Residents speak up on fate of the bridge during feedback period
Since early December, the city of Santa Barbara has been conducting a public feedback period after presenting studies of the Mission Canyon Bridge to determine ways to improve structural integrity and safety of the bridge.
Officials wrote on the website, missioncanyonbridge.com, that the bridge needs earthquake retrofitting, better sight lines for drivers, more sufficient pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, and improved water flow under the bridge during large storms.
They presented three options for the bridge and three for the roadway, with one retaining the existing stone bridge and the others tearing down the bridge and constructing a new one.
The next steps of the Mission Canyon Bridge studies are to review the initial options shared with the community with the Historic Landmarks Commission to get their feedback and discuss pros and cons for each.
“We anticipate gathering feedback over the next few months before the environmental studies process can begin,” Rob Dayton, the city’s transportation planning and parking manager, told the News-Press. “The environmental review process will likely go through this year.”
While the concept is very early on in the process, residents have spoken up with opinions on if the bridge should stay or go.
A group of locals created the Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon, which has recently worked to prove that the bridge is in good condition and causes no safety concerns.
Helen Couclelis teaches geography at UCSB and has a background in civil engineering and architecture. She’s a member of the coalition and said that she thinks the studies of the bridge were a “waste of effort and resources.”
“This kind of bridge with a circle arch is pretty much the strongest structure that engineers have ever come up with … They live forever,” she told the News-Press. “Do they need maintenance? Yes, they do, but then, go to projects that are more serious.”
Ms. Couclelis believes the bridge is still in good condition, and also has concerns for the residents who use the bridge daily and what they would do during the years-long construction period.
“All of us depend on that exit and we depend on that exit especially if there’s going to be a wildfire and we need to evacuate,” she said. “I’ve been through three evacuations and it is a nightmare. For me to think that the two years that it will take to rebuild the bridge we won’t have an exit if we need one — it’s terrible.
“So this is a situation that is crazy to try to take a very good bridge away that can be fixed with very little effort … You take away our only reasonable exit.”
She said that the 120-year-old bridge has survived many floods and the largest earthquake to hit Santa Barbara, proving its structural condition is still good. The professor also had criticisms of the options presented by the city, such as the two-arch bridge, which she said would pose safety hazards during rainfall due to all the pressure on one support in the middle.
In addition, Ms. Couclelis said that because she came from Europe, the bridge has provided some nostalgia for her in her 33 years of living in the West Riviera.
“There is a hierarchy of importance for me and my neighbors. The idea of being without the bridge and without that exit for a couple of years is devastating,” she said. “Equally important is the fact that this is probably the oldest working structure in the county and beautifully working at that, and it’s also just a wonderful environment with these old trees.
“Why, why, why? There is no answer to the ‘why’ question. Why destroy this treasure that is not just a historic treasure, not just an aesthetic and environmental treasure — it’s also an engineering treasure.”
Paulina Conn is also a member of the coalition, and has lived in the area for almost 50 years. She believes that the bridge itself isn’t what’s causing the accidents.
“I believe that if there are any problems that need to be fixed, it is the problem at the Alameda Padre Serra and Los Olivos merge because we have fender benders there,” Ms. Conn told the News-Press. “We also need to have people feel comfortable crossing the street from the rose garden area into upper Mission Historical Park and also from the Mission walkway into Mission Historical Park.”
Both Ms. Conn and Ms. Couclelis agreed that any accidents occurring southbound on Mission Canyon Road are because of the poor signage, particularly the 20 mph sign that they say is hidden by the shade from oak trees and a hedge that is often not clipped.
“It (rebuilding the bridge) is not necessary and the community did not want that bridge touched,” Ms. Conn said. “Everything works beautifully the way it is now.”
Ms. Conn, too, believes the bridge should be preserved for its history.
“Stone arch bridges are so strong. They’re used for the tressels for trains all over Europe and here too, in the United States. This is the only one like it in Southern California, and we’re going to get rid of it?” she said. “Instead of tearing it down, they should be building it up as a tourist attraction.”
Local historian Neal Graffy has studied the bridge in the past, and wrote a post on Facebook for the bridge’s 129th birthday back in October of 2020. He found that the entrance to Mission Canyon was once framed by a stone aqueduct, and that Mission Canyon Bridge began as a wooden bridge.
His research showed that the stone bridge was constructed in 1891.
Regarding the city’s studies and options for reconstruction, Mr. Graffy said there have been numerous empty project proposals for that area that he’s followed, including a project with CalTrans that involved putting bike paths on Foothill Road, which never ended up happening.
“All of the things that they claim are completely bogus,” he told the News-Press. “I’m a person who has lived and walked and skateboarded through this area for six decades. There is traffic at peak times, absolutely, but most of the time, it’s not that bad.”
He believes any of the city’s proposed changes would not help the problem, because the accidents are associated with speeding.
“The city, county and state do absolutely nothing to enforce the speeding in this area. Accidents are caused by people that are drunk, most of them happen at night, and one of the things they want to do is straighten the road — that would just cause people to go at a higher rate of speed,” Mr. Graffy said.
He added that he supports fixing up the pedestrian bridge on the northbound side of the road, which he said is old and rusty.
“You just have to consider how many people are actually walking to the (Santa Barbara) Museum of (Natural) History that we want to spend millions of dollars to make pedestrian access for them and tear into part of the historic entrance of Mission Canyon,” he said. “I’m just against the whole thing. I’m skeptical of all this stuff. I’ve been burned and I learned.”