First impressions can mean everything.
That’s why two residents want to change how most people first meet the city of Davis.
When visitors exit Interstate 80 and travel north toward downtown, the industrial-looking Union Pacific bridge that looms over Richards Boulevard is the first thing they see as they enter the city.
Michael Bisch, co-president of the Davis Downtown Business Association and owner of Davis Commercial Properties, and Dr. Stephen Nowicki, of the Davis Developmental Pediatrics Group, want to transform that trip through the underpass into a more memorable and meaningful experience.
The two have envisioned an idea for an artistic “Welcoming Arch” gateway to be placed in front of the bridge to greet visitors and residents alike.
“I was standing out there one day looking at the tunnel and I’m going, ‘Damn, we already have the gateway feature. It’s just really ugly,’ ” Bisch said. “I started thinking, what can we do to beautify it? What can we do to make it a reflection of what kind of community we have here?”
The underpass, which was deemed a landmark in 1998 for its architecture and engineering, is adorned with rusted metal piping and faded cement, without any Davis representative symbol on its face.
Bisch and Nowicki have envisioned a Gabion-style gateway to roll over the face of the Richards tunnel, and the pedestrian tube running alongside it, that would resemble the mural on the old Terminal Hotel building at Second and G streets that was torn down in September 2000.
Gabion walls are normally cages filled with stones or sand and are used by civil engineers for road building or military applications. Nowicki would like to fill the wire mesh structure that would make up the entire welcoming archway with various city treasures meaningful to Davisites.
“We’d put a call out to the citizens of Davis and ask, ‘What does Davis mean to you?’ ” Nowicki said. “Are there some items that feel like they are important to you? Used bike parts, old chemistry stuff, pottery? And we’d fill it with artifacts and it would bring the community in and create this time capsule feel to it.”
On top of the structure, Bisch and Nowicki would place metal artwork of children, representing the importance the community places on family. Nowicki, a sculptor who primarily works with metal, first thought about the cover of Mark Twain’s novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and went to work, sketching out ideas.
“The children would be three-dimensional and composed of shaped sheet metal in a similar fashion as the metal piece in front of Mikuni,” Nowicki wrote in an email. “I would alternate both bright elements and other elements that would naturally patina (tarnish). This would be for both contrast and to set the mood of the characters.”
Bisch also imagined one or two of the metal children sitting on the arch holding fishing poles, which would play nicely into the next part of the community project he and Nowicki have envisioned: painting the street below.
“If we’re going to paint the street well, we might as well paint a pond or a stream down there that they’re fishing in,” he said.
But though Bisch and Nowicki have many ideas, they emphasize how much they want Davis residents to work together and create something the community collectively approves of.
“Right from the get-go we were talking about it not just being two guys trying to make this happen, but that it would be a community project, too,” Bisch said.
“We’re open to all kinds of ideas. I had always envisioned that this would be a living project and people would want to start adding pieces to it. For example, if someday somebody wants to paint a stream coming down the street and emptying into the pond or making a waterfall.”
Added Nowicki, “There’s always the thing about being an artist and putting something that big in the middle of a city and being run out of town with pitchforks. So we need to get it out there and get some dialogue started in terms of what people’s opinions are.”
Bisch and Nowicki are still very much in the preliminary phases of the project and understand that it will be a “lengthy process” to get it going. They still must bring their idea before the city’s community development staff and various city commissions.
Two weeks ago, they attended a Civic Arts Commission meeting to share their idea and ask for support.
According to chairman Nikhil Joshi, the commission voted 5-1 to support the idea, though he himself isn’t ready to start building.
“It seems that the CAC likes the idea of art at the tunnel,” Joshi wrote in an email. “It would be really great to have an art piece to welcome visitors to downtown Davis.
“(But) if we want art at the tunnel, then we should have it be an open RFQ/RFP that any artist can apply for. I don’t have a problem with their proposal, per se, I just wanted it to be a more open process.”
Bisch and Nowicki also have not begun looking for funding for the project, but they agree it would be privately funded, with no government money involved.
There’s also a question of whether the two would have the legal right to construct the archway in front of the tunnel. Union Pacific owns the bridge and the bridge itself remains a historical landmark.
Katherine Hess, the city’s community development administrator, says a lot would go into planning a project such as what Bisch and Nowicki have proposed.
“Some of it depends on exactly how the structure is proposed to be sited,” Hess said. “If you attach something to the railroad tracks, you’d probably need the approval of Union Pacific. If you pull it away — and I don’t know how far away you’d have to pull it — at some point there’s a distance where they’re not a party to the conversation.
“The historical commission also looks at the setting for a historic resource. So even if something is not attached to a historic resource, if it’s going to be near the resource and it’s going to change the way the resource relates to its environment, potentially there is still an impact,” she said.
Bisch and Nowicki understand at the very least they’ll have to go through Union Pacific and the Historic Resources Management Commission to get the project approved. But the group they most care about receiving approval from are the residents of Davis themselves.
“This was never forseen that it was going to be two guys making this project happen regardless of what anybody else thought,” Bisch said. “This was an idea that we came up with. We think it’s good.
“Hey, fellow residents, what do you think? Do you think this is a great idea?”
— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or (530) 747-8057. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomSakash