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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Removal of Historic Overpass Allows for Future Work

A construction crew works to dismantle Boulevard Park’s pedestrian overpass on Nov. 21. // Photo by Noah Harper

By Noah Harper

A swift hush fell over the crowd of onlookers as a towering crane began to hoist the Boulevard overpass off its supports and gently lower it to the ground below. The silence was broken by a wave of applause. After a long day of work, the overpass was finally laid to rest.

On Thursday, Nov. 21, the Bellingham Parks Department, alongside a contracted construction crew, removed the Boulevard pedestrian overpass that once provided the only route of access to the lower area of the park. The overpass has been out of service since 2016 after being declared unsafe for pedestrians, but still holds nostalgia to some residents of Bellingham.

“I’ve been up and down [the overpass] many times,” Bellingham resident John Graber said. 

The overpass used to provide much needed access to the park for concerts where attendees would park on the boulevard and walk down via the overpass instead of taking a longer route, Graber said.

Though the overpass was built in 1979, it still holds a memory of the past even for those who were in Bellingham before it was built.

“It’s a memory of being a young, young girl coming here to go to college,” Bellingham resident Carole Hanaway, who graduated Western in 1968, said. “It’s just another goodbye to a landmark and you don’t like losing landmarks.” 

The removal of the overpass marks the beginning of the end for a long and expensive parks project, said Project Engineer Gina Austin.

“The overpass removal is part of a bigger project,” Austin said. “The wood overpass was built around 1979, and it supports all of the utilities that go into the park. It’s an aging structure and it was discovered that it was damaged pretty severely by just weather in the elements in 2016. So when we took a look at it, we realized that it was beyond repair. The bigger part of the project is to take all of the utilities off of that structure.”

The project started in late April and was expected to be done by September, according to a post on the City of Bellingham’s website. The first part of the project, before the overpass could be dismantled, was removing the utilities and installing new ones underground. Removing the overpass itself was the last step.

“The project is now nearly complete,” Austin said. “All the utilities have been online, going up, Bayview Drive for a little while now. Now they’re just finishing, just dismantling the wood and getting it so that they’re in a position where they’re not at a certain height that things could fall on the railroad. Once that structure’s gone, our project is complete. Removing the overpass was the last part of it.”

Removing the overpass was not a task that could be completed in one day. Crews arrived the day before to set up the large crane that would inevitably lift the bridge off the supports. Coordination with the rest of the city to guaranteed a smooth operation with yellow tape blocking off pedestrians and car detours from the removal site.

“We’ve had several months of planning, permits and safety briefings with engineers and designers to figure out how we could safely brace that structure, pick it up, move it, set it down, and then dismantle it and then also coordinate with the railroad,” Austin said.

With this project ending, the Parks Department is ready to begin further repairs and upgrades to Boulevard Park, starting with the bathrooms.

“We are going to also look at maybe adding restrooms to Boulevard Park because those restrooms that were on the north end of the park are out of service for a lot of different reasons,” Austin said. ”We’re going to look at maybe consolidating and remodeling the restrooms near Woods Coffee, just to serve the public better.”

Another planned future project is replacing contaminated soil from an old coal gasification plant that used to be located in the upper area of the park by State Street.

“The size of [the coal plant] was like a mini version of the gasworks park in Seattle and had the same process where they burned coal to power homes in Bellingham. The remnants of that plant are still there,” Austin said. 

The byproduct of the coal gasification plant is contamination to the soil and groundwater in the area, Austin said. Because of this, the area is listed as a state cleanup site meaning the city, the state and the polluter will work together to investigate the site and then determine the best way to clean the area

“That work is going to go through a public process with the state’s Department of Ecology. It could include capping that contamination, bringing in clean soils and creating physical separation between people and contamination. It’s probably going to also include removal of a tank,” Austin said.

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