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Carlton Street Footbridge set to reopen in July after decades of debate, delay

June 30, 2023  Updated August 15, 2023 at 9:47 a.m.
  • The south side of the footbridge in Riverway Park. Photo by Zoe Zekos

Update: The bridge is now open. Read more here. 

The Carlton Street Footbridge, which links Brookline’s Longwood neighborhood to the Riverway Park and the Emerald Necklace, is weeks away from reopening, 46 years after decades of decay forced its closing.

The ensuing bitter debate about whether to rebuild it made this restoration a long time coming, with proponents championing the bridge’s link to green space and opponents fearing an increase in crime and worrying about expense.

The construction team is working to have the single-span, steel-truss bridge open to the public by late July, said Bill Smith, construction project manager for the town of Brookline. The town has scheduled an official re-opening celebration for Sunday, September 17.

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The 108-foot bridge was built in 1894 under the supervision of Brookline’s first town engineer, Alexis French, to help pedestrians cross train tracks that are now part of the MBTA Green Line’s D branch. The bridge closed in 1976 after years of deferred maintenance and gradual deterioration.

On Wednesday morning, contractors were putting some final touches on the rebuilt bridge, and landscapers planted flowers near its base.

The restored bridge is wheelchair-accessible, with ramps on both sides. Other new touches include narrow “runnels” next to the stairs to enable bicyclists to walk their bikes alongside them as they cross.

While the Riverway Park straddles the border between Brookline and Boston, the footbridge itself lies entirely within Brookline. The restoration project, which officially began in 2021, is owned by the town of Brookline and funded by the state and federal government. The final bid from contractor Aetna Bridge Company was $3.95 million, with the town providing $206,638, Smith said.

In June 2021, engineers from Aetna lifted out the old bridge in pieces and transported them to an Aetna facility near Warwick, Rhode Island for restoration and repair. Nearly a year and a half later, the structure was in one piece and ready to go back in place. In October 2022, an oversized truck transported it back to Brookline in the middle of the night.

Hugh Mattison, an open-space advocate, has been documenting the restoration of the bridge for 20 years. He is one of a group of proponents who pushed for rebuilding the bridge for decades, first facing political headwinds and later the inertia of construction delays.

The project has been a labor of love for him. After his initial involvement in a conflict over a bike path in Olmsted Park, Mattison gravitated to the fight over the footbridge.

“There are so many factors involved,” Mattison said. “There’s the politics and finance, the environment, the history. The physical skills involved with the electricians, welders, carpenters, landscapers.”

Bridge advocate Hugh Mattison with several pieces of the original footbridge he has held onto. Photo by Sam Mintz

History of controversy

As the Brookline Tab reported in 2006, the bridge’s “closure and the plans to restore it have caused an ongoing political battle between green space advocates who would like to see it reopened, and neighboring opponents who think it should remain closed for fears of increasing crime to the area.”

The project has been the subject of shouting matches and raucous Select Board meetings, and the issue has been a powerful force in the politics of Precinct 1, where the bridge is located.

“It was a symbolic green space and historic preservation issue for proponents like me,” said Sean Lynn-Jones, a Town Meeting member and president of the Brookline Greenspace Alliance. “And an example of running the risk of crime and spending too much money for opponents.”

When the town first proposed restoring the bridge in the 1990s, opponents dominated the precinct’s delegation to Town Meeting.

Among them was Fred Lebow, a Colchester Street resident.

Rebuilding the bridge, Lebow contended, was unnecessary because another entrance to the park sits 800 feet away. The project, he said, was too expensive and could make the neighborhood less safe. And, he added, the bridge is “absolutely ugly.”

“We held it off for over 40 years,” Lebow said in an interview.

The opponents were eventually swept out of Town Meeting by a wave of organizing by bridge proponents over several years in the early 2000s, Lynn-Jones said.

“People like me who supported the bridge thought it was an important way of having access into one of our most important parks,” he said. “And I happen to like the look of the bridge, the industrial style.”

Among those new Town Meeting members was Tommy Vitolo, now a state representative.

The decisive Town Meeting vote that essentially ended the political battle came in 2009 with a vote to appropriate money for the project. Town meeting members were urged on by former governor Michael Dukakis, a long-time advocate for restoring the bridge, who called the graffiti-covered, decaying site a “confounded wreck” and a “monument of civic neglect.”

“For God’s sake, do it for me,” Dukakis told Town Meeting. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Fourteen years later, the former governor visited the project and met with workers in recent weeks as the footbridge neared completion.

Mike Dukakis meets with workers at the site of the Carlton Street Footbridge

Former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis meets with workers at the site of the footbridge project in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Hugh Mattison

The rancor cooled over the years as the project worked through complex grant applications and construction delays, most recently caused by the Covid pandemic.

Nina Pforr, whose Carlton Street house is one of the closest to the bridge, walked by the site one recent morning.

“I’m all for it, because there’s no easy access to Fenway here,” said Pforr, who moved into the neighborhood in 2016. Every day she and her family use the Riverway Park path onto which the footbridge empties, she said.

“It looks nice,” Pforr said. “And I trust progress.”