Sunday, September 25, 2011

University Ave Bridge

I've known for years that the University Ave Bridge is coming down. In fact, I wrote about it when I started this bloggy thing back in 2006. I also knew the replacement bridge would be built at the foot of Merrimack Street, taking a few buildings with it.

I didn't know that demolition happened yesterday. I'm a good week behind on the local news!

I learnt about that from Michelle, who also linked to an excellent article about the CMAC building that was one of two structures demolished for this.

As for the current bridge, I've photographed the underside of it in the past, and, well, we all know it is in really rough shape. To the point that it's not safe for cars anymore. Besides, the bizarre double-light intersection it creates at Pawtucket St to the jog at Merrimack Street (being that its original route down Moody St is now a dead end) is not good for cars. A direct connection to Merrimack Street, our main street, and becoming even more important now that UML owns the old St. Joseph's Hospital (now University Crossing) is desirable. Let's put a light at the foot of Fletcher Street - the most direct route to the interstates - while we're at it. With the current configuration, three lights for three T-intersections in a row would be plain crazy. But a T and a four-way? Let's do it!

This leaves one question: what to do with the old bridge? Many Lowellians want to save "Kerouac's Bridge" ... I don't. To understand why, we need to look at the preservation movement as a whole: The goal should be to preserve the character of an area, and preserve the history. Lowell, it has often been said, does pretty well for itself because it cares about local history. However, Lowell is a still-functioning city of over 100,000 residents - it is not a museum. History is made here every day. Things change. Would the loss of this fairly ordinary bridge, with a one paragraph tie to a writer, no matter how great he was, really, truly change the character of Lowell for the worse? Would that outweigh the potential gains we could have by not keeping two bridges there? Can the money we'd be spending to maintain both give us a better single bridge?

I feel that the Lowellian fear of demolition has far more to do with the way we've "renewed" our city in the past, be it individual buildings, or entire neighborhoods. It's been the exception rather than the rule that we've put up something as distinguished as what we tore down...never mind something that was truly an improvement. I read a great piece on the Greek Acre demolition today. Nobody looks kindly on that. Maybe if we hadn't torn down those old flats and there had been large, fatal fires...we'd feel differently. But still, what was built there instead wasn't just safer: it robbed a neighborhood of its feel and its character. Right idea...horrible execution. The city lost something quite tangible. Conversely, nobody would say the new Jeanne D'arc headquarters isn't an improvement over what was there before...that being the charred remnants of an ancient textile mill. And, in that case, we did save the historic turbine pits underneath the new something excavated in ancient Rome.

I guess my overall rule is: if it's going to be a parking lot, or a boulevard, or some So Cal style suburban If there's a chance for us to improve the built environment in Lowell for future generations, at the expense of something that is no longer working for the modern city...let it go. There are even a few buildings right downtown that I wouldn't weep about if they were replaced with something truly better.

Keeping both bridges would create a very strange, massive-expanse-of-pavement intersection at the University end. Having both bridges would certainly prevent us from building any sort of park, or buildings to replace the ones we just tore down, where the old bridge was. It would also destroy the view from either bridge to the rapids below - because you'd now be looking at just another bridge a few feet away. A bridge that's not too visually captivating at that! Just look at what the temporary Tyngsboro Bridge has done to the feel of the paved-over remnants of Tyngsboro Center.

Instead, let's build something impressive, and built to last. This, after-all, is supposed to be the Textile Memorial Bridge. I've always said, if I do something truly awful in my life, name an overpass after me or something equally mundane. The current University Ave Bridge is frankly, quite dull. Especially given the amount of pedestrian traffic over it the University is generating, with more to come, we should make it a pleasant and informative walk. Where is the information on who or what it is a memorial to?!

We have a chance to maybe put aside a piece of the modular old bridge on dry land as some sort of monument to Kerouac if we so choose, or some other art installation purpose...or maybe put part of it over a brook or something. The underside of it is kinda cool. The new bridge could have an impressive superstructure and broad sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides. I'm thinking something like the beautiful lampposts on the French King Bridge and/or the interesting carvings on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge - both Massachusetts bridges from the Depression over the Connecticut River. We could have plaques at different lengths along it talking about the history of the University, that being the North Campus, as Lowell Textile Institute. We could talk about Pawtucketville, and Little Canada...and why French-Canadian Kerouac was there to see that man with the watermelon in the first place.

We can't - and shouldn't try - to save everything. Sometimes, doing so can get in the way of us moving forward.


  1. I am not terribly sad to see that bridge go. Other than the Rourke Bridge (which is the scariest bridge in Lowell to cross because you're trapped in a cage), it is my least favorite.

    I wish the city would do something awesome with it, like the Frog Bridge in Willimantic, CT. I can't post a picture, but here is some information about the bridge: It is a gorgeous and unusual bridge that honors the city's history. As part of the ribbon cutting, Willimantic invited local artists to paint replicas of the frogs which were then used as public art.

    Here's a link to a picture I took of the bridge (I can't seem to embed images):

    And one of one of the frogs:

    And the bridge has shown up on the funnies page:

  2. Funny you should bring up the Frog Bridge until recently I had no idea it existed. My newest house-guest is from Willimantic. Very cool Bridge.

    About our New Bridge, Corey can you find us a link that show us the New Bridge going up?

  3. Marianne - did we forget about Hunt's Falls? I guess that when it isn't under construction, it's a reasonable bridge to ride on (no metal grates), but it's just a standard-issue MassHighway ca. 1960s iron girder bridge. Either way, I think the Rourke, on all measures of sucky-bridgitude, is way out in front.

