SAND has submitted the following letter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), stating our position regarding the future use of the Old Northern Avenue Bridge. Six developers have responded to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the BRA seeking project ideas for the potential reconstruction of the bridge. SAND formulated these guidelines after members had an opportunity to review each development proposal.
May 19, 1999
Thomas N. O'Brien
Boston Redevelopment Authority
One City Hall Square
Boston, MA 02201-1007
Ref: Old Northern Avenue Bridge
Dear Mr. O'Brien,
SAND would like to comment on the BRA's Request for Proposals for the Old Northern Ave. bridge, and on the proposals put forth by six potential developers who responded to this RFP. We appreciate that the BRA has responded to the widespread call to save the bridge from demolition.
When SAND members envision the future of the seaport, we see the Old Northern Avenue bridge as a historic symbol and vital link between two bustling shores. Thousands of new residents, employees, and tourists will pass each other on foot on their way to museums, parks, shops, restaurants, the T, their offices and their homes. These few moments of their walk as they cross the bridge will provide a valuable opportunity to enjoy the salt air and peaceful, spacious views of the urban skyline, Boston Harbor and the Fort Point Channel.
SAND's comments below are based on achieving this vision, and outline the principles we feel must guide decision-making regarding the bridge's future. These principles underscore our belief that the City's focus must remain firmly on the public realm. We believe that by adhering to these principles the BRA will ensure that the Old Northern Avenue bridge complements the Public Realm Plan for the South Boston seaport.
The bridge is first and foremost a public thoroughfare. It will be a heavily-used gateway between two densely developed communities: the financial district and, within coming years, the seaport neighborhood. It will provide access to destinations more than it will be a destination itself. As such, the bridge must offer the pedestrian an unobstructed and spacious crossing; it must be a place for effortless and enjoyable passage, not a bottleneck.
The experience of crossing the bridge must honor its maritime location and its designation as an integral part of Harborwalk; to accomplish this, not "view corridors," but largely open-air, expansive views must be maintained in all directions.
The bridge is also an important link in a system of open spaces, connecting what will eventually be green space created by the depression of the Central Artery with the park on Fan Pier. According to the City's RFP, the project area of the bridge is approximately 2.3 acres. Developing this area as unfettered open space will help the BRA meet its Public Realm plan objectives for public open space in the seaport.
Developing the bridge as a spacious pedestrian way must drive opportunities for commercial or cultural development, not vice-versa. The high degree of commercialization in the proposals submitted will not only undermine the function of the bridge as a truly public crossing, such "privatization" of the bridge will erode the public's sense of ownership or belonging in the city.
Proposals with massive commercial development cut off and insulate the pedestrian from the water, contradicting the intent of Chapter 91 to ensure that the use of tidelands allow public access to the water and to require that the tideland area be used principally for water-dependent uses.
The venerable structure of the Old Northern Ave. bridge serves as both a reminder of the City's important maritime history and as a unique passageway to a new seaport and a new era. While allowing for the necessary modification to accommodate navigation, SAND urges that the bridge be integrated into the seaport as nearly as possible in its present configuration, avoiding massive deformation or distortion of its interior and exterior structure.
SAND believes that the City must not abdicate its responsibility to ensure a public, pedestrian gateway to the seaport in the location of the Old Northern Avenue crossing, and that practical means exist to achieve this mission:
- This project warrants additional funding by the City of Boston to help achieve a meaningful Public Realm Plan. Our expectation is that the City will earmark funds towards public realm development long before private enterprise has firmly established its vision of the district. With City-owned land in short supply in the seaport, the Old Northern Avenue bridge would seem a particularly appropriate opportunity to enhance the public's experience of an otherwise mostly privately developed seaport.
- Projects along Old Northern Avenue that will benefit from the bridge as a pedestrian crossing may reasonably be expected to contribute to an established public realm renovation. Contribution amounts could be derived from the reasonable assessment of the bridge's impact on the success of their projects.
- Pedestrians, enjoying and using the bridge primarily as an open, public passage, may find their experience enhanced by appropriately scaled commercial and cultural activity. Such development can be expected to help offset renovation costs.
- The funds earmarked for demolition of the bridge should be applied to help adapt it as a pedestrian overpass.
As guardian of the public realm, the City must continue to solicit and incorporate public opinion during and after this next step in deciding the bridge's future.
In closing, we are concerned that the RFP itself contains conflicting objectives. We are in basic agreement with the BRA in its development objectives (page 5) stressing historic character, public pedestrian access, waterfront access, minimal commercial use, unique gateway connected to open space, activation of the channel, and promotion of water transportation. However, without the City's support, these important public realm objectives are lost as the project becomes defined by private proponents, whose dense commercial plans reflect their own economic goals rather than the best public good. We urge the City to stand behind its own development objectives and to incorporate SAND's comments herein.
SAND recognizes the challenges facing the City in devising a feasible solution for the bridge. Yet we cannot state more strongly our belief that it is the City's responsibility to stand up for the bridge, and to put public support behind this structure of immeasurable symbolic and functional value.
on behalf of the
Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design
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