After 10 years, Lake Street Bridge opens to pedestrians. What it means for downtown Elmira

Jeff Murray
Elmira Star-Gazette

Glance across Elmira's Lake Street Bridge and you might spot something nobody has seen in nearly 11 years — traffic.

It isn't cars and trucks crossing the Chemung River on the 61-year-old span -- it's pedestrians and bicycles, and city officials hope the reopened bridge will be another critical catalyst for a downtown Elmira renaissance.

The Lake Street Bridge, erected in 1960, was closed by the city in March 2011, citing safety concerns over damage to concrete that supported steel and rubber expansion joints.

It only took a few months for city officials to come up with the idea of preserving the bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use. But at the time, there was no money to fix it, and the barriers at each end of the structure remained in place.

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That changed in 2017, when New York state awarded Elmira $10 million through its Downtown Revitalization Initiative. 

City officials decided some of that money should go toward repairing the Lake Street Bridge.

"The total (restoration) cost was close to $4 million. We used DRI money and some other state transportation money," said Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell. "It was almost entirely state-funded. There was almost no local tax money."

A bicyclist crosses the newly reopened Lake Street Bridge in Elmira on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. The span, closed since 2011 due to structural issues, was restored to provide access across the Chemung River for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

The bridge quietly opened to foot and bicycle traffic earlier in December, and the city will probably hold an official grand opening and ribbon-cutting sometime in the spring, Mandell said.

The city has also had discussions with the Elmira Garden Club about placing planters on the bridge in the spring to brighten it up, he said.

The initial response to the reopened span has been positive, Mandell said. 

Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell

"A lot of people really love that bridge," he said. "A lot of people are beginning to use it. I'm sure, when the weather gets better, more people will use it."

Several other bridges connecting the North and Southside of Elmira, including the Walnut Street and Madison Avenue bridges, have undergone repairs in recent years.

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One of them, the Main Street Bridge, remains closed, even though work was supposed to wrap up this fall.

That project should conclude in the near future, Mandell said, though didn't provide an  exact reopening date.

During the planning process for the Lake Street Bridge transformation, city officials also compared notes with their counterparts in Corning, who went through a similar process with the old Centerway Bridge.

That span, built in 1921 to connect the city's North and Southside, was damaged in the 1972 flood and later closed to vehicle traffic. 

City officials wanted to tear it down, but after a community outcry, they decided to preserve it as a walking bridge. It was rehabilitated again in 2012 and has been a major asset for the city, according to Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of Corning's Gaffer District business association.

"The transformation of the Centerway Bridge to a park/pathway suspended over the (river) has been nothing short of spectacular," Fabrizi said. "It is a timeless treasure in our city, one that we are forever grateful to have been able to restore and celebrate its ability to connect our downtown and people's lives -- one stroll or snapshot at a time."

Mandell hopes the metamorphosis of the Lake Street Bridge into a pedestrian pathway will have a similar impact on downtown Elmira.

"It's very important. The bridge was eroding. There was always a danger it could crumble," he said. "Now that the structure is safe, it adds a lot. It's going to be a great asset to the community. People want to make downtown more walkable."

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