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Community Clamors for Shorter Fence in High Bridge Renovation

By Carla Zanoni | April 4, 2011 5:06am

By Carla Zanoni

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Most people in Upper Manhattan support the $62 million restoration of the High Bridge, the long-shuttered Manhattan-Bronx passage that soars over the Harlem River.

But residents and officials say a plan to install an 8-foot fence makes little sense and Community Board 12 members want the city to rethink its plan.

Opposition to the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) plan to install the 8-foot safety fence on both sides of the landmarked space first came to a head when first presented at a CB12 Parks and Cultural Affairs committee in October 2010.

Although meeting attendees were impressed with much of the DDC proposed design concept, the public and committee strongly disagreed with the city’s proposal to meet a community need for a "strong tall fence," calling the structure "ugly and unnecessarily high."

Community Board 12 voted against the current design during its March general meeting, calling on the Landmarks committee "to require a substantial reduction of the safety railing height."

The DDc did not immediately return requests for comment.

According to Elizabeth Lorris Ritter, chair of the committee, desire for a tall fence possibly comes from what she calls an "urban legend" that the bridge was closed to the public during the 1960s, because of an incident where debris tossed from the bridge hurt a passenger on the Circle Line as it passed beneath.

Although at least one current CB12 member claims to recall such an incident, Ritter as well as several writers (including journalist Anne Schwartz, who wrote about the bridge in detail in 2007) say the story is a fabrication.

In addition to arguing the validity of such an argument for a fence, Ritter joined several preservationists in pointing to other recent bridge restorations where structures that stand even higher have lower fences protecting visitors – such as the Walkway over Hudson State Historic Park in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Both called on the new DDC plans to take into account requirements of the State’s Historic Preservation Office, which has jurisdiction over both bridges and approved the Poughkeepsie bridge.

"When it comes to human behavior there stands no reason that standards further up the river wouldn’t meet the same standards here," Ritter said of the city's oldest bridge, which was was built in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct that carried water from the Croton River in Upstate New York to supply water to the city.

Charlotte Fahn, a member of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, agrees with Ritter's assessment and added that even pedestrian bridges in Manhattan, such as the Gracie Terrace promenade, which arcs over the FDR Drive, features lower fencing.

"Bridges should have unimpeded views," she said. "If safety is an issue, the city knows that the more people you have on the bridge the safer it is. The great views will draw more people."

The Landmarks hearing to discuss the High Bridge renovation plan is scheduled to take place between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on April 5 at 1 Centre Street, 9th Floor.