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6th Street Bridge: Demolition & Replacement

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Sixth Street Bridge is an icon of downtown L.A., or at least, it was. In this lesson, we'll find out what happened to the historic structure and see what the city plans to do next.

The Sixth Street Viaduct

Sometimes we make great bridges. And sometimes those great bridges become symbols of local pride. And then, sometimes, they become public safety risks. It's never easy to say goodbye to a great bridge, but sometimes it's necessary. Right now, this is what is happening in downtown Los Angeles. The Sixth Street Viaduct, sometimes called the Sixth Street Bridge, spanned highways and drainage systems between the Arts District and Boyle Heights neighborhoods of LA. It was one of the most iconic landmarks of the city, but in 2016 the city started tearing it down for good. For the people of Los Angeles, however, the structure is sure to live on their memories. To paraphrase General MacArthur, old bridges never die; they're just blown up with dynamite and swept away.

History of the Sixth Street Viaduct

The Sixth Street Viaduct was built in 1932, at the height of Los Angeles's rise to prominence as one of America's leading cultural centers. With Tinseltown glittering away, and public works money coming in during the Depression, the bridge was one of 14 built over the Los Angeles River. Its art deco design was iconic and it quickly became the gateway to historic L.A. As Hollywood continued to thrive, the Sixth Street Viaduct became a star in its own right. You may recognize it as a supporting cast member in Roadblock, Gone in 60 Seconds, Terminator 2, or perhaps most famously, as the site of the notorious car race in Grease.

The Sixth Street Viaduct was an iconic landmark
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When it was built, the Sixth Street Viaduct was a symbol of the modern era, relying on the latest concrete technology. However, the problem with new technologies is that they sometimes contain flaws, and it wasn't long before the concrete started to deteriorate, thanks to a chemical process known as the Alkali-Silica Reaction, and the bridge started to crack. Seismic activity in California made the problem worse. For decades, engineers tried to find a solution, but nothing worked. Finally, in 2004, a new report found that the bridge was in serious risk of collapse. It was closed soon after, and demolition was slated to begin in 2016.

Demolition

In architecture and engineering, we spend a lot of time talking about the difficulties of building a structure, but we often forget to talk about the challenges of destroying one. The Sixth Street Viaduct runs over waterways that are important to the city, drainage ditches that flood in the slightest amount of rain, and several existing roads that have to remain open. You can't just blow up a bridge like this; it has to be disassembled piece-by-piece. Demolition began in early 2016, and has lasted into 2017, much longer than the average demolition project.

Demolition on the bridge is a slow process, as piece after piece is chipped away
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It's worth noting that the city has tried to recognize the importance of the old bridge as it's being torn down. Several iconic elements of the bridge are being saved, many of which may be incorporated into museums or city parks in the downtown area. Notably, 25 decorated lampposts, the bridge's formal inauguration plaque, and even one entire steel arch were saved from demolition.

Certain iconic elements of the bridge may be saved and used in parks throughout downtown
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The New Bridge

As the old bridge is torn down, plans are underway to replace it with a new bridge (hopefully one that won't crack). It's being designed by architect Michael Maltzan. While original proposals placed construction costs at roughly $449 million with an end date of 2019, newer estimates are planning a $482 million bill and a completion date in 2020.

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