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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

We want to hear from you — so start a conversation, share a thought or comment, and let us know what you think.

Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

What You’ve Been Wanting to Ask About the Northern Avenue Bridge

January 22nd, 2016  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

Northern Ave Swing Bridge

There has been significant media coverage recently on the historic Northern Avenue Bridge – first reports that GE’s arrival has triggered funding for the bridge’s repair, followed by reports that the bridge is in fact coming down as early as March. There seem to be as many questions as there are answers.

The Alliance has been engaged in efforts to preserve the Northern Avenue Bridge for decades (literally) and in conversations with the City since it was closed to pedestrians in December 2014. We do have some answers – although we have some questions ourselves.

Does Boston need a bridge at this location?

Yes, we do. With the development boom in the Seaport District, we need another way to move people in and out of the neighborhood. The inability for anyone to cross the bridge in the past year has been a pain point for local businesses and the growing number of people who now live and work in the neighborhood.

It makes sense that a major employer like GE would want this transportation link restored; walkability is a major draw to Boston, but has been a struggle for this area. Northern Avenue is an ideal route for pedestrians and cyclists – flat, direct and of human scale. While the Moakley Bridge has absorbed vehicular traffic since 1997, the need for an additional throughway at Northern Avenue remains.

The reality of traffic flow suggests that the alignment of the bridge with the entrance to Route 93 makes any bridge here of only minimal relief for car traffic. However, as an incentive to remove cars by creating a preferred non-vehicle route, there is great benefit.

By Dan McNichol

What’s special about this old bridge and why should we keep it?

Built in 1908, the Northern Avenue Bridge is a rare survivor of an industrial age central to the growth and success of Boston and our nation – one of a few remaining swing bridges in the state. It represents a period of time when industry dictated development and defined the city’s built environment.

That a century-old design is able to swing such a huge structure is a remarkable and elegant engineering feat. This bridge had a particularly unique aspect: it was powered by compressed air! While restoring that element isn’t on the table, and modern methods will be needed to drive the bridge, preserving the operation of the bridge provides the open channel and a unique experience for Boston residents and visitors.

Finally, the visual impact of the bridge – its steel trusses, and cross-bracing have become iconic and integral elements of Boston’s waterfront and the Fort Point neighborhood. The Seaport District, though successful in many ways, is lacking in character and personality. The Northern Avenue Bridge serves as a literal gateway between the city’s industrial past at Fort Point Channel and the Innovation District. The bridge is more than a thoroughfare; it’s a cultural experience that isn’t replaceable by a YouTube clip.

What has the City been doing about the bridge?

Mayor Walsh convened over a dozen key environmental and neighboring stakeholders in early 2015 for guidance after the bridge’s closure, including the Alliance, WalkBoston, Friends of the Fort Point Channel, and the Boston Harbor Association, among many others.* For three months the group met regularly, along with the City Engineer and other city officials to discuss options for the bridge – which included new versus restored, moveable versus fixed (and raised enough to allow boat traffic). When a vote was taken, there was overwhelming consensus that the historic structure should be repaired , based on the historic nature of the structure, the surrounding community’s need for increased mobility, and the overwhelming desire for a span which contributes to the character of the neighborhood.

Would it be cheaper to demolish the old bridge and build a new one?

The City has examined and had presented to the advocacy group the costs of many different scenarios. At an estimated $44-49 million, rehabilitating the existing bridge is actually one of the cheaper options. Demolition alone is estimated at $15 million, which doesn’t even include the price of constructing a new bridge (which ran from $29 to over $70 million).

And what does the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers have to do with this?

While the City of Boston owns the bridge, the Army Corps and the Coast Guard are responsible for assuring the access and safety of the federal navigable waterway of Fort Point Channel. The City has failed to heed demands by Army Corps and Coast Guard to repair the bridge since 1997, allowing the bridge to continue to deteriorate.

In October 2015 the Coast Guard wrote the Army Corps to insist that action be taken immediately, because it was feared that heavy snows could cause the bridge to collapse. They demanded immediate repairs or demolition of portions of the bridge, particularly the center swing span. The news you have read about the pending removal of the bridge is the City responding to these serious demands about public safety.

DSC01103

It’s a positive sign that the bridge is finally receiving some long overdue attention. However, in the rush to arrive at a solution, the Army Corps and City of Boston are circumventing a required review process, the result of an agreement drawn up in 1989 when the Moakley Bridge was built using funds from the Federal Highway Administration.

Because federal funds were used, the Highway Administration was required to adhere to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. This federal law requires that any activity that impacts historic resources – in this case the Fort Point National Register District of which the Old Northern Avenue Bridge is a part – must undergo extensive review.

By accepting federal funding for the Moakley, the City of Boston, Massachusetts Department of Public Works and the Federal Highway Administration agreed that any circumstances that adversely affect the Northern Avenue Bridge would require public consultation with state and federal regulatory agencies.  Clearly what is being proposed now – removal of the Northern Avenue Bridge – will have an adverse effect.

At present, neither the Coast Guard nor Federal Highway Administration has begun the required public, Section 106 consultation process, yet they continue to move forward.

What happens next? Why hasn’t the decision been made?

It’s hard to say for sure. We appreciate the City’s need to address safety concerns and efforts to keep a preservation solution on the table, but we are angered that the City didn’t act a year ago to move forward with the clear preservation alternative that was enthusiastically supported by many diverse constituent groups. If the City hadn’t delayed action for decades, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

In addition, we are urging federal agencies to follow the requirements of Section 106 and immediately open the required discussion about how to address the Northern Avenue Bridge. We believe they are overreaching the intent of the emergency provisions of Section 106 in time frame in the amount of the bridge they are insisting be removed to address the current public safety threat.

Where can I express my opinion about the Northern Avenue Bridge?

 The Alliance would love to hear your thoughts about the bridge and any other historic preservation projects in the city. You can contact us here, or reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook. You can also contact the City directly.

The story isn’t over yet — stay tuned for additional updates about the future of the Northern Avenue Bridge.

 *Additional participants in 2015 meetings include: U.S. Courthouse, Barking Crab, James Hock & Co., Seaport TMA, Livable Streets, Boston Cyclists Union, Friends of the Northern Avenue Bridge and A Better City.

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5 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    Important story, Greg. Thanks for posting. Let’s see if we can save this “industrial treasure”!

  2. dennis m conway says:

    I agree the northern ave bridge must be saved.

  3. Cam Sawzin says:

    This is an excellent summary of the current situation. As an active community member in Fort Point, I hear so many of our residents hoping the bridge can be rebuilt and from what you have provided, it sounds unlikely but still possible. Years ago there was a BRA proposal to create a market and other retail on the bridge, which never went anywhere. I guess we just have to stay tuned and keep advocating for our landmark!

  4. Great wrote-up on the bridge. Comprehensive and clear.

    Please add me to any e-mail lists, for BPA, especially regarding the ONAB.

  5. Dorothy Hebden says:

    Just what traffic , to where is required by the Coast Guard and the Army Core of Engineers?
    Why have our “officials ” supposedly promised to GE a new bridge?
    Government Funding produced the Moakley Bridge, hardly inviting for a walk!
    First the Long Island Bridge and now the Northern Ave. Bridge-in the name of “safety” ,but with NO public input!
    What happened to the promised transparency ?
    The summary by the BPA is A1. Thank you

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