PEDESTRIAN BRIDGE: Devil’s in the details

There is no doubt that wide agreement exists on the positive effects a pedestrian bridge would have for Biddeford and Saco. Connecting the two communities in the heart of the mill district is a great idea whose time has come. Since the first day that the idea was floated, we have supported it. However, as with all complex undertakings, the devil is in the details. We are quickly approaching a point at which the finer details of this complicated project must be ironed out – and there are more stakeholders than meet the eye, certainly more than were referenced in local press coverage recently. (CLICK LINKS for Sun Chronicle article, for Journal Tribune article, and for Press Herald article.)

In one recent article, a public official said the bridge would enhance property values on both sides of the river, but “if the developer doesn’t think it’s an asset, they don’t have to do it.” Very true. That comment, however, possibly calculated to downplay the Cities' interest in the project, leaves the false impression that building a new pedestrian bridge benefits only Saco Island and Doug Sanford’s project, the Pepperell Mill Campus (PMC.) Quite frankly, it also seems to imply that Saco Island is looking a gift horse in the mouth, and that’s not the case. 

The comment ignores one of the chief drivers in the quest to build the bridge: the significant value to both downtown Biddeford and downtown Saco, as outlined in "Biddeford-Saco plan path to prosperity," a Press Herald article that appeared in March, in which several public officials in both Biddeford and Saco sang the praises of building a new pedestrian bridge to foster economic development.

The fact is that along with Mr. Sanford, we already have a bridge across the Saco River. If Mr. Sanford were amenable, that bridge could easily be converted to a pedestrian bridge. One that we could cooperatively control and maintain, privately, to make sure that its use does not negatively affect the hundreds of residential and commercial tenants who are in close proximity. One that would not require us to spend several hundred thousand dollars in property upgrades that building a new bridge would impose on Saco Island. That's right. Our own pedestrian bridge would cost Saco Island a lot less than agreeing to a new one.

Just to be clear, we love what the Cities have proposed. We strongly support the idea of a pedestrian bridge spanning the Saco River and connecting Saco Island with the PMC. But if the two Cities “want in,” and want to use money from the Maine Department of Transportation to form a public/private partnership and build a new bridge, then collectively we first have to build a two-way street and address all of the issues that this laudable project may inadvertently create. We also have to ensure that the plan puts public safety first.

It comes down to this: We own land they want to use. The Cities want a bridge design and location that best serves their master plans for development in the entire downtown district, not just our portion of it. The figurative two-way street necessary to make this all happen would give the Cities the access, walkability and connectivity they envision, while protecting PMC, Saco Island, and the hundreds of people who live and work in close proximity to the bridge from unreasonable exposure to liability and mischievous activity.

Stay tuned. Talks are imminent. Somewhere in the middle, hopefully, a compromise is possible that properly addresses safety and liability concerns that our bank and insurance company, to their credit, have raised.