Graffiti adorns the underside of a bridge.
The Leimert Bridge in Oakland, Calif., will be remodeled and fitted with structural material to keep it up, more than 30 years after residents called for earthquake repair after the Loma Prieta earthquake. June 6, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton/The Oaklandside

About 35 years ago, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed vast swaths of the Bay Area. In Oakland’s Oakmore neighborhood, residents started to worry about the structural integrity of the Leimert Bridge, a nearly century-old concrete and steel-fixed arch that spans Dimond Canyon and Sausal Creek and was designated an Oakland city landmark in 1980.

Now, a retrofit is expected to begin this year to stabilize the historic structure. 

The city plans to spend nearly $5 million in federal and state funds and an additional $2.5 million of its own money to fix the bridge. The project is scheduled to begin this July and continue until January 2026.

The company in charge of the retrofit is Disney Construction, and the project will be managed and inspected by engineers from Biggs Cardosa Associates alongside staff from the Oakland Department of Transportation. 

The bridge, which is 357 feet long and rises 117 feet above the creek bed, will be reinforced with a carbon fiber wrap taped to its exterior and strengthened with cement. The technology has been used on similar concrete bridges across the country. 

When federal transportation department inspectors examined Leimert Bridge in November 2020, they found deterioration in parts of the structure but determined that it still met the “minimum tolerable limits” for daily car and truck use. About 7,500 cars and trucks use the bridge every day. 

A 2021 appraisal conducted by Biggs Cardosa was more critical in describing the bridge’s condition, calling it “functionally obsolete” and noting that the horizontal concrete beams that hold up the bridge and connect to its vertical piers were “undermined by the instability of the steep canyon slope surface and general weathering.” An earlier 2018 report from Cardosa had concluded that the ongoing deterioration of the concrete undermined the structural integrity of the bridge.

Some lane closures expected, but emergency access will remain

A concrete and steel arch-style bridge in Oakland hovers above the Sausal Creek, amidst green trees and walking trails.
A view of the Leimert Bridge from Dimond Canyon in Oakland, Calif., June 6, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton/The Oaklandside

The retrofit plan has been in the works for years, and city officials have had been in touch with neighbors about its potential impacts. 

At a public meeting in 2019, some residents worried that closing the bridge for a significant amount of time could limit access to the neighborhood for emergency responders since much of Oakmore can otherwise be reached only via a series of narrow and winding streets. 

Engineers told residents at the time that the bridge would remain open, at least partially, throughout the retrofit and be available in case of emergencies. Parts of the job will require the closure of lanes, they said, but likely only during off-peak traffic hours.

“Partial lane closures are anticipated during the bridge deck rehabilitation work, which may extend over a period of one to two weeks,” the engineers said at the time. 

A dull gray concrete beam with cracks holds up a bridge in Oakland.
Cracks on the concrete beams supporting the Oakland Leimert bridge have been in place for years, causing one engineering report to say it was “obsolete.” Credit: Florence Middleton

Engineers for the project said in 2019 that dust won’t be much of a problem because the wrapping process will require “minimal” concrete removal, and debris from the retrofit won’t fall into the creek bed because there will be protective covers and scaffolding. 

The underside of Leimert Bridge is covered in decades of graffiti and murals. Some residents have asked whether the city can outfit the bridge with anti-graffiti paint, but staff say this isn’t possible. 

Traffic safety advocates have previously asked the city to consider adding a bike lane to the bridge or extending the size of the four-foot-wide sidewalks to accommodate people with disabilities who use wheelchairs, but engineers say these changes will not happen because they would affect the historic designation of the bridge.

Leimert Bridge helped shape the Oakmore neighborhood

An old real estate ad for the Oakmore development in the Oakmore district of Oakland, California, features a looping road and dozens of cars and trolleys.
The Leimert brothers used the development of the bridge to begin a building boom in upper Oakmore, in the late 1920s. This ad for the real estate development appeared in the Oakland Tribune on October 15, 1926. Source: The California Digital Newspapers Collection

Originally called the Sausal Creek Arch Bridge, the span played an important part in the development of the Oakmore neighborhood. It was built in 1926—the longest arch bridge west of the Mississippi at the time—by the Leimert brothers-owned Park Boulevard Company to connect Park Boulevard to the brothers’ new real estate development east of the creek. 

A Key System streetcar once ran atop the bridge, taking residents to and from downtown on the 18 Line, with a turnaround on Leimert Boulevard in front of what is now Red Boy Pizza. 

Park Boulevard, built wide to accommodate the train, was later redesigned to include a median and four car lanes, an arrangement that today contributes to drivers speeding and, residents say, makes the road one of the city’s most dangerous to walk along. 

In 2004, Caltrans added Leimert Bridge to its California Historic Bridge Inventory, an online resource that provides structural engineers with technical guidance when doing retrofits.  

In the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, and due to its proximity to the Hayward fault, the bridge was chosen by Caltrans for retrofitting in 1997. That design was rejected because it did not meet state and city historic preservation requirements. 

Daniel Levy, a member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, said his group has asked that the eight historic trolley pulls above the bridge be left in place. 

“I think it’s great,” he said of the bridge retrofit. “Things go slower with the city, but the Big One is coming, and the faster this is strengthened, the more it will keep the connection between Oakmore and the rest of Oakland intact.”

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.