A lot of people showed up to the Aberdeen City Council meeting Wednesday night in order to make sure the city council, Mayor Pete Schave and other city staff members heard their thoughts on the Young Street Bridge.
The 304-foot-long bridge, approximately 67-years-old, needs either a substantial amount of expensive, technical work, or a full replacement. The city has received $25 million in federal funds to replace the bridge. Early estimates say the replacement bridge would cost $23.1 million. And the money has a time limit on it.
But, despite those points, people want to find a way to save it.
The Young Street Bridge, which serves the residents in North Aberdeen, has a couple other names. It’s other official name is the North Aberdeen Bridge, but the people who showed up Wednesday to try to save it call it “Kurt’s Bridge,” for Nirvana’s founder, the legendary Kurt Cobain, who grew up in Aberdeen. Cobain wrote songs underneath the bridge, including “Something in the Way,” which refers specifically to the Young Street Bridge. And people from around the world come to it, sit under it, and hang out at Kurt Cobain Memorial Park, which sits at the southern side of the bridge.
Earlier on Wednesday a couple was walking their dog and looking at the bridge. Another group of friends were standing underneath the bridge and reading the personal graffitied messages written to Cobain, his memory and how his music affected their lives.
The crowd of 20 or so people showed up to the council meeting to save “Kurt’s Bridge,” with their presence and their words at the lectern inside the council chambers. Ron Mullins was one of the speakers who pleaded to the city to save the bridge. Mullins identified himself as a person who has worn many hats, which includes being a former Elma council member, a tribal council member for the Chinook Tribe, and a few other roles throughout the area.
“When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we say ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that’s all,” Mullins said. “That’s not people who might have the same opinions, and the same things that everyone of us that’s different than us. … When I’m out in the communities, whether it’s in Washington, out of state, or even, you know, out of the country, a lot of people know about Aberdeen because of Kurt Cobain.”
Mullins’ speech was not just about the bridge. It was about the need to help the people in the city, because there are people who suffer from homelessness and from drug abuse. He and others said there are people from outside the city who don’t want to go to Aberdeen because of the state of the city, with the tents out on the downtown sidewalks and in other camps just outside.
Other folks who showed up to the meeting talked about their desire to save the bridge, and its “huge part of our history in Aberdeen,” but they also spoke about the need to clean up the city and help the people in need.
One way to help the city, as far as Wil Russoul, executive director of the Downtown Aberdeen Association, was concerned when he spoke is to save the bridge because it would bring in tourism.
“One of the beautiful things about Aberdeen is our past. It sells us every day. I can wear an Aberdeen shirt,” Russoul said. “I’ll tell ya what, those of you going to Mexico this year, wear an Aberdeen shirt and come back and tell me how many people talk to you. … Here’s the point, it’s about tourism. It’s about experience. The people in this room who are having issues around, social issues, police issues, you want to fix them. You need tax money. I would like to believe tourism could help with that, because I think they have some money and they’re willing to spend it. They drive through here, this is a wonderful place for people to come.”
But, come summertime, a large number of the fifth wheel RVs, and other vehicles that people drive from across the state and into Aberdeen, head to the beaches.
Russoul talked about how Aberdeen needs to add reasons for people to come and spend their time and their money in Aberdeen.
“Here’s the thing, for every hour you drive, there should be four hours of experience. You want Olympia to come here? Let’s give them four hours of experience. We don’t have it,” Russoul said, noting how the city needs more to give tourists.
“We need to get to eight hours though,” Russoul said. “Once we get past eight hours, you’ll start seeing hotels show up here. You’ll start seeing other industries come. There are people trying to make business in this town who have to go to Olympia, or farther. People who could develop here but are now in other areas. We need a hotel. We need to grow together.”
Russoul wants the city to think about how it sells the Aberdeen experience. Part of that experience, to Russoul, is the Young Street Bridge.
“It’s the one place we can go experience where Kurt Cobain actually experienced. … You don’t even have to support Nirvana. But I’m going to tell you, that is low-hanging fruit,” Russoul said. “Kurt sells Aberdeen every day, even passed away. Every day. I should know how powerful it is. I bought something and it came up ‘priceless art asset.’ You should look at my emails and where they come from around the world. It is something we have to think about, go back to experience. If this council has the privilege to make a decision about that bridge, or anything in this town, and it involves somebody’s experience, I’m challenging you to provide another experience as good as that one.”
Lee Bacon, owner of the Side One Building, the urban green moss building at the intersection of West Wishkah and South K streets, is already working on a Cobain project, which will hopefully grow tourism for Aberdeen. One part of that is making the Cobain home — 1201 E. First St. — into a living museum. The other two parts are at the Side One Building, where there will be “The Green Room,” made to look like a pre-concert area, and “The Tribute Gallery,” which will be an “anti-museum,” where people can sit on couches, listen to music, and hang out in a total Nirvana experience.
Before that’s done, the Young Street Bridge and the Kurt Cobain Memorial Park are the two main elements in town that celebrate Cobain.
Public Works’ ‘Engineering approach’
The city, however, countered the sincere words from the bridge defenders with cold, hard facts. It will cost a lot more to do anything but simply replace the Young Street Bridge. While the city is open, and seemingly quite willing, to memorialize the bridge with respect for its history and the people who love it, rehabbing the bridge might not be the best financial option.
Rick Sangder, Aberdeen’s public works director, gave a presentation on the bridge.
“It appears there’s a lot of interest, but we’re gonna give you an engineering approach,” Sangder said.
Sangder pointed out how the bridge, which serves about 2,000 vehicles per day, plus emergency service vehicles, has had load restrictions for more than 15 years. The load restrictions are to try and stop larger trucks, such as garbage trucks and timber trucks from crossing the bridge. Then he spoke about the more recent challenges the bridge started facing and continues to face as it supports traffic over the Wishkah River.
“In 2018 we had a sufficiency rating of 31,” Sangder said, noting that rating is basically a list of deficiencies all put together and culminated into a single number saying how good or bad the bridge is. “Anything under a 40 is actually on the bridge list to be replaced. In 2018 we had a 31 when we did load ratings. Then in 2019, based on those load ratings, we came back with a sufficiency rating of 7.”
The sufficiency rating includes load, piers, shear and scour. According to Sangder, the Young Street Bridge is deficient in all four elements. The inspections are done by the county and state.
While the following year, in 2020, the rating was raised to 14.7, Sangder said that means it was still “very deficient.” At that time, Sangder said, there was a “call for projects.”
“We went out and asked for $15 million,” Sangder said. “That was the max award for a bridge. We knew the bridge was $23 million, but based on the deficiencies, we figured we had to do something and try and get the money to at least start the process, so we had a funding gap and maybe we could meet that at the end. I think when we were originally awarded $15 (million) we asked the mayor for $8 million, he kind of laughed at us because there just isn’t $8 million laying around.”
But luckily, Sangder said, the bridge program came back to the city and offered to fund the whole $23.1 million. That money is for a bridge replacement. Sangder explained why replacing it makes sense.
“The replacement of the bridge, the reason why we chose that route was because it is the most cost-effective,” Sangder said. “Our responsibility as engineers was to supply safe infrastructure for the lowest price to our citizens. I’m not minimizing any of the other aspects of that. That wasn’t my role. That’s on your role, and the council’s role. We looked at it as just a project and what we would have to pay for a safe bridge and safe infrastructure.”
As of now, public works is working on the request for qualifications, which includes an advertisement asking for consultants to propose how they would handle the bridge.
“We asked for a pre-design options analysis and also an outreach program to engage the community and get different options and see what we could do. Whether it be to just replace the bridge outright, that’s the most cost-effective, or to have some elements on the bridge built into the park that would suffice, or to rehab the bridge,” Sangder said. “The problem with rehabilitation is all four things that are wrong with the bridge are very expensive to fix. All the pilings are too small. They’re only one-foot pilings. The bridge deck itself doesn’t have enough rebar.”
According to the summary within the presentation, there is “no way to add more rebar, therefore the bridge deck would need to be replaced.” The bridge deck also has a shear problem, according to Sangder.
