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Juror Spotlight: A Conversation with Greg Galer, Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance and Northern Ave. Bridge Ideas Competition Juror

Apr 28, 2016

Greg Galer joined the Boston Preservation Alliance in 2012. He began his career in preservation with an interest in historic bridges and an undergraduate thesis titled, "The Boston Bridge Works and the Evolution of Truss Building Technology." Born in Boston, a passionate preservationist and an accomplished senior level non-profit executive, Greg brings over 20 years of experience as a historic preservation advocate and museum professional to his organization and to the jury.

In this interview, he speaks with Gina Physic, Digital Media Specialist at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, about his role in the Northern Avenue Bridge Ideas Competition, his ideas for the Northern Ave. Bridge’s future, and advice for those entering the competition.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Gina Physic (GP): What do you hope to bring to the Northern Ave. Bridge Ideas Competition jury? Any unique insights, ideas, etc.? Anything that you think is worth noting?

Greg Galer (GG): I think I bring a unique perspective under the Preservation Alliance that I represent; it has been working effectively to protect the unique character of the city for decades. We’re pretty good at finding a good balance between helping the city evolve and be new and vibrant, and figuring out how the unique aspects of the city fit within that. I actually got my interest in historic preservation through historic bridges some 25 plus years ago. Some of the things I studied were bridges in [and around Fort Point], bridges of that type, iron truss bridges. I’ve been involved in the challenges of their preservation for a long time. Historic bridges [when] restored, reconfigured, repaired can really be interesting cores for place-making and finding an interesting balance between old and new while providing a transportation link.

GP: For you, what would constitute a win for the bridge's future? Not necessarily a winning project, but for example, an idea that had community support or a future for the bridge that ensured it would be a destination for years to come.

GG: For the Boston Preservation Alliance a win would be repairing the bridge that exists. Really making it a centerpiece and a focus. I think of the sculpture that was hanging over the Greenway last summer and how that attracted people to that neighborhood.  It was really a focus. People would come to look at it, hang out, eat lunch, meet friends, and there was programming associated with it and so forth. And that’s basically at the foot of the bridge. We’ve been actively working with a broad constituency of neighborhood folks – walking advocates, biking advocates, transportation advocates, etc., etc. – who all sort of agree with us that the bridge can solve a transportation issue, while being a place that attracts people. We’ve seen bridges all around the country that have been restored and function well. One thing that’s pretty interesting about this bridge is that its structure encloses you; it’s almost like an ode to a room. It’s a very comfortable place to be. 

A win for us would be bringing that bridge back to function in a way that no one who’s currently alive probably remembers it functioning. It really is something quite miraculous. 

The final thing I would say is part of the win is enhancing the community aspect of the bridge. There are many opportunities for water sheet engagement. The wooden fender system that sits under the bridge, we’d love to see that modified. People who do community rowing from boats that are currently docked behind the Barking Crab have been looking for a boathouse, and there’s a great opportunity to do that within the bridge, within the fender system. Some people have been talking about the old fire boathouse. Could that be retail? Could that be a restaurant? I hear the Envoy Hotel, which overlooks the bridge, is the hottest place to be these days. The bridge can really be part of that [excitement], while providing a great route for bikers, pedestrians, or rowers.

GP: It seems like you have a lot of ideas for the bridge. You’ve referenced bridges across the country that have been restored. Are there other bridges that you'd like to see serve as inspiration or as a reference point for the future of the Northern Ave. Bridge?

GG: There’s a metal truss bridge in Chatanooga - The Walnut St. Bridge - that was restored and they have festivals and periodically close it to hold events. It’s a pedestrian bridge now. We reference [New York City’s] High Line sometimes, which is obviously much bigger, but that concept of restoring a piece of deteriorated infrastructure instead of throwing it away [is similar.] I know we can bring [the Northern Avenue Bridge] back and we can make it into something better, and it can serve as a transportation link. Cleveland has a whole host of bridges that they actually give tours on. You can get on boats and see the bridges. Chicago is a city that treasures its bridges. They’re really part and parcel of the character of the city.

[The Northern Avenue Bridge,] if it were functioning and repaired, would serve all the needs and reflect something very unique about Boston and our heritage in that area. [The Fort Point] neighborhood really tells a lot about the evolution of the city.

GP: It’s interesting that you mention that this competition lends itself to having submissions that are more creative, and that there’s the opportunity to potentially create something new. Do you have advice for those participating in the competition? Would you suggest they keep in mind ways to be creative about what exists already?

GG: Yes, creativity doesn’t always mean starting with a blank piece of paper. I think actually some of the more interesting creative exercises bring old and new together, working within parameters. And look, there are parameters that exist anyway, [such as] a navigable channel. You have constrained boundaries in terms of where the bridge exists. So, it’s not like you can do anything you want. I would encourage people to really embrace a preservation-friendly solution with updated mechanicals and so forth, so it functions well, but that existing core can really form the base of something more.

Is there a retail opportunity? Do fireworks go off when the bridge opens at night? There are great lighting opportunities. It’s such a special place and it has really become iconic for the city, so how do we build upon that and embellish it? Let’s make it live into the future by the way we utilize it and add on to it, modify it with use.

GP: That’s a good segue into my next question. What, as a juror, do you find to be the most important thing in terms of choosing a competition winner?

GG: If it were to come down to one thing, I want to see something that respects the existing historic bridge and celebrates that in a way that does justice to preserving as much of the bridge as we can.

GP: And what are you most looking forward to? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about regarding the competition?

GG: I’m excited about seeing proposals that do just that, that really embrace the history of the bridge in some creative ways that I’ve not thought about. While I’ve thought about a lot of aspects of it, I’m sure people will come up with a lot of things I haven’t thought about.

For more information and updates regarding the competition, please visit and be sure to join the conversation on Twitter using #NorthernAveContest!

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