For four years it has been a barrier you can’t cross, but finally a plan for remaking the historic Northern Avenue Bridge over Fort Point Channel is taking shape.
The City of Boston has come up with this concept: an elevated, steel-truss bridge with dedicated lanes for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. The fixed span could be covered, and piers could be built to extend over the water. Cafes, shops, and public art could also line the bridge, one that might be a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.
Just as important is Mayor Marty Walsh’s commitment of $46 million in the capital budget to rehabilitate and redevelop the bridge, which had connected the South Boston Waterfront to the Financial District until it fell into such disrepair that it had to be closed in 2014.
The city estimates the total cost will be $80 million to $100 million, and it will seek a partner to foot the rest of the bill in exchange for commercial rights, such as operating a cafe or programming the space for public use.
“You’re not just creating a bridge,” said Chris Osgood, who oversees bridges for the city. “Think about how with a bridge you actually can create that sort of dynamic feeling of the urban environment.”
Not only that, Osgood and others involved in the rebirth of the bridge envision it as a new icon and a destination on the waterfront.
“It has the potential of being one of those places that serves as a postcard for Boston,” said Rick Dimino, the president of A Better City, a Boston business group, and chair of the city’s advisory task force on the bridge.
The city’s concept for a new Northern Avenue Bridge follows years of public discussions, including a design competition in 2016 run by the city and the Boston Society of Architects. There seems to be something for everyone in the city’s vision, from increasing transportation options to preserving parts of the 1908 bridge.
One feature that probably can’t be saved is the unusual ability of the bridge to swing open to accommodate boats sailing past. Because of rising seas, the city will most likely need to raise the span by four feet, making it the same height as the nearby Evelyn Moakley Bridge on Seaport Boulevard. A March storm gave the city a taste of the future when the water rose to touch the bottom of the Northern Avenue Bridge.
At an elevated height, the new structure would not need to be a swing bridge, which is costlier to build and maintain.
But this being Boston, we are far from done debating the future of this bridge. The city considers its concept as the starting point for another round of public discussions that will begin this summer to hone the design. It’s a process that probably will take until the end of 2019, and depending on the final proposal, construction could be completed in 2022.
What is likely to be hotly contested is whether cars should be allowed back on the bridge. The city banned vehicular traffic in 1997, allowing only pedestrians and bicyclists. But now traffic is threatening to choke the Seaport’s growth, and the Northern Avenue Bridge is seen as a much-needed relief valve.
Repairing the bridge became a priority when General Electric Co. decided to relocate its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston. As part of wooing the conglomerate, Walsh promised to invest up to $100 million to rebuild the bridge to help improve transportation on the South Boston Waterfront. GE moved into the Fort Point neighborhood in 2016.
Initially, preservationists worried that the city might not honor the historic nature of the bridge, but they are buoyed by the plan to reclaim parts of the old structure.
“We don’t know ultimately how this is going to shake out,” said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance and a member of the bridge task force.
But, he said, “I’m excited about the process and what we can bring back to the city.”Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.