“Shear is the likelihood of a bridge to shear off and drop in the river. That’s a problem,” Sangder said. “It’s got a scour problem. … There’s one column that’s only four feet in the mud, so it’s got big problems. Obviously the columns are under the bridge and it’s hard to replace columns under the bridge.”
After a discussion with the consultant who helped the city with the grant process, the answer the city received was that the cheapest option was to replace the bridge. Despite the math that shows replacement as the most cost-effective option for Young Street Bridge, Sangder said he encourages people to come out and express their ideas about the bridge.
The council had a few questions. Councilor Liz Ellis asked about the time limit for the funding. Nick Bird, engineer for the city of Aberdeen, said the funds have to be obligated for construction before 2027.
“We do have a little bit of time, but you have to remember a structure like this takes a couple of years to get through the design and permitting process,” Bird said. “We have to complete the design, and to be fully permitted, and to have all the (other things) squared away. Roughly three-and-a-half to four years for the bridge to be covered 100%. If we do not hit that timeline, only 86.5% of the total expenses will be covered. So there’s a little bit of risk right off the top there.”
Aberdeen Council President Kati Kachman is thankful for the work of engineers.
“I spoke to somebody prior to this meeting and they rely on the bridge for their business, for their house, and so the actions taken to secure that money is vital to many people in our communities, and it’s a humongous piece of infrastructure,” Kachman said. “I think it’s really important we collaborate on this.”
Ellis asked if there’s a chance to have a separate bridge for vehicles, where the Young Street Bridge would remain as a pedestrian bridge. Sangder explained the problem with that idea.
“As a pedestrian bridge only, the risks are low that it would collapse,” Sangder said. “The risks are low that it would collapse right now, very low. … The problem is we’re not always out there watching. Anybody who lives in that neighborhood knows that they take big trucks across there that shouldn’t cross there.”
Sangder said there was a discussion on Tuesday about adding security cameras to catch the people driving those big trucks to catch the drivers. The people driving those oversized trucks are threatening the bridge.
But even as a pedestrian bridge, there would still need to be work done to it to make it safe. The work would be quite expensive.
Memorializing the bridge
Despite what looks like a gloomy end for the Young Street Bridge, many on the city council, like Councilor Stan Sidor, want to memorialize it.
“We probably, it sounds like, we can’t save the bridge to keep it as a bridge,” Sidor said. “We have to replace the bridge, but if we can retain some portion or portions of the bridge that have artwork and such, especially as it relates to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I think that’s important to seriously consider looking at.”
One of the ideas is to create a structure from the bridge and place it in the park. Another idea was brought up by Councilor David Lawrence.
“We could rename Young Street Kurt Cobain Boulevard,” Lawrence said. “And dedicate the bridge to Kurt Cobain Memorial Bridge.”
And then there was the idea that self-identified Nirvana fan, Councilor Joshua Francy brought up, which was to take the beam underneath the bridge that has the plaque “In Memoriam: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.”
Schave was a fan of Francy’s idea.
“I like that idea, it’s kind of what I was thinking,” Schave said. “The bridge is going to have to be dismantled if it’s going to be replaced. As they dismantle it extra care could be taken.”
Schave wants to work together to respectfully preserve the bridge’s underside.
“There’s a number of things we can do as long as we go into this with the attitude that we want to preserve that,” Schave said of the underside with the personal graffiti messages. “When it’s dismantled, it appears to me it could be dismantled without too much trouble or damage. I’m sure we could find something for it.”
Russoul hasn’t given up, and has a couple ideas to try to save the bridge. He gave his thoughts about Wednesday’s public discussion.
“Overall, I am very pleased that there was not a mob bash toward the city,” Russoul said. “Folks are passionate and they presented in a manner that I believe the council listened (to) and appreciated. There is much at stake and it’s clearly complex. Saving the bridge experience is like retaining the opportunity for fans worldwide to experience in the moment, within the eyes of Kurt, the same view and atmosphere he had back then. I believe the message was clear that we want the tourism and the badge of honor of our place in music history.”
Contact Reporter Matthew N. Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.