On Northern Ave. Bridge, speak up or hold your peace
To have a fruitful public discussion about a piece of public infrastructure, all the key players need to make their concerns public. In the current debate over what to do with Boston’s old Northern Avenue Bridge, the obligation to speak up should extend to the federal judges who sit at the Moakley Courthouse, right at the eastern edge of the bridge.
The judges typically steer clear, for otherwise sensible reasons, of specific matters of local development or urban design. So far, the courthouse’s influence has been mostly behind the scenes. Earlier this year, US Representative Stephen Lynch cited federal judges’ concerns about security, in an increasingly traffic-choked area, as one reason to demolish the old bridge and replace it with a new one open to general traffic.
The transportation of prisoners to and from the building is a delicate challenge. But whether more vehicular traffic lanes would improve security around the courthouse — or add greater mobility throughout the Seaport area — is a matter of legitimate debate. And unless the judges’ concerns are in the open, nobody else can fairly evaluate them.
A historic but long-neglected structure that connects downtown Boston with the South Boston waterfront, the Northern Avenue Bridge is now off-limits and slated for removal — much to the chagrin of preservationists and waterfront advocates, and of cyclists and pedestrians who used the bridge for a decade and a half after it was closed to motor vehicles in the late 1990s. Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration recently held a competition soliciting ideas about how to reconstruct or replace the bridge, and the city will formally seek proposals from designers this summer. Yet the precise nature of that project — including the key question of how much car traffic a new bridge should carry — is up in the air.
When I met with US District Judge Douglas Woodlock at the courthouse this past week, his stance hinted at greater flexibility than Lynch’s earlier comments might have suggested.
Among local federal judges, Woodlock is the leading voice on matters involving the Moakley Courthouse itself. In the 1990s, he was deeply involved in the planning of the courthouse. It’s in no small part through his efforts that the building is an architectural triumph, an elegant civic monument, with colorful Ellsworth Kelly artwork on its interior walls, rather than a sad bureaucratic fortress that rejects the urban environment around it.
In recent years he’s seen the courthouse, once a lonely outpost in a sea of parking lots, become surrounded by glass buildings, and its streets become choked with traffic at rush hour. He’s convinced the area needs another vehicular outlet across Fort Point Channel. “There should be a reliable way to get from one side to the other [side] of this space,” he says. But which vehicles would get to use it? Woodlock says the minimum the courthouse would need is access across a new Northern Avenue Bridge for emergency vehicles and transit vans or buses.
That could help. In contrast, opening the bridge to general car traffic could backfire. By the theory of induced demand — the tendency of new road capacity to invite more driving by people who could have walked or taken public transportation instead — broad access for private vehicles could yield the same traffic delays at rush hour with no improvement in the courthouse’s ability to respond in an emergency.
But the Walsh administration shouldn’t take anyone’s word for how new vehicular lanes would change traffic patterns. The city needs to collect more data, because the amount of car traffic involved could affect the height, configuration, and cost of a new or revamped bridge.
While it generated no new traffic numbers, the recent ideas competition, a joint initiative of the city and the Boston Society of Architects, moved the discussion forward in valuable ways. Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, says the submissions also highlighted the importance of the site as a destination. In response, the city will seek to hire design teams with expertise in areas beyond bridge engineering.
The contest also seemed to capture the mayor’s imagination. At the competition’s awards ceremony, Walsh was notably enthusiastic about the potential of the Northern Avenue site. “This is not simply building a bridge,” he said, adding that the outcome should be something that visitors to the city should want to see.
While there was a representative of the federal courthouse on the contest jury, most other members were affiliated with the design community and advocacy groups. In contrast, General Electric, whose impending arrival in Boston provided a new impetus for action on the Northern Avenue Bridge, hasn’t played a public role in the discussion about what happens next on the site. Neither have the owners of the mega-developments surrounding the courthouse. But public debate can only achieve so much if there’s one discussion going on among idealistic architects and activists, and an entirely separate one involving the movers and shakers in town.