Northern Ave. bridge contest seeks ideas for landmark span

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BOSTON Boston’s landmark Northern Avenue Bridge may get a much-needed facelift or it could be replaced with an entirely new structure that “honors the legacy” of the century-old span that once connected downtown to Fan Pier and the South Boston Seaport District.

To help the process along, the Boston Society of Architects is working with the city to solicit ideas from the public on what to do with the bridge, which has been closed since 2014.

“The Northern Ave Bridge represents a special piece of history for our city and for our people,” Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement released earlier this month. “I welcome everyone to participate and help us generate ideas for this important challenge for the future of the bridge and Boston.”

An “ideas competition” seeks public input, including essays or drawings that express their ideas for replacing or restoring the bridge, which crosses Fort Point Channel where it meets Boston Harbor. The U.S. Coast Guard advised the city last year that the iron and steel span was in danger of collapsing into the channel, prompting plans to dismantle it and either restore or replace it. Rehabilitating the bridge was estimated to cost $49 million, while just dismantling it is projected to cost $15 million. The city sought a permit to take the bridge down in February.

Ultimately, the city’s aim is to find the most cost-efficient way to restore the popular waterfront route used by pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles, a Walsh spokeswoman said in January. The design competition is part of that process.

Contributors of submissions should suggest ways to improve “mobility connections” between downtown and the South Boston waterfront, honor the bridge’s history and to create an “iconic structure and destination” for people in the city, according to the City Hall statement of the goals of the competition. Participants are asked to express their views and ideas about the function of the bridge, such as whether it should carry vehicles as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.

The competition is open to anyone, designers and non-designers alike, and submissions will be accepted starting April 22. But city workers and architects society members aren’t eligible to win prizes for their ideas.

So far, $2,500 awards have been offered for the most inspiring suggestion on improving mobility; the most inspiring as a way to honor history, and the most inspiring proposal for creating a bridge that will become a destination. Submissions will be judged on clarity, idea strength and on a compelling accompanying narrative.

Two additional categories with awards, one for a “people’s choice” proposal and one for the “best ‘outside-the-box’ idea,” have yet to have their values determined.

Contest participants must submit their ideas, drawings and proposals by April 29 using a website set up for the project.

“This ideas competition fosters two essential requirements for planning and implementing the best direction forward for the bridge,” said Tamara Roy, a member of the American Institute of Architects and the local society’s president. It creates “a public process that allows alternatives to be proposed and evaluated, and a commitment to superb design so that bold forms and engaging spaces can bring this corner of the city to life,” she said.

Built in 1908, the bridge swings open laterally from a central pier and is the last of its kind in the U.S. It carried railroad trains in its first 50 years, then car and truck traffic until 1997. The use, coupled with the harsh New England weather and snow removal practices have worn out the structure with its distinctive trusses and wooden plank surfaces.

The city’s bridge dismantling proposal in February included a plan to cut the span in two and take the pieces to a holding area in East Boston where engineers could evaluate the metal to determine whether any of the original parts could be restored for reuse in a rehabilitated or a new bridge, according to Boston Globe report. Permits may be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by June.

Some preservationist groups continue to press the city to restore the bridge rather than replace it with a new design. Michael Tyrrell of the Friends of the Northern Avenue Bridge said the group, comprised mainly of consultants in architecture, planning and transportation, has advocated for restoration for more than a decade.
“We believe the bridge should be maintained as a pedestrian-oriented, recreational crossing, possibly with HOV or emergency access capacity to help alleviate Seaport traffic,” he said.

Another group, the Boston Preservation Alliance, has urged the public to ask the Corps of Engineers and the Massachusetts Historical Commission to require the city to restore the landmark span rather than replace it.

“The Northern Avenue Bridge is a survivor of an industrial age central to the growth and success of Boston and our nation,” Greg Galer, the alliance’s executive director, said in a letter to the Globe posted on the group’s website. “It is a rare example of human scale and functional design in our rapidly expanding but uninspired waterfront.”