BOSTON’S URBAN PLANNERS and placemakers have an opportunity to make the Northern Avenue Bridge, now a rusting relic in Fort Point Channel, a postcard-worthy destination that draws in tourists and redefines the all-too-sterile Seaport District.
For proof of concept, look no further than New York City, where the High Line snakes through Manhattan along a defunct elevated railway. That space is now alive with art, greenery, and commerce, with the Whitney Museum of American Art on one end. Proof that it works: The High Line attracts 7.4 million visitors a year. And Boston-Gotham rivalry aside, it should also provide motivation for the task force assembled by Mayor Walsh to spearhead a multimillion-dollar plan to redevelop the Northern Avenue Bridge.
While traffic jams snarl the Seaport every workday, planners also must recognize that reopening the bridge to vehicles won’t solve anything, and could in fact add another potential choke point. So Walsh and the coalition should think more boldly, and build a linear green space limited to pedestrians and bicyclists, one that flourishes with trees, grass, benches, public art, and even a revenue-producing cafe. In other words, create what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a “third place” — a community connector between work and home — that will serve the burgeoning waterfront for the next century.
“This is like an outdoor room, an outdoor space,” said Greg Galer, executive director of Boston Preservation Alliance, part of the group thinking about the structure’s future. “This is a great opportunity for placemaking.”
The bridge, built in 1908, is also a nod to a colorful past, when the neighborhood was flexing its muscle as a maritime and industrial hub of the Hub. But it rotted over time, as the bustle of industry retreated, and was closed to vehicles in 1997. In 2014, pedestrian traffic was banned.
If the intricate steel skeleton can be safely restored, this bridge-from-another-century could also add a much-needed bit of soul to a largely soulless Seaport neighborhood, home to a windy supergrid of streets bristling with glass boxes and towers — but stingy on open space and green retreats.
The project is shot through with complexity, with overlapping agencies and conflicting reports by consultants. And it’s competing for time and money amid serious transportation meltdowns. In recent days, a Blue Line power failure forced passengers to evacuate through a tunnel, and concrete fell onto a car at the Alewife T station parking garage. As Jesse Mermell, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, tweeted after the Blue Line failure: “Our crumbling #transportation system is an economic problem for Massachusetts.”
But the promise remains, and the future beckons. The Northern Avenue Bridge offers an unparalleled chance to think boldly about the waterfront that shapes the city.