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Bureaucracy ties up Seaport span’s fate

Jonathan Wiggs

When it comes to the Northern Avenue Bridge, nothing is ever simple.

Nine months after the Coast Guard said the shuttered bridge over Fort Point Channel should be “promptly” taken down for safety reasons, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s plan to dismantle and stow the structure in East Boston is stalled in a bureaucratic morass, with everyone from historic preservationists to federal environmental regulators voicing concerns about the project.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is still considering the city’s request to take the bridge apart and ship it to a city-owned lot on the Chelsea River in East Boston for storage, while they determine whether parts of it could be reused in a new bridge over the Channel. City officials had hoped to begin work this summer, but officials at the Army Corps and the state historic preservation agency are still trading proposals, with no end in sight.


In late June, the Boston City Council authorized $15 million for emergency repairs to the existing bridge, and to hire a designer for the new bridge.

Still, city officials first have to figure out what to do with the old one, which has been closed to pedestrian traffic since late 2014. There have been multiple efforts over the years to fix or replace the bridge. Then, after the Coast Guard declared it a “hazard to navigation” last year, city officials asked the Army Corps for a permit to take it down.

But the bridge, built in 1908, is a historic structure. Any effort to demolish it requires layers of review.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is still considering the city’s request to take the bridge apart and ship it to a city-owned lot on the Chelsea River in East Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/Globe Staff

In May, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which oversees historic sites in the state, told the Corps that its initial preservation plan for the bridge was “premature” and urged more detailed study.

So last month, the Corps circulated a new plan that would require the city to salvage what parts it can and ask designers to “propose ways the next bridge can honor the current span.”


The Historical Commission is still studying that plan, spokesman Brian McNiff said. But local and national preservation groups panned it because the plan did not have firm rules on what might be preserved, or how.

“This draft [plan] is wholly inadequate,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote in a letter to the Army Corps.

Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in as well, noting that storing the old bridge on a waterfront lot could disrupt a project to bury a nearby sewer line and might also result in pollution leaching into the river.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency has not received a response to its concerns.

Though in an industrial area, the storage lot borders a residential neighborhood and sits next to a park and playground.

To Chris Marchi, a veteran environmental activist in East Boston, the issue is not so much the short-term plan as the possibility that rusting steel bridge parts will sit there for a long time, blocking other plans for the waterfront site, such as turning part of it into a long-desired soccer field.

“There’s a lot of concern that two years could turn into 20 quite easily,” Marchi said. “We could end up with this rotting hulk of iron on our waterfront for a long time.”

Neither the EPA nor the Mass. Historical Commission has the authority to block a demolition permit; both essentially advise the Army Corps. An agency spokesman said it is working through an agreement with the Historical Commission and will incorporate other concerns, but does not have a timeline for issuing a permit to take down the bridge.


Para Jayasinghe, the city’s lead engineer on the project, said city officials want a solution that works for everyone. But they also want to get moving.

“I think everyone is mindful of the condition of this bridge,” he said. “We are all hopeful that we can manage the situation before the situation manages us.”

Michael Tyrrell, of the group Friends of the Northern Avenue Bridge, suggested the city stabilize the bridge so it can remain in place safely, making it easier to reuse it as part of a new crossing over the Channel. That could even help lower costs for a new bridge, he said, which are estimated as high as $70 million.

But there are a lot of moving pieces, Tyrrell acknowledged, and, this being Boston, everybody wants to weigh in.

“There‘s no simple solution,” he said.

Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.