Wednesday’s meeting, offering feedback to the city on whether these proposals align with the preservation of the bridge.
The preservation of the Mission Creek Bridge is of high concern for residents living in the area, though the efforts to protect the bridge have fractured locals into two different camps.
On one side, some residents believe that structural updates should be made to the bridge for safety purposes, while others believe the bridge should remain untouched.
Fred Sweeney, president of the Mission Heritage Trails Association, leads a coalition of residents who believe structural and road surface changes should be made to the bridge while maintaining its historical status.
In addition to updates to the bridge, the MHTA is calling for safety enhancements along Mission Canyon Road for the protection of pedestrians and bikers in the area.
According to Mr. Sweeney, the bridge currently has a rating of 52 out of 100 on Caltrans’ inspection standards. Once the bridge reaches a ranking of 50, Caltrans can step in and make changes to update the structure of the bridge.
In 2017, MHTA funded a traffic study that found between 400 and 500 people walk across the bridge daily and about 10,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day.
“We as community members don’t want (Caltrans) just to do anything. We want to be very careful about whatever it is,” Mr. Sweeney told reporters during a meeting Thursday at Rocky Nook Park, which is near the bridge. “Whatever they touch in this canyon has to reflect the thing that we all love about this canyon — it’s real nature,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We don’t want concrete sidewalks and gutters. We don’t want hard surfaces that don’t look anything like this canyon; we don’t want landscaping that’s foreign to this canyon. We don’t want any of that.
“And if they have to touch the bridge, then there are ways to take those stones off, number them, put them back on,” he said. “There’s a whole protocol for how you do that, to fix the bridge. So it’s not blowing up the bridge; nobody’s proposing that. We don’t endorse that at all. We endorse saving (Mission Canyon).”
Still, another coalition of residents opposes any changes to the bridge, claiming that structural changes are impossible without completely destroying the current bridge.
Lanny Ebenstein, a resident of Mission Canyon for more than 58 years, leads the Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon, a group that formed in favor of leaving the bridge untouched.
According to Mr. Ebenstein, his coalition represents hundreds of residents who do not believe there is a good reason to consider renovating the bridge at this point in time.
Mr. Ebenstein pointed to the bridge surviving the 1925 earthquake and multiple floods as evidence for its structural security, saying there’s not a “structural reason” for these proposals at this current point in time.
“Our position is clear — and that is that this is a proposal for demotion of the historical Mission Creek Bridge,” Mr. Ebenstein told the News-Press. “It’s not a minor alteration; it’s not fixing a pothole. It’s tearing down the existing bridge and building a new bridge, a bigger bridge, a wider bridge. Our group, which represents hundreds of local residents, believes that this would be a community mistake of the first order that would negatively influence Santa Barbara for decades and centuries to come.”
He later added, “It would be a great community mistake if this proposal were to go forward.”
Despite opposition from the Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon, members of the Mission Heritage Trails Association see changes to the bridge being an inevitable outcome, and they desire to step in to ensure the bridge’s history is preserved when changes are made.
“Our role is, first of all, to make sure that something is being done, because we know that the bridge is inadequate at this point,” MHTA member Karl Hutterer said during Thursday’s meeting. “We know that. And each one of us has stories to tell about it. But in the end, our role is not to say what has to be done, but to be watchdogs to make sure that there is the optimal marriage between historic preservation, public safety and functionality of that corridor.”
Mr. Sweeney echoed this sentiment, saying the idea of leaving the bridge untouched is “not logical.”
“You’ve got to be able to do what you need to do to make it safe,” Mr. Sweeney said. “But you can do it in such a way that my hope is when my grandchildren are walking down this canyon 20 years from now, they won’t know anything really got touched.
“That would be the perfect solution. We can go in and do the work, and do it in such a way that nobody, unless they’re us and they’re here when it happened, will ever know that it really got touched.”