There’s a lot of talk lately surrounding the Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston. The structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a testament to Boston’s industrial clout at the turn of the 20th century. Built in 1908 and powered by compressed air(!), the bridge is one of the last remaining swing bridges in the State of Massachusetts. Its steel trusses and cross bracing make it one of the most memorable bridges in the entire city, but like some buildings and other structures in Boston, it has severely deteriorated following years of neglect. Some of my most memorable walks along the Fort Point Channel have involved the Northern Avenue Bridge, strolling under the stars admiring the city lights and their reflection in the waters of Fort Point Channel. However, following warnings from the Coast Guard that the bridge could collapse into the channel, it was finally closed to pedestrians in December 2014—this was approximately the last time I used the bridge.
The city, in doing what is best for the bridge and for the safety of the people, has taken the first steps in dismantling the structure and moving it by barge to East Boston. This is a good first step since the Northern Avenue Bridge needs to be properly examined, rehabilitated and then reinstalled and rededicated as a pedestrian-only bridge. Sounds simple, right?
Well, as we know, things in preservation aren’t always that simple and the future of the bridge still remains uncertain. I urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the City of Boston to seek and implement a preservation-friendly solution that would not further alter or interfere with the architectural integrity of the Fort Point neighborhood or with the bridge itself.
The story of removing, demolishing and replacing historic buildings and structures is one too familiar in Boston—a story we cannot keep repeating in the name of “innovation.” In an area devoid of any soul and character thanks in part to the many cookie cutter glass boxes that swallow any sense of human scale in the nearby Seaport District, one solution to all the damage that has already been done, is to rehabilitate the Northern Avenue Bridge. Greg Galer, the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance noted in a blog post that the city examined and presented to several advocacy groups the costs of rehabilitating the bridge and as it turned out, the cost was estimated at around $44-49 million—one of the cheaper options on the table. Demolition and/or replacing it with a new structure would be much costlier and I’m sure in these times of financial hardship, the City nor the State cannot afford this option.
The way I see it, the Northern Avenue Bridge presents an opportunity for the City of Boston to think outside of the box by reinvigorating the Fort Point Channel neighborhood and reimagining how the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Harbor Walk and Northern Avenue can all be reconnected with the rest of the city. We pride itself on being a pedestrian-friendly, walkable city and we’ve come a long way in achieving these qualities, but we’ve got a long way to go. The time to return the bridge to the people has come, and that time is now.