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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Have Your Say on the Future of the High Bridge

The High Bridge at dusk, photographed from the Bronx side of the Harlem River

Barring delays, the High Bridge, a long-closed pedestrian bridge which spans the Harlem River connecting Highbridge in the Bronx with Washington Heights in Manhattan, will reopen in 2013, following a $62 million renovation.

This spring, the Parks Department held two public-visioning meetings - one in Manhattan, one in the Bronx - during which local residents and parks advocates shared their ideas for the bridge's future with a gaggle of city officials, designers and architects.

If you missed them, and still want a say in the design process, you can fill out this form which was recently posted on the Parks Department's website.

While the basics have been hammered out - the bridge’s stone and steal arches will be restored and strengthened, and ramps built on either side of the bridge to give wheelchair users access - the finer details have not.

For instance, at the Bronx meeting, some speakers said it was important that taller railings replace the current ones, which are perhaps three-feet high.  On a blustery day, "if you’ve got an umbrella, you’re going over the edge,” said one of the architects, only half-jokingly.  At the same time, the railings (or fence) shouldn't be so high as to spoil the stunning views or the experience of being on the bridge, advocates and local residents said.

The High Bridge, seen here from Sedgwick Avenue, was finished in 1848, making it the city's oldest standing bridge

The bridge will be open to pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users, but not cars, and there was some debate at the meeting as to how this would work.  Should cyclists be required to walk their bikes?  Should there be a bike lane?  Would painted lines ruin the attractive brick work?   Should the brick work be kept as is or replaced with a smoother, flatter, surface? 

Others said signage should be posted about the bridge's storied history (it was built to carry the Old Croton Aqueduct) and to promote local amenities, such as restaurants, on either side of the river. Slightly more ambitiously, some said that part of the aqueduct (essentially a large brick tunnel) should be turned into a mini-museum of sorts.   

It's hoped the bridge will be well-used by New Yorkers and tourists alike.  Bronxites arguably have more to gain than their Manhattan counterparts.  When the bridge reopens, kids living in Highbridge, for example, will be able to walk to the swimming pool and ballfields in Highbridge Park in Washington Heights in under 10 minutes.  At the moment, they're forced to walk north and then across the traffic-snarled Washington Bridge. 

And it's hoped that the bridge will do more than get people from A to B.  Some ideas from the meeting: events and parades, tai chi and other fitness classes, and art and food vendors.

There are some concerns that crime - or the fear of crime - will keep people away, according to the Parks Department's Ellen Macnow, who is the High Bridge project coordinator.  Historically, Highbridge Park has been a magnet for drug-users, although there have been some improvements to the park in recent years. Crime, needless to say, is also high on the Bronx side of the river.   

It's important, then, to heavily promote the bridge's upcoming renovation and get people excited about it, Macnow said. The more people that use the bridge, the safer it and the surrounding areas will be.  That's the theory.  Ultimately, if the bridge is busy, the project will be deemed a success.  (In an editorial earlier this month, the NY Times suggested it could one day be as successful as the High Line.) 

Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2011. 

For more on the bridge's history and the upcoming renovation, check out the High Bridge Coalition's web page.

The High Bridge is in the center of the shot. In the distance is the Manhattan skyline.

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