Reblogging Johnson St. Bridge conversation

June 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm | In heritage, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, victoria | 6 Comments

The conversation on Vibrant Victoria’s forum about the Johnson Street Bridge continues, brilliantly. See pages 22 and 23.

This morning, forumer DesignStyles wrote the following:

After reading the outrageous comments on here, I thought I would put my two cents in. I really don’t understand why some of you latch on to saving this beast.

It’s ugly. So what it’s designed by the same guy who designed the Golden Gate. Not all designers do their best 100% of the time. Many residents of Victoria think it’s garbage. Sure, it looks great in those night photos but anything looks good in low light.

It’s unsafe going through that stupid chicane on the West side, and it’s terribly unsafe to ride the bridge on your bicycle. I’m looking forward to a new bridge that is safe to cross and feel like I’m not taking my life in my own hands every day.

It’s not a landmark, you’re trying to make it one. I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started. Sorry, you can’t just create it now. People come to Victoria for oh 1000 reasons other than the blue bridge.

If heritage people had their way, we’d still be living in caves. Lighten up, it’s not some controversy over partisan politics, or some other self-serving thing. I’ll take the new bridge and Millions of dollars saved from a retrofit so that money can go into social programs and the like. People won’t come for the blue bridge if they have to wade through all the homeless that sit around it.

Ok, that last comment is a bit of a stretch but I think you get my drift.

It’s a passage that aastra refuted within the span of hours:

The weakest point in this whole debate is the one that goes “you weren’t defending it before it was threatened, so therefore it must not be valuable”. It’s an incredibly bogus argument because:

1) people take things for granted, like the famous bridge that (in the city’s words) would “always be there”, or historic buildings at the Jubilee Hospital, or the Coho, or fine old trees in the park right in your own neighbourhood (or the Campbell Building, or the Permanent Loan Building, etc. etc. etc.)

2) nobody was going on about how the bridge was a notorious wreck and an esthetic eyesore that should be dismantled immediately EITHER. I can show you countless pictures of the bridge taken by residents and tourists, I can show you products named after it, I can show you blurbs in tourism guides and books. So how come a sudden decision to trash something is perfectly valid and requires no context whatsoever whereas there’s this impossible burden of proof put upon the folks who want to protect it?

I do not recall anyone, anytime saying the blue bridge is an attraction before this whole controversy started.

This is incorrect and has been demonstrated as such many times on this very thread. Just because you don’t recall it doesn’t mean it never happened.

Some people seem to want to reduce this issue to liking/disliking the bridge. Folks, history (the non-Wikipedia variety) doesn’t come down to a popular vote. The bridge is what it is. The equivalent bridge is a prized piece of history in San Francisco, Toronto, Ohio, Tennessee, Connecticut, etc. Nobody has yet offered any explanation as to why it’s not a prized piece of history in Victoria. Are we suggesting that we know more than those saps in those other places? Or are we merely ignorant and unwilling to admit it?

Heritage preservation in Victoria has been politically compromised beyond all recognition. Most of us were well aware of that fact many years before this bridge issue came up. The bridge issue is just the most extreme example that we’ve encountered so far.

People who are rooting for replacing the bridge because they think it serves as some sort of challenge to the stuck-in-the-mud crowd should make note of the fact that the stuck-in-the-mud crowd is BEHIND this. It’s their project. The folks who oppose everything and who made everything so darned difficult during the little 21st-century building boom that we’ve just enjoyed are the very same folks who want to ditch the bridge.

So you aren’t challenging them by rooting for the bridge’s demise. You’re arm in arm with them. Will you be arm in arm with them when they scream about a midrise condo proposal on a parking lot? Or when they flip about modifications to the interior of the Rogers’ Chocolates store? Or when they oppose a downtown art gallery or performing arts centre?

Also, the turn on the Vic West side is a lazy turn by any standard. Can we please drop that lemon? Crikey, on the one hand we’re claiming we’re progressive hipsters boldly rolling forward over our collective past, and on the other hand we’re fretting because our unsteady hands can’t negotiate any road that isn’t absolutely straight?

That just about sums it up, it seems to me.

There’s another interesting aspect here, too, which relates to “the silence of the heritage lambs” on the matter of the bridge.  As forumer jklymak pointed out, we’re proceeding on potentially skewed assumptions – skewed by a professional group bent on replacement:

^ Of course Victoria will build down. Aside from red herrings like the turn at the bottom of the hill (which has nothing to do with the bridge) the cost comparison made by tear-down proponents is between restoration of a beautiful bridge and building a new generic bridge. Lets see an actual quote on refurbishing the bridge, rather than a back-of-the-envelope estimate, and lets see the design and a real quote for the new bridge. Until then, we are just trusting the word of a single engineering study, which Ms B. has pointed out was undertaken by a company likely to bid on building a new bridge.

So why don’t we hear the heritage lambs on this one? My theory is that the bridge question is utterly beyond their scope. All they’ve ever saved to date were houses and relatively small buildings – and it’s on record that they’ve lost large buildings like the Permanent Loan and the Campbell Buildings, both on Douglas Street, and the market buildings/ old firehall (now Centennial Square). Admittedly, these structures were lost before heritage advocates were sufficiently organized here, but I can’t help wondering why it is that the only objects they’ve concentrated on have been relatively small buildings. (There are some exceptions that prove the rule, notably St. Ann’s Academy, but overall their focus has been mostly on single-family homes or relatively small buildings.)

Maybe it’s because it’s easy enough to do – Martha Stewart can show you how. And it’s easy enough to understand, too – because we all live in buildings or houses, so we have a sense of what’s entailed.

But a bridge! And an old one with old technology! This isn’t cottage-style anymore…

So what has the city done? They’ve solicited expert advice, in the first instance their own engineering department. The department doesn’t come across as a hotbed of innovation, though. It doesn’t seem like a department that’s interested in new approaches …or in saving things. It seems to like building new stuff, and that’s naturally how they’re going to slant the advice they give city council. Furthermore, the department has compounded the bias against restoration by hiring a consultancy (Delcan) that’s in the business of building only new bridges, not fixing old ones.

So, big d’uh that their advice is “the sky is falling, we must replace the bridge now.” The problem is that as far as anyone knows, that’s the only advice the city has actually solicited.

The city can’t get advice from the self-identified heritage advocates because something like the Johnson Street Bridge is totally and utterly beyond their ken.

Heck, the thing scares me to death, and I’m in favor of keeping it. The thought of actually tackling a restoration is scary. Yet of course it can be done.

So imagine if the city got one or two of the right people – engineers with the right background and experience – on the job to consult and advise and help? The conversation might be entirely different.


  1. Bridges of this type are very rare in Canada so that might also be one of the reasons why the whole thing has been handled so clumsily.

    Comment by skewered — June 27, 2009 #

  2. Thanks for writing at such length and with such conviction on this issue, Yule.
    I took the liberty to reprint your thought-provoking essay in the June number of Focus at the Concerned Citizens’ Coalition Blog site (CCC BLOG).
    Martin Segger, a former Victoria City Councillor who is also a well-respected architectural historian like yourself and now employed at the Maltwood Museum at the University of Victoria, wrote as a comment to your article:
    ‘The heritage values underpinning the significance of the historic Johnson Street trunnion bascule bridge are its iconic and monumental presence on Victoria’s Inner Harbour and the fact that it was designed by one of the most famous bridge designers in the world, Joseph Strauss.
    ‘Would Victoria’s current City Council have wisdom and fortitude to commission a contemporary world class engineer of the likes of, say, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava?
    ‘I doubt it. So let’s leave the current bridge alone.’
    I used that quote and one from your Focus essay in a letter to the editor of the Victoria News, so look for that later this week.
    As for the Hallmark Society, they have not been relevant in saving large scale heritage structures in this town since the late eighties. They did next to nothing to help save Saint Anne’s Academy, and that is the reason why the now-defunct Saint Anne’s Rescue Community Coalition and the Greater Victoria Concerned Citizens’ Association (GVCCA) were formed to launch legal action.
    The GVCCA was the legal arm of the Concerned Citizens. As you know, we are still here, and we put forward candidates at every civic election in Victoria.

    Gregory Hartnell, President
    Concerned Citizens’ Coalition

    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — June 29, 2009 #

  3. Thanks for the comment & additional info re support by Victoria preservationists for very large projects. I’m starting to think that this whole JSB project is very much staff-driven (Engineering, Peter Sparanese) and wonder at the lack of public, especially inter-municipal, participation. I don’t think most people (who think we’ll have some kind of design competition to ensure that we get a fabulous new bridge) understand that roads & bridges are a strictly municipal thing & that therefore the City of Victoria can do whatever the hell it wants, with 0 input from any of the other munis, despite the JSB’ iconic & historic significance. And the city leaders are letting city staff drive this very important decision, IMO.

    Comment by Yule — June 29, 2009 #

  4. Hi Yule:

    Your readers might be interested to read this:

    Enjoy the holiday…


    Comment by Gregory Hartnell — June 30, 2009 #

  5. Great article and really nice pictures.

    Comment by Buat Duit Online — July 1, 2009 #

  6. I’m not sure I want to support an attempt at a lawsuit, but I’m hopeful that we could muster the needed ~7500 signatures to force a 2012 referendum on the $63m borrowing question – which in turn would pretty much scuttle the “shovel-readiness” of this project (under federal infrastructure guidelines, I think the project would have to be substantially finished by 2011, which isn’t going to happen if there has to be a referendum first). A Facebook group notice says it will cost each Victoria taxpayer an additional $800 to borrow the $63m, and that should make it simple enough to convince people to vote against it…?
    I’ll blog something later.

    Comment by Yule — July 11, 2009 #

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