Camino Real Bridge here to stay

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By An­gel Streeter Staff writer

If the draw­bridge in Boca Ra­ton were any other bridge, it prob­a­bly would be de­mol­ished by now, re­placed by a shiny, new, modern span.

But the Camino Real Bridge — also known as the Boca Club Bridge and the Clarence H. Geist Me­mo­rial Bridge — is not just any bridge. It’s his­toric, among the old­est in Palm Beach County.

But its age, along with its de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tion, was work­ing against its sur­vival. Built in 1939, the bridge over the In­tra­coastal Wa­ter­way next to the Boca Ra­ton Re­sort & Club is 72 years old, and Palm Beach County en­gi­neers were plan­ning to re­place it as it neared its 75-year life span.

That’s un­til they found out that the

Camino Real Bridge is el­i­gi­ble to be listed on the National Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

Now, the county in­stead is plan­ning to spend more than $6 mil­lion for ma­jor re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in 2013.

“We had no idea there was any­thing his­tor­i­cal on it,” said Ome­lio Fer­nan­dez, county road­way pro­duc­tion di­rec­tor. “We had a num­ber of things we were look­ing at. With its age and the cy­cle of re­pairs that would be re­quired, we looked at re­plac­ing it in the next few years.”

A list­ing on the county Registry of His­toric Places should have been a hint.

Back in 1997, the Boca Ra­ton His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety asked the county’s His­toric Preser­va­tion Re­view Board to put it on the county registry and to cre­ate a Camino Real His­toric District, from Dixie High­way to State Road A1A.

The area is a cor­ner­stone of Boca Ra­ton’s de­vel­op­ment. As part of his de­vel­op­ment plans for Boca Ra­ton, ar­chi­tect Ad­di­son Mizner en­vi­sioned a grand boule­vard, Camino Real, as a cen­ter­piece of the city. He also en­vi­sioned an elab­o­rate Vene­tian bridge over the In­tra­coastal.

But Mizner’s com­pany went bank­rupt be­fore re­al­iz­ing his plans.

Geist, a de­vel­oper, took over as lead­ing de­vel­oper of Boca Ra­ton. Geist com­pleted the road and put in a tem­po­rary swing bridge. In 1938, shortly af­ter he died, con­struc­tion be­gan on a per­ma­nent bridge by the fed­eral Pub­lic Works Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Com­pleted in 1939, the bridge was named af­ter Geist.

“It has some sig­nif­i­cance,” said Mary Csar, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Boca Ra­ton His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. “It’s such a pretty bridge. It’s such a nice thing to have.”

Still, that didn’t pre­vent it from mak­ing the county’s list of bridges that should be re­placed.

The Camino Real Bridge is in very poor shape. Its de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tion led the county to lower its max­i­mum al­low­able weight from 36 tons to 30 tons.

A $1.7 mil­lion mi­nor ren­o­va­tion in 2007 did noth­ing to sub­stan­tially im­prove the struc­ture.

By fed­eral high­way stan­dards, the bridge, which has been clas­si­fied as struc­turally de­fi­cient, is a prime can­di­date for re­place­ment. By com­par­i­son, the South­ern Boule­vard bridge in West Palm Beach has higher rat­ings than Camino Real, and the state is re­plac­ing that bridge in 2015.

But his­tory has saved the Camino Real.

As part of an en­gi­neer­ing study to de­ter­mine what to do with the bridge, a cul­tural sur­vey was done of the area.

The sur­vey found the Camino Real district was a po­ten­tial can­di­date for the National Reg­is­ter, based on its as­so­ci­a­tion with Florida’s land-boom de­vel­op­ment in the 1920s and its as­so­ci­a­tion with Mizner and Geist.

It also found the Boca Club Bridge, while part of the district, could be a can­di­date on its own for the National Reg­is­ter.

It stands out be­cause it’s a rare piece of bridge en­gi­neer­ing. The Camino Real Bridge is a dou­ble-leaf, rolling lift bridge. The su­per­struc­ture lifts up and rolls away from the chan­nel as the bridge opens, al­low­ing the whole width of the chan­nel to be clear.

Only nine such bridges are left in Florida, and six are his­tor­i­cal. One is the Fla­gler Bridge in West Palm Beach, built in 1938. The state is re­plac­ing it now.

The cul­tural sur­vey done on Camino Real was sent to the Florida Divi­sion of His­tor­i­cal Re­sources, and a re­view there ruled that the bridge and the Camino Real district were of­fi­cially el­i­gi­ble to be listed on the National Reg­is­ter.

The state’s his­toric preser­va­tion of­fi­cer said re­plac­ing the bridge was pretty much out of the ques­tion.

“If we want to re­place it, then we must show there’s no po­ten­tial to re­ha­bil­i­tate it,” Fer­nan­dez said. “It has to be a pub­lic haz­ard.”

While re­plac­ing a bridge is more ex­pen­sive than re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, con­tin­ued main­te­nance and re­pairs to and old bridge over time could eat up those short­term sav­ings.

Typ­i­cally, the county does a cost com­par­i­son to de­ter­mine the best op­tion. In this case, that was point­less since the bridge can’t be re­placed.

The county is de­ter­min­ing how much re­pair the bridge needs, and is work- ing closely with the state His­toric Preser­va­tion Of­fice.

“We’re think­ing [the re­pairs] will give it 10 years be­fore we have to re­ha­bil­i­tate it again,” Fer­nan­dez said.

RE­BEKAH MON­SON/STAFF

The county is plan­ning to spend more than $6 mil­lion for ma­jor re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the his­toric Camino Real Bridge in Boca Ra­ton.

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