All in good time: Redding’s Sundial Bridge widely popular now, 10 years after its debut

A sunny, windless Monday morning on the Sundial Bridge, a day like any other:

A mom guiding a stroller with one hand and balancing a Starbucks Venti cup in the other veers right to avoid the automatic scrubber, a Zamboni-like vehicle that squeegees the translucent glass walkway daily. A busker sets up at the south foot, under a Cottonwood tree, guitar slung over his back and tip cup at his feet. A 70-year-old man in a bro-tank that shows off his sculpted, tattooed biceps power walks by two Shasta College students gazing at the Sacramento River below after a run. A chubby mutt named Daisy drags along an 86-year-old man wearing an “Igo, therefore I Am” T-shirt, determined to catch up to the scrubber, a snazzy NSS Champ 2929, whose driver buffs tiles while oblivious to this dogged pursuit. A quartet of tourists, cameras poised, dart between cables to the jutting white pylon gnomon on the north end. A kid cranks the arm of a device called “Backyard Wildlife,” and giggles when the eek of a skunk blares from a speaker.

Nothing particularly imbues this day with deep meaning. Yet, it signifies a lot. Implicit in the scene is the feeling that these people, most Redding residents, look completely at home, engaged in activities that have become, if not a daily ritual, then something essential to their quotidian lives.

What once divided this city, creating a civic chasm far greater than the width of the Sacramento River, now unites.

The Sundial Bridge, opened to much fanfare and controversy 10 years ago this month, has accomplished much more than linking the two sides of the Turtle Bay Exploration Park over the river.

To many in this municipality of about 90,000, the $23.5 million structure designed by world-renown Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has given Redding an identity well beyond the north-state I-5 corridor, making a bold statement that there’s more to the city than an erstwhile logging and mining hub, augmenting the natural beauty of the Sacramento River with a breathtaking pedestrian bridge that’s as artistic as it is utilitarian.

To some – even now, a decade on – the Sundial remains an expensive extravagance that, while mostly privately funded, still siphoned off precious taxpayer money for a bridge that they feel is too modern and fancy for a town that shouldn’t aspire to be what it’s not, a cosmopolitan center with a manufactured landmark meant to snare tourist dollars.

This much, however, is undeniable, even by its most vocal opponents: People use the bridge. They flock to it like so many waterfowl to the riparian habitat below. They trod across the sparkling glass-and-granite deck on community fun runs and school field trips, perch on the supports made of broken white Spanish tiles to picnic or to watch Chinook salmon spawn, pose their high schoolers on the railing for senior pictures, gather at the shaded amphitheater below for concerts, or just linger in the cooling shadows on a blistering summer afternoon, then return by night, drawn by the almost otherworldly glow of the lights.

City officials estimate about 300,000 people a year visit the bridge and Turtle Bay Exploration Park, which includes a museum and arboretum as well as access to more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails heading clear to Shasta Dam. Though the city does not have data showing the bridge’s direct effect on the local economy, Kim Niemer, Redding’s community services director, says, “The bridge tells its own story. Look at all the people who come, look at all the businesses and associations that incorporate the bridge design into their name and logos and advertising. It’s a reference point.

“When we’ve had the courage and vision to think big, it’s paid off.”

Or, as Bev Stupek, Turtle Bay’s Development Officer, said, invoking Gertrude Stein: “There’s a there there now.”

Stupek, who is spearheading the “Celebrate 10” events at the bridge, which run from June 20 to July 4, couldn’t help but take a good-natured dig at initial opponents when she spoke to the Redding Rotary Club last month about the upcoming Sundial festivities.

“There’s a unanimity we bring to the table that we didn’t have 10 years ago, as some of you may remember the bridge being slightly controversial,” she told the group, pausing for scattered laughter. “There were even some naysayers.”

She paused and focused her gaze on a man at a front table, a beloved local TV news anchor at KRCR.

“Huh, Mike Mangas?” she chided.