    To embed links, you have to use the HTML (I don't know why Blogger does this). Like this

    But yeah, something like that frog bridge. I had never heard of it - pretty cool. If Willimantic, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, can build an interesting bridge as a state road, we should do something interesting as well.

    David - I don't believe any actual bridge construction has happened yet. I'll try to swing by there at some point in the near future.

  4. If an aesthetically pleasing bridge that's functional for cars, bikes and pedestrians is built then demolish the old bridge. If another Rourke bridge is erected we should keep the old one.

  5. On my ride to work this morning I noticed that they were demolishing the Lowell Mission Church building. I will confess to being sad to see that building go, I thought it was an attractive end to Merrimack Street.

    Are there any renderings of what the new University Ave, bridge will look like? Something like the Frog Bridge would be spectacular in that space - there's that slight hill as you go up Merrimack and the bridge will be framed by University Crossing, I really hope they don't waste that vista and do something nice with the bridge.

    I don't have a problem with the Hunt's Falls bridge because I feel safe crossing it. My dislike for the Rourke is mostly because I feel like going through that cage that is the ped walkway is really unsafe. First off, it's a cage so if something happened you'd be trapped. Also, the ped walkway isn't visible from the cars on the bridge, so if something happened no one would see it. I lived in Allston in the late 1990s and there was a bridge with a similar walkway that was called the "Rape Bridge" because a few women got attacked while crossing it. Crossing the Rourke remindes me of that.

  6. The Hunt's Falls bridge is actually the Quinn- Holmes Bridge. Tosi Quinn, killed in combat during WWII,was my uncle. His brother, another uncle, drowned in the river at Hunt's Falls when he was a boy.

    Tom S.

  7. Tom - I have never heard that! Thanks for pointing it out. Act establishing that name is here. Is there any sort of sign? The city has gone through lengths it seems to get people to call, say, the Aiken St Bridge the Ouellette bridge...

  8. The Lowell Historic Board and Lowell National Historical Park worked hard to ensure that the new bridge will be attractive. I don't believe anyone ever prepared a rendering, but we do have construction plans, which illustrate what the bridge will look like.

    Interestingly the historic officials also felt that the old bridge should not be retained because two bridges in close proximity would have a detrimental impact on the Northern Canal and Great Wall below by creating too much of a shadow over these more significant historic resources.

    The new bridge will have wide sidewalks on both sides as well as bike lanes in addition to the vehicle travel lanes.

    The project also does include a traffic signal at the intersection of Fletcher and Pawtucket Streets, which MassDOT added at the City's request.

  9. Comment from Eileen:

    Great topic!!
    Lowell Bridges North to South
    1. Rourke Bridge named for Raymond Rourke Jr who was a state rep killed in an auto accident. It was dedicated in 1983 as a temporary bridge.
    2. James F. O'Donnell Bridge known as School St Bridge. Dates to 1792 for a bridge location, built 1917 rebuilt 2005. Not sure who it is named for but James F. O'Donnell funeral home is nearby. Anyone?
    3. Textile Memorial bridge known as University Ave Bridge, formerly Textile Ave Bridge and Moody Street Bridge. It is named in memory of 16 Lowell Textile students who died during WWII. It was built in 1896.
    4. Joseph R. Ouellette Bridge also known as Aiken Street Bridge or the Orange Bridge. Built in 1883. Joseph R. Ouellete is a Medal of Honor Recipient who was killed in action in Korea.
    5. John E. Cox Bridge known as Bridge St Bridge. Former site of Central Bridge. I believe this is named for former City Councilor John E Cox who grew up on Bridge Street. It was built in 1937 but the crossing dates to 1830s.
    6. Quinn-Holmes Bridge known as Hunts Fall Bridge. Built in 1959. Thomas J. Quinn was killed in action in Sicily during WWII. Robert L. Holmes was the Commander of the American Legion who served in WW1. He fought long and hard to get this bridge dedicated to Thomas Quinn. He died at a legion meeting of a heart attack to get the bridge named. It took over 6 years to get this bridge dedicated. After Holmes’ death the bridge was named the Quinn-Holmes Bridge. The sponsor of the bill that finally passed was Rep. Raymond F. Rourke. The father of Timothy Rourke.

    1. The ODonnell Bridge has a monument on the Pawtucketville side that says he was a Mayor of Lowell.

  10. Oh - and I got picked up on Richard Howe's blog by Marie Sweeney: There is discussion going on over there as well.

  11. Tappan Zee Bridge Park effort gains community support.

  12. Thanks for the link, Brian.

    The question I keep coming back to in my head is what makes people ride a bike somewhere, or walk? What is the advantage to keeping two bridges instead of one better bridge? They do apparently plan to have bike lanes on the new Tappan Zee, and there are somewhat sizable towns on each end that a three-mile bike ride would make so much more accessible.

    If one is to walk for pleasure, a sidewalk on a bridge is not the thing to do. If you've ever walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, it's a miracle people don't get seasick up there. The view is also very monotonous versus walking the same distance in a park or something similar. To be fair, it'd be much more pleasant without the noise and bouncing caused by cars. Plus, a six-mile round trip walk is no small feat.

    I like the High Line because it has continuously changing views and places to get on and off as well as places to just relax, something that's not available in a lot of Manhattan, and certainly not on the sidewalk. I'm a lot more conflicted about saving a three-mile bridge in the suburbs as a very expensive walking trail.

    I hate being the naysayer on these bridge conversions, but I just don't get them. The Walkway Over the Hudson seems to be fairly popular, and that's a good two miles long, so I don't clearly implies the idea isn't crazy.

  13. The James E. O'Donnell Bridge is named for the former two term Mayor 1912-1913 and 1916-1917. The bridge was originally dedicated in 1968 and rededicated in 2005. The family funeral home is nearby.