For Seaport-area bars and restaurants that relied on the Old Northern Avenue Bridge for a constant stream of patrons on foot, the bridge’s shutdown in December has put something of a damper on things.
“The short answer is yes, it has,” says Alex Blake, director of operations at The Barking Crab, when asked if the closure of the footbridge has affected business. “Our pedestrian business. The Northern Avenue Bridge was an easier bridge to cross than the Moakley Bridge is. We are more difficult to find, because the Northern Ave. Bridge would drop people right off at our front door.”
Built in 1908, the Old Northern Avenue Bridge spans the Fort Point Channel from Northern Avenue, next to James Hook & Co., to the Harborwalk on the South Boston side, providing a passage that directly filtered pedestrians toward waterfront businesses like The Barking Crab and The Daily Catch.
Now, it’s one of the only connections between Downtown Boston and the rapidly-developing Innovation District and Fort Point neighborhoods. In December, the Globe reported that city consultants said they found 13 floor beams on the bridge were no longer safe for pedestrians.
Meanwhile businesses in the area are concerned that without the pedestrian-only bridge (it closed to vehicular traffic in 1997) those looking to dine out or party on the Waterfront might look elsewhere.
At Mexican restaurant Papagayo, 283 Summer St., the post-work crowd that streams out of the Financial District to sip margaritas now must detour to a different bridge, or rely on Uber or cabs. Owner Chris Damian worries that come spring, the restaurants in the area could be hit pretty hard.
“It’s the walking traffic really that is the impact . . .” says Damian. “We’re trying to be resourceful, thinking of ways to drive business and get people to stay and spend their money with us.”
Many of the restaurants feeling the pinch are family-owned Boston staples. At The Daily Catch, 2 Northern Ave., general manager Sage Freddura says the shutdown has already disturbed the foot traffic, even though the warmer weather is months away.
“Some customers have complained,” says Freddura, whose family opened The Daily Catch’s first North End location back in 1973. “There’s less foot traffic there now, and people have complained that it’s inconvenient. We have such a great restaurant location, but now we’re at a dead end essentially. You can’t just cross the bridge to get to our restaurant.”
Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association, says that the argument that pedestrians can just use the Moakley Bridge instead doesn’t hold much weight, seeing as it was never intended to be a major pedestrian thoroughfare.
“The Northern Ave. Bridge was always viewed from a planning perspective as a critical link between the traditional Financial District and the new South Boston Innovation District. Any of the businesses in the Innovation District, the fact that they could have access back and forth to Financial District, was pretty key.”
It’s not just businesses that seem to be affected. The diverse artist community in Fort Point has also felt the change. Gabrielle Schaffner, who has lived and worked in Fort Point for 25 years, regularly strolls the HarborWalk and crossed over the bridge.
“I think it’s an old industrial beauty,” Schaffner says of the bridge, which, in the past couple of years, has been bedecked with flower boxes. “It seems wrong. I hate to see it mothballed while people try to figure out what to do and have the damage get worse.”
Steve Hollinger, another longtime Fort Point resident, says the geography of the Waterfront makes multiple points of entry critical. Besides the Moakley Bridge, those entering Fort Point can use the Congress Street Bridge and the Summer Street Bridge.
“The Seaport is kind of geographically landlocked in term of transit options long term,” he said. “If you start messing around with the ability of pedestrians to even want to visit the waterfront, I think it could have some serious impact. I think restoration of the bridge is important to represent the character of the seaport, but it kind of makes great sense in terms of optimal access.”
Optimal access for the disabled is a key component in the fight to reopen the pedestrian walkway, since the Northern Avenue Bridge is the easiest handicapped-accessible connection with the Seaport. Brendan Kearney, communications manager of Walk Boston, says that one of the most vital components of the bridge is that it provides disabled pedestrians with a much flatter path, ideal for wheelchairs.
“Because it’s at grade, they don’t have to go up over anything,” says Kearney. “It’s much easier for handicapped users.”
While the city figures out what to do with the bridge, area businesses are just hoping a decision can be made soon, since foot traffic over the Fort Point Channel always escalates when the weather heats up.
“In the springtime, any opportunity to block, deter, or challenge people outside of their normal course will certainly affect us somehow,” says Peter Ackerman, vice president of Salvatore’s Restaurants, which has a location at 225 Northern Ave. “The neighborhood is coming together so great. I’d hate to see anything that would deter people.”
“Ideally, we would like pedestrian access to be restored,” says Blake, of The Barking Crab. “I don’t want it to languish for years and years and years.”
Megan Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.