Preservation often involves recycling the purpose of a structure: Change its use but keep the original design — or adaptive reuse, to get clinical about it.
One of the most successful repurposing projects is New York City’s High Line Park, a greenway built on top of a mile of abandoned railroad tracks. It’s a metro attraction year-round that turned a not-so-pretty stretch of elevated tracks into a lush, open place to walk, attend a concert or just chill.
A similar plan for the old Seven Mile Bridge just south of Marathon in the Middle Keys is now in the works, and it’s a great idea.
Originally built as part of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad between Key Largo and Key West in the early 1900s, the bridge was considered a major engineering feat at the time. It was replaced with a new span in the early 1980s.
But it never lost its appeal to locals and visitors alike. The remaining 2.2-mile span is a great place to take a stroll, exercise, watch a spectacular Keys sunset or drop a fishing line.
But as it has deteriorated, the Florida Department of Transportation has been considering closing the 100-year-old span to public access for safety and budget reasons.
No more. Thanks to dedicated officials from FDOT, Monroe County and the city of Marathon working together throughout the fall, a plan is being hammered out to turn the bridge into a park, similar in concept to the High Line.
A little over $77 million has been designated by FDOT, the county and the city for repairs and to cover 30 years of maintenance. FDOT will foot $57 million of the bill over the next three decades and retain ownership of the bridge. Monroe County will contribute $14.2 million and Marathon $5.3 million.
A preservation group called Friends of Old Seven plans a fund-raising campaign for private donors to help pay for beautification on the bridge and nearby areas.
One of those neighbors is Pigeon Key, an island where Flagler’s railroad workers stayed. There are several typical Keys cottages on the tiny, picturesque island, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The island, located under the old bridge is open to visitors and can be reached by foot or bicycle from a bridge ramp and also by ferry.
It’s a charming Keys historical attraction that happens to be powered by very 21st-century technology: solar panels. Converting the bridge into a park will be a boost for the island’s staunch supporters and fans.
And Marathon hopes to gain from the linear, elevated park as well. City boosters believe that it will draw overnight visitors who, these days, just stop for gas or drive straight through to Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key and Key West in the Lower Keys.
A lot of credit should be doled out to the folks from FDOT, Monroe County and Marathon.
Early last fall it looked like the bridge would eventually be closed to the public as salt water and other elements continued to eat at it and the price tag for repairs kept rising.
But wiser thinking prevailed, and the Middle Keys and its future visitors will be the beneficiaries of that thinking. Mr. Flagler would be pleased, for sure.