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AUTHORITY HIRES ANOTHER TOP BRIDGE ARCHITECT

In hiring renowned bridge architect Eugene C. Figg Jr. to create an alternative design to its beleaguered plan, the Peace Bridge Authority has brought on board the champion poster child of opponents to its twin-span idea.

Figg's masterpiece, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Fla., has been featured in posters plastered all over Buffalo by the New Millennium Group and other critics of the authority's design.

The architect will be part of a Peace Bridge consulting team that also includes Swiss bridge designer Christian Menn, who is so respected for his graceful prestressed concrete bridges that he merits a separate entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Together they form a world-class consulting team that promises to suggest bridge alternatives to Americans and Canadians that are as beautiful as they are economical.

"Good design also is often the economical solution," Menn said Wednesday.

Figg said he was excited about the opportunity to come to Buffalo and promised his design will reflect the public's desires.

"A bridge tells us what a community thinks of itself, therefore you need the input of the community to make sure the bridge fits it," he said. "This is the key issue. I have no preconceived idea."

Menn, who will recommend his own ideas as well as critique those prepared by others, was equally adamant that he favors a people's approach to bridge design.

"It's very important to find a bridge that is accepted by the people here," he said. "I feel very honored that I've been invited to collaborate with these people to find the best solution."

Figg received a Presidential Design Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for his Sunshine Skyway Bridge built in 1988. It is one of three bridges for which he has received the prestigious award.

"Engineering News recently selected 10 bridge engineers who made a difference in the last 125 years," he said. "I was one."

The Florida-based architect, who said the Brooklyn Bridge is his all-time favorite span, is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a graduate of Citadel University. He got his bridge training from an unlikely school of higher learning -- the Florida Highway Department.

"I went through their three-year training program in Tallahassee," he said, "and then I spent three years with them before I went into private practice."

Since 1978, his firm, Figg Engineering Group, has built bridges in 30 states and four South American countries. Its customers have received 117 design awards.

The 5 1/2 -mile Sunshine Skyway has become an "icon" for St. Petersburg, according to Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's absolutely beautiful, day and night," she said. "We know visitors here drive across the bridge just for the experience. When you're crossing it, you feel like you can see forever."

The Sunshine Skyway, which is the world's longest cable-stayed concrete bridge, is also as easy to maintain as it is attractive, said Marian Psion of the Florida Department of Transportation.

"The bridge is in good shape," she said. "We do a higher level of looking at it. It's a signature bridge expected to last 100 years."

Figg has fine-tuned an approach to soliciting public opinion on how a bridge should look. His design charettes involve between 50 and 100 people who are willing to spend three days with him and his design team.

First, participants are educated about bridges in general, shown the proposed site and told about the particular challenges. Then they are presented with 75 or 80 items related to the bridge, not all at once, and asked to vote on each on a scale of 1 to 10.

If they like something a lot, they give it a ranking of 9 or 10. If it's awful, they give it less than 5. If they're neutral or don't have an opinion, it gets a 5. After the votes are allied, any item that scores above 5 is pursued further.

After the first two-day round, Figg and his team take the results and prepare a design that includes the priorities drawn from the design charette. That recommendation is then presented eight weeks later at a public meeting of several hundred people for final comment.

Figg said it will be up to the Peace Bridge Authority to decide who should participate in the design charette: Canadians, Americans, young, old or indifferent.

Menn said his goal is to have 90 percent of the regional population satisfied with the design that is ultimately chosen. He was not shy with his opinion about the current twin-span design favored by the Peace Bridge Authority. "I think better solutions are possible," he said.

Menn also has had his share of recognition. A leading trade journal publication listed two of his bridges, both in Switzerland, as among the 10 most beautiful bridges built during the 20th century.

He recently helped Boston come up with a design for a new Charles River bridge that was saluted for its beauty as well as its universal acceptance in the community.

Menn believes the design for a Peace Bridge should include a sense of being a gateway between two countries.

"It's a very unique crossing," he said, "not only the site but also the old bridge and the surroundings. I like the old bridge. I feel it was a good bridge.

"The arches are elegant. The truss is strange."

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