The Proposed Severn Span: A Bridge Too High?

July 14, 1991|By Edward Gunts

When Maryland officials launched an international design competition in 1989 to replace the old Severn River Bridge in Annapolis, part of their charge to contestants was to create "a monument to Governor [William Donald] Schaefer and his administration," as one of the organizers put it. After all, what more fitting symbol of the governor's accomplishments could there be than a picturesque new bridge providing a gateway to the state capital from which he governed?

Two years later, with the design selected and construction documents out for bid, the $40 million replacement promises to be a symbol, all right -- but not the way its planners intended. Primarily because of a misjudgment of public sentiment that ought to qualify for the Saddam Hussein Hall of Fame, planners have come up not with the inspiring memorial they may have envisioned but an embarrassingly out-of-scale behemoth that has become the most controversial building in Maryland this summer.

Despite the noble intentions behind the planning effort, the winning design could not have been more ill-suited to the setting. The chief problem is that the sheer size of the bridge -- half a mile long, 50 feet wide and 75 feet above the water -- would be devastating to the scenic waterway, the wetlands and the fragile Colonial seaport to which it leads.

The Annapolis City Council and Anne Arundel County Council are so alarmed by the prospect that both bodies called unanimously for a new design. More than 2,000 Marylanders have signed petitions protesting it. Even a member of the jury that selected the winning entry, historic preservationist St. Clair Wright, has voiced her opposition to it. As a goodwill gesture, this beastly bridge backfired big time.

At issue behind all of this is the planning process initiated by the State Highway Administration and the Governor's Office of Art and Culture. Their competition was so one-sided in favor of a 75-foot-high bridge that it seemed practically guaranteed to spark the controversy that later erupted. Their intransigence in the face of criticism has only made the opponents more vociferous. Unless Governor Schaefer steps in and demands another solution, he could well go down in history, rightly or wrongly, as the politician who aggrandized himself by building what's being called the "Monster on the Severn."

The competition-winning design for Route 450, by Greiner Inc. of Timonium, calls for the construction of a fixed, continuously curved steel and concrete bridge with a center opening of 320 feet and a clearance of 75 feet -- more than six times the 12-foot clearance of the 67-year-old drawbridge it would replace.

The 2,800-foot-long span would be just east of the existing bridge, connecting Jonas Green State Park with the Naval Academy on the opposite shore. It would consist of two trapezoidal steel box girders supporting a concrete slab carrying the roadway, with two lanes in each direction, plus shoulders and sidewalks. Tall and thin octagonal columns would support the girders and rest on granite-covered bases just above the water line.

Greiner's design was selected over four others submitted by firms from around the country, finalists narrowed down from an original list of 21 contenders. All of the designs were for a fixed bridge at least 75 feet high, since that is only kind of bridge state planners were willing to consider. The state also dictated the alignment of the bridge, the width, depth and other specifics.

From a functional standpoint, the chief advantage of Greiner's design is that it would be high enough to lift vehicular traffic up and over the boats on the river, eliminating the bottlenecks that now occur as the decrepit drawbridge goes up and down. Given the clearance requirements, Greiner's chief bridge engineer, Thomas Jenkins, did a remarkable job of keeping the bridge as low and clean and uncluttered as possible, which is largely why his firm won the commission. Jurors praised it for being the least intrusive on the waterway, "a thin curving ribbon arching over the Severn River."

But the public uproar about the bridge is not about Greiner's selection. The issue at hand is whether any bridge with a minimum clearance of 75 feet would be appropriate for the setting. Is the convenience gained by separating cars from boats really worth the adverse aesthetic impact that such a large bridge would have on that scenic waterway? As hard as Greiner worked to make its design palatable, its bridge still has the following drawbacks:

*It is the wrong size and scale: As laid out by Gov. Francis Nicholson in 1696, Annapolis' tallest buildings are the State House and St. Anne's Church, both located in circles and given extra height to denote the significance of church and state in society at that time. Most other buildings are three to four stories high. The existing flat drawbridge fits nicely into the hierarchy because it reflects the bridge's role as a utilitarian structure rather than a civic monument.

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