Recalling the incident in a later interview, Stupek was still chuckling.

“(People) just howled,” she added. “The Rotary roasted him for lack of foresight. He’s since become a huge proponent.”

Maybe not “huge,” and “proponent” may be pushing it. But Mangas represents a faction of Reddingites who initially turned a jaundiced eye on the lavish bridge but since have graciously accepted its presence and are actually a little fond of it.

“I like the bridge in that it attracts people to Redding,” he said via email, in response to a query. “It’s fun to walk across it and listen to people speaking in different languages. That being said, all I wanted, as someone who grew up here, was a bridge to cross the river. A fine old stone bridge would’ve been fine. … I suppose I have little appreciation for fine art – I prefer hot dogs, beer and a ball game to wine, cheese and an opera.”

The bridge’s most vocal opponent is city councilman and former mayor Patrick H. Jones, a tea-party favorite who has a two-pronged argument against the Sundial. For one, it used taxpayer money for its construction. Also, its design does not fit Redding’s civic personality.

The majority of the funds used to build the bridge came from the private, nonprofit McConnell Foundation, which has endowed many community projects. The foundation contributed a reported $13 million to the cost; a little more than $2 million coming from the city and about $8 million from state and federal grants. But even a single dime from the public coffers is too much, Jones said.

“We’re a working-class town, and that money could have and should have been spent on much more needed essentials, which is what government is all about – core responsibilities instead of making a cultural statement,” said Jones, who owns a local gun store. “We created an artistic statement that I don’t think is conducive to the hard-working mentality of the folks raised and born here in the city of Redding. … It was very flamboyant. It was as if we had nothing and this is the symbol of Redding.

“I disagree with that. That is not the symbol of Redding. They’ve attempted to make it to be. When you pay homage to glass and steel structures as if that’s the face of Redding, I think you’re in for a disappointment. The value that’s here is in its people and the natural beauty of our city.”

Jones has made a public vow never to step foot on the Sundial Bridge, so one recent April when a conservative group asked him to speak at a Tax Day rally at the bridge, he initially declined. Then he came up with an alternative: He would dress up as George Washington and stand at the prow of a row boat and then address supporters.

“At first I thought, why choose that bridge to meet, but then I thought of Washington and that was fun,” Jones said. “Others have told me, it’s built now, why not support it? I can’t. I’m not advocating tearing it down. But it was a mistake and I have to say so.”

Bridge advocates, such as Stupek and John Mancasola, vice president of the McConnell Foundation, respectfully disagree. Mancasola, a Redding native, was the prime mover in wooing Calatrava to design what would become his first major structure in the United States. He envisioned the bridge as becoming something of a “town square,” which he said the city lacked after the demise of the city’s downtown in the late 1960s, after Interstate 5 was built.

“Redding, in a way, lost its sense of place,” Mancasola said. “The hope was, this bridge would create that sense of place for the community. Look up and down the river: We had built with our back to the river, rather than incorporating the river into the design and making access to the river a priority. And now the bridge has become a community gathering place. Events here are bridge-centric —5K runs, nonprofit events, Turtle Bay (exhibits).”

Watching from the sidelines has been Redding Record-Searchlight business columnist David Benda, who has written: “I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter century and I can’t think of anything that has opened in that time that has brought more positive attention to the North State.” Benda points out that the bridge, thanks to Calatrava’s high profile in the architecture hierarchy, has drawn worldwide media attention.

“The Sundial Bridge, in no small way, has delivered us knuckle-dragging beer-guzzlers to the land of wine and cheese, they write in a backhanded sort of way,” Benda wrote of the media attention.

True, the bridge has put Redding “on the map” for tourists, making it a must-stop for the growing number of European architecture “groupies.” Everyone here, it seems, has a story about being stopped when they are out of the state or country or vacation and are asked that obligatory question, “Where in California are you from?”

Stupek recalled being on a Thanksgiving cruise from Puerto Rico through the Panama Canal, and “100 percent of the people knew of our hometown as ‘that place with the bridge.’ ”

Benda told of an encounter he had a few years ago with a waiter in San Francisco who asked the same question.

“When we said Redding, the waiter’s eyes lit up,” Benda wrote. “Sure enough, he stopped in Redding en route to visiting friends in Portland. But after fueling up, he decided to take a trip to this glass-decked bridge he had heard so much about. He wasn’t disappointed.”

Perhaps the natural follow-up question out-of-towners might ask is: How in the world did little ol’ Redding land the famous Calatrava – builder of a bridge in Barcelona for the Olympic Games, the re-designed the Athens Olympic Village and a futuristic transportation hub at the soon-to-be-opened new World Trade Center – in the first place?

It’s a long and contentious story, one Mancasola is happy to tell, considering how it turned out. Originally, the city had allocated slightly less than $2 million for a footbridge to be constructed linking Turtle Bay’s north and south “campuses,” with the McConnell Foundation adding additional funds. Mancasola found himself on a committee to pick the design and designer, and all the talk was about a “basic bridge type,” one either with “two towers, or one, on either side, basic.”

But the committee reached a stalemate, and a consultant couldn’t break the deadlock. On whim, Mancasola decided to think big and called some colleagues in Seattle to go to a noted architecture bookstore there and send him books on bridges.

“One of the books he sent was Calatrava’s, and I was immediately struck by Calatrava’s work,” he said. “I threw it out to the consultant and he poo-pooed it. Never get him, he said. He’s a European architect, yadda, yadda. You’re wasting your time.”

Mancasola persisted. He got the Foundation excited about the prospect of hiring a world-renowned bridge builder, which meant the bridge budget would increase. The only problem was, how to land Calatrava. Mancasola said Terry Hanson, Redding’s community projects manager, found a phone number of Calatrava’s office in Zurich, Switzerland. They sat at a conference table and placed a call on a speaker phone.

“We cold-called, and who picks up? Calatrava!” Mancasola said. They were taken aback to be speaking with the architect himself.

“We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re these two yahoos from Redding, California, and we’re calling about a bridge. … He later said it just piqued his interest that someone halfway around the world would cold-call him on a project. He was a very charming, warm and engaging man.”

Mancasola excitedly told the committee of his potential coup, and they set up a meeting in Redding. “After the presentation, for some reason, a couple of committee members weren’t taken with him,” he said. “But the Foundation? We were. What we proposed for the city was a no-risk proposition.”

McConnell would pay for Calatrava to design and submit three bridge plans. When Calatrava unveiled the Sundial design, he surprised even Mancasola but won over the skeptics, as well as the City Council, which approved the plan providing the city’s contribution would be capped at around $2 million.

“He was very close to the vest,” Mancasola said about Calatrava’s design. “Until we saw the design, we had no idea what he was working on. I thought it was a unique solution for the site. I loved the fact he tied in the sundial component into Turtle Bay’s mission. That design called for no piers in the river, because of the (salmon) spawning beds underneath it. It was environmentally sensitive to the site. It just fit the space.”

But during the planning and construction phase, the bridge sort of became a giant Rorschach Test – not so much the design itself, which people compared to an “egret in flight” or, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “a boned fish with a giant dorsal fin,” but in people’s visceral reaction to it.

In time, the sniping has faded. As Niemer, the city’s community service’s director, said, “I’m a visual person, and I couldn’t really envision what was planned, but when it’s here now and you walk right out over the water and see geese fly by in formation, that’s pretty cool.”

A nice sentiment, but what about the man on the street – or, rather, the bridge? That Monday morning 70-year-old power-walker in the tank top, striding across the bridge: What did he think?

Jerald Pope, a Redding native and retired logger who said his dad built saw mills in these parts, is as traditional as it gets and loves Redding’s history.

“But those days are over,” he said. “Change is wonderful. The bridge is such an asset. I go lift (weights) at the gym for an hour each morning, then come here to walk or ride my bike. I love it.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.