The Northern Avenue bridge across the Fort Point Channel doesn’t simply connect downtown Boston with the South Boston waterfront. The 106-year-old truss bridge is also a link to the city’s industrial past. Demolishing the bridge would be an irremediable mistake and undermine efforts to create a human-scale walkway to the burgeoning Seaport and Innovation districts.
The bridge is in tough shape. It has been closed to vehicular traffic since 1997 due to structural concerns. And just this month, city engineers closed the bridge to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, citing dangerous levels of deterioration to the floor beams. The historic structure, which swings open via an ingenious system of gears, has been left in the open position to accommodate boats that otherwise would be too tall to pass underneath.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has his hands full with structurally deficient bridges. In October, city engineers shut down the Long Island bridge that led to a large homeless shelter in Boston Harbor. And now, with the closing of the Northern Avenue Bridge, the city has lost an important entryway to a high-growth area for tech startups, pharmaceutical companies, and tourism. The closure is also a blow to the historical character of a waterfront that is starting to resemble "an office park in a suburb of Dallas," in the words of Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell.
City officials have identified seven or eight solutions, ranging from simple demolition of the Northern Avenue Bridge to a preservation effort so comprehensive that it would elevate the original structure, restore vehicular traffic in both directions, and provide full access for pedestrians and bikers. The costs of the various solutions range from $8 million to $60 million, according to city officials. The prior Menino administration had despaired of preserving the bridge after several failed attempts. Walsh should be commended for confronting the problem again.
The mayor, however, appears stuck on the idea of replacing the Long Island bridge — at an estimated cost of $90 million — before dealing with the Northern Avenue structure. This would be a major miscalculation on his part. After all, Walsh already has identified an alternative, permanent site for a new homeless shelter that could be fully operational long before experts even begin to discuss design criteria for a new Long Island bridge. And rather than focus on a remote island, Walsh should be prioritizing a booming section of the city that promises to generate new jobs, new construction, and significant increases in commercial and residential property taxes.
The cost of preserving the Northern Avenue Bridge will depend on the ambitiousness of the plan, the availability of federal highways funds, navigational requirements, and other factors. But the basic structure should remain intact as a way to preserve the city's past and enhance its future.