Northern Avenue Bridge

View of the Northern Avenue Bridge today

Credit: Craig LeMoult

How to Make The Northern Avenue Bridge Fun Again

May 26, 2016

The Northern Avenue Bridge over Fort Point Channel used to connect Boston’s downtown to the seaport district, but it’s been closed to traffic and pedestrians because of safety issues for years. Last night, the city announced the winners of a public competition seeking ideas on how to restore or replace the bridge.  
 
The Northern Avenue Bridge – that is if you can even call this a bridge — is basically just a hulking mess of rusted steel. You can’t get across it because it’s fenced off, and people on both sides of this bridge are saying they want to see it opened up again.
 
“I just feel like it really disconnects the Seaport from downtown, and that’s kind of sad when the Seaport is really developing," said one passerby. "A pedestrian walkway would be great because no one likes to walk over the seaport bridge. It certainly is an eyesore at this point, so anything would be better than what it is now.”
 
So the city decided to have a contest, asking for ideas on what to do about this bridge that first opened in 1908. The received more than 130 entries. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke at last night’s awards ceremony.
 
“This is not simply just building a bridge. This is making a connection, this is connecting all of our city. It’s something that people, when they come to our city, should want to have to see what the Northern Ave. Bridge looks like, and that’s what we want here,” said Walsh to a round of applause.
 
A 16-person jury made up of architects, designers, artists, a preservation expert and a senior from Boston Latin Academy, narrowed it down to a handful of winners.  
 
But the winning proposals are really more like guidelines than blueprints. Boston Society of Architects president Tamara Roy was one of the jurors.
 
“What each solution produced was, ‘Oh, wow, this is really important to do X,’ you know, or ‘this idea, we never thought of, but we really want to tell the city—don’t forget about this.’”

» To see the winners and the awards ceremony, visit WGBH Forum Network. 
 
Boston’s chief of streets, Chris Osgood, says they’ll incorporate the ideas they get from the contest in what they’re asking designers to propose, and he says the city will ask for more input from residents.
 
“In many ways this is the start of deeper public engagement around what that next Northern Ave. Bridge should look like,” Osgood said.
 
The entrants in the design contest showed up with a wide range of ideas on that subject.  A proposal by landscape architect Travis Ewen and his team focused on some fun activities on the bridge.
 
“A micro-library, performance space, opportunities for the ICA to have art installations," Ewen described, "as well as a big urban swing that swings out over the water.”
 
Artist Marina Forbes of New Hampshire had a different idea for fun on the bridge: a big Ferris wheel that’s lit up at night.
 
“And it’s kind of exciting. Lots of things happening in Boston. You can be on the top of everything. It can be just fabulous occasion," Forbes said. "How about proposing on the top of that Ferris wheel? I mean, lots of possibilities!”
 
The contest set three goals for entries: improving mobility, honoring history and creating a destination. Jurors thought a plan by 24 year-old landscape architect Rob Barella met all three of those goals.
 
"My main thing about this was, alright, I love history. I love this bridge, and I really want to be able to interact with the water,” Barella said. 
 
His plan includes theater seating down to the water’s edge, and a park made of islands that can be visited by small boats. The plan restores the bridge without losing its old character.
 
“It is an old bridge, and it is an icon. So you don’t want it to be this brand new sparkling type of thing,” Barella added.
 
It’s a history that goes back more than a hundred years, and will wind up connecting two parts of the city that continue to change, day by day.
 


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