Historic Chelan Bridge, built in 1927 and once the majestic gateway to the resort town, will be updated to a single lane of traffic with expanded pedestrian walks for the sake of safety.
CHELAN — With its cathedral-like concrete work and stately lamp posts, the old Chelan bridge remains a favorite way to enter or leave this lakeside city, even though it’s no longer the main arterial it once was.
But even rock-solid gateways into a city’s past need updating, and officials say the time has come.
“It comes down to pedestrian safety on the bridge,” Chelan Mayor Mike Cooney says. “Right now, the sidewalks are 4 feet wide. You get two parties coming toward each other on the same sidewalk and someone has to hug the railing or step into the street.”
Built in 1927 across the Chelan River at the foot of the lake, the narrow bridge was eventually overwhelmed by the growing number of vehicles that entered and exited Chelan daily. That problem was fixed in 1978, when the state Department of Transportation finished the bigger Dan Gordon Bridge, just upriver.
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Even so, the love affair with the old bridge remains strong. Warm-season visitors flock there for cellphone selfies. They linger along its narrow sidewalks and lean over its concrete railings for a look at the Chelan River and dam, or admire Lake Chelan framed by the North Cascades.
Vehicle traffic has to creep across with care to avoid crowd spillovers into the roadway.
City officials, with support from the Chelan-Douglas Transportation Council, have come up with a proposal to reduce the bridge to a single, one-way lane of vehicle traffic into town. The Dan Gordon Bridge will remain two-way, as will the streets leading up to the bridge at either end.
By eliminating the second, outbound lane, the old bridge can have wider sidewalks with room for both pedestrians and planters filled with seasonal color. It also would have a two-way bike lane.
The bridge’s historic aesthetics will remain the same, Cooney says, but crews would fix cracks, repair the old light fixtures and update the electric system. Repair work is needed underneath to replace missing chunks of concrete.
Cooney owns The Vogue, a bar and restaurant on Chelan’s Woodin Avenue. He admits that, at first, he hated the idea of “one-waying” the old bridge. He’s now a believer.
“We can’t maximize pedestrian friendliness and traffic. Something has to give,” he says. “I am absolutely convinced that one-waying of the bridge … will keep businesses strong, keep people coming into town. The pedestrian experience will be magnified like 100 times.”
The sidewalk on the bridge’s upriver side would double in width to 8 feet. The opposite sidewalk would be widened to 5 feet from its current 4-foot width.
The City Council last year approved $530,000 for bridge repairs. The Transportation Council has contributed a $270,000 grant for structural work. The mayor says that should be enough to cover upgrade costs.
The proposal won’t be a done deal, the mayor says, until the city hires a consultant to study the project’s impacts to traffic flow throughout the city, and the community has chances to express its opinion.
“People are right to be initially skeptical and ask hard questions,” says Jeff Wilkens, executive director of the Transportation Council. “We’ve looked at it and think it has a lot of merits.”
If the public approves and studies reveal no insurmountable obstacles, work would begin about this time next year, Cooney said.
“I don’t want to be mayor when some type of catastrophic thing happens on the bridge,” he said of its currently unsafe — but structurally sound — condition. “This is a fix. It’ll be a change. And that’s hard.”