At the foot of University Street, a hundred feet from where downtown Seattle ends at the sea, stands one of those tourist gateway signs...

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At the foot of University Street, a hundred feet from where downtown Seattle ends at the sea, stands one of those tourist gateway signs:

“THE WATERFRONT, SEATTLE,” says foot-high gold lettering. If ever something needed an identifying label, it is our city’s downtown shore.

You can’t see water from this gateway sign. Right behind the sign is a concrete double-decker freeway.

If you look up high, you might see seagulls, suggestive of water. But you can’t hear them. The only sound is the crashing surf of cars and trucks coursing along the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

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Even looking past the pillars, you’re out of luck. There is a mostly unbroken wall of tourist restaurants, gift shops, hot-dog stands.

“Maybe they built the viaduct so they could see over all this crap along the waterfront,” suggests my companion.

We are walking the length of Seattle’s most infamous — and celebrated — highway. In recent months it has been dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 by the mayor (who channeled Ronald Reagan to declare “Tear down this wall!”)

And it’s been glorified as an only-in-Seattle jewel — a magic carpet ride whisking commuters betwixt the splendor of Puget Sound and the parapets of the Emerald City.

It’s less than two miles long. And let me tell you: Traversing it on foot is far less glamorous than from behind the wheel.

There’s the smell of dried urine, the mustiness of crumbling cement. Water drips down. It’s a gloomy promenade through a concussive, concrete terrarium.

We start at the viaduct’s north end. The goal: In advance of a March 13 citywide vote, we’re in search of answers for what do with the area.

My hiking partner is Michael Stusser, a writer from West Seattle. He suggested the trek as a way to cast aside the politics and spin.

We’re not engineers, he says, but that job has been punted to us. Might as well see, up close, what we amateurs are deciding.

Stusser starts by declaring his love for the viaduct. Just like everyone else in West Seattle, he says.

After someone offers to sell us drugs near the day-worker site at the mouth of the Battery Street tunnel, we set off.

A half-mile later, we are both hoarse. It’s that loud under there.

The first third is a no-man’s land, sloping down a dirt-covered alley between condos and the Pike Place Market. Under any plan this will remain an elevated roadway.

We meet a guy who lives in an adjacent building. He says his back wall is 18 inches thick, with no windows, to damp down the noise.

Next comes what all the hubbub is about — the flat double-decker stretch from Pike Street to Main. That’s seven-tenths of a mile. Only ten blocks.

It’s here where a tunnel would begin. It’s also here where tunnel backers wax poetic about reconnecting the city with its natural heritage.

Standing under there, I sort of get it. The roadway itself has a brutal, utilitarian beauty. But the effect on its surroundings is bleak. What could be among the finest ten blocks of real estate in America is instead filled with garages, storage warehouses, defunct restaurants.

Yet the most surprising sensation of the walk is what’s out there to the west. Namely, a tacky stretch of gift shops, food stalls and curio stands, all mounted on angled piers that seem designed to obstruct any visual connection whatsoever to the water or mountains.

In these ten blocks, there are only three spots where a pedestrian can catch even a glimpse of water behind that wall of commerce.

“Our waterfront is hell even without the viaduct,” Stusser shouts.

“What?” I shout back.

I holler an interview with Nathan Liljenstolpe, 37, who works three days a week in a 4-by-6 parking-lot booth underneath the looming roadway.

He says stuff drops from the upper decks all the time — plywood, sheets of plastic, garbage. After a long day, his ears ring a bit. Yet he’s probably going to vote for a new elevated.

“More than anything, we just need our roads,” he says.

Yes, I suppose we do. But more than ever I wonder why that road can’t be a lovely surface boulevard.

There’s plenty of room for it. Where the viaduct is now you could build a four-lane, tree-lined road, like Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. There’s also room for streetcars or dedicated bus lanes. And you’d have 30 or 40 feet left for a mile-long park.

Yes, cars would have to stop at a few stoplights. Some traffic and parking would have to go elsewhere. But we’re talking ten blocks. We could keep the expressway from the stadium district south.

Would it really be a catastrophe if this city declared that for ten blocks in the heart of downtown we are going to cater to something other than cars? You’d still be able to drive through. Just not at magic-carpet-ride speeds or heights.

Of course, that option is not on the ballot.

We keep walking. We pace off how mammoth a new viaduct would be — twice as wide in some places. Even viaduct-lover Stusser decides he can’t stomach such a monstrosity.

“I want them to fix the viaduct we already have,” he says. “I support the ‘brace and pray’ option.”

That’s not on the ballot, either.

We trudge the last half-mile, between the stadiums and the container docks. There’s no waterfront to “open up” here.

Where the highway touches down, near Royal Brougham, it does double duty as a lean-to shelter for rows of snoozing homeless.

It turns out the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg traveled much this same route back when the viaduct opened in the mid-’50s. Here was his take on our waterfront then, from the poem “Afternoon Seattle:”

“… the city rots

the fire escapes hang and rust

the brick turns black

dust falls

uncollected garbage heaps the wall

the birds invade with their cries

the skid row alley creeps

downtown the ancient jailhouse groans

bums snore under the pavement … “

It goes on, but you get the idea. Not much has changed in half a century.

Do we want to change it? That’s what this vote is about. The tunnel would do it, but the tunnel feels like a boondoggle. