By Katherine Hon | PastMatters
It’s no secret that the North Park Historical Society loves the Georgia Street Bridge. It has been our logo since we formed in 2008 and is on the cover of our latest book, “Images of America: San Diego’s North Park.” So we are understandably nervous about the bridge seismic retrofit and rehabilitation project now underway. There is a lot of work to do before the bridge is returned to its original glory about one year from now.
The three grand arches that span 66 feet over University Avenue will be preserved, but the rest of the bridge will be rebuilt from those arches upward to look like it did when it was originally built in 1914, including light posts and open-style railing on top.
To increase vertical clearance and protect the bridge from being hit by tall trucks, University Avenue will be grinded/excavated down 2.5 feet. In preparation for that street lowering, electrical utilities were previously lowered and a new water line segment was installed. (Remember that traffic disruption? It’s going to be déjà vu all over again!) The vertical walls will be reinforced with soil nails and then refaced to look like when the walls were new and not all gunked up with shotcrete.
The project’s total cost is about $14 million, and most of the funding has come from the Federal Highway Administration through Caltrans. Yes, you can count Caltrans among the community heroes who value the historic bridge and worked hard to make this rehabilitation project happen.
The bridge has needed major repairs for decades due to excessive overlays of asphalt on the deck and drainage problems that allowed water to seep into the spandrels and corrode the interior rebar and concrete support system. But when the proposed solution in the 1990s was to demolish the bridge and replace it with something cheap and simple, the community vigorously objected. The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, thanks to the extensive research and detailed application prepared by historian Alexander Bevil on an all-volunteer basis as his gift to the community. With that national standing, the bridge replacement project died.
Fast forward to 2008. The city of San Diego initiated an engineering study and alternatives analysis for seismic retrofit of the bridge and walls, with funding to be provided through Caltrans. Because the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and because Kevin Hovey, the Caltrans person in charge of coordinating local projects, loves historic bridges, Caltrans agreed to help fund the bridge project only if the bridge would be restored in accordance with Secretary of Interior Standards. This meant preserving as much of the original bridge as possible and rebuilding the rest to its appearance when it was completed in 1914.
Is the bridge worth all this time and money to restore? Because it is a landmark, a gateway and a symbol of the streetcar expansion that opened our community to urban development, the North Park Historical Society thinks so. Many others in the community would say yes, including elected officials Councilmember Todd Gloria, County Supervisor Ron Roberts, California Assembly Speaker Emeritus Toni G. Atkins, and U.S. Rep. Susan A. Davis, who all spoke at the July 19 groundbreaking. But don’t take their word for it. Let’s ask some fifth-graders.
Several years ago, while the bridge was being studied, two classes of McKinley Elementary School students wrote about what the bridge means to them. Alyssa told the engineers, “I think we should save the Georgia Street Bridge because it has been there for many years. … It has been here since 1914 and I remember it since I was little. Whenever I’m at the bridge it reminds me that I’m almost at my cousin’s house. And I think that instead of changing it you could restore it.”
Jasmine told them, “If it goes down our history will not be the same. Once our history is lost, it’s gone forever.”
Keith pointed out the unique architecture of the bridge, saying that it is “an amazing sight to behold. That my friend should stay and be appreciated by all of North Park people. It is too beautiful to be gone.”
Indeed it is.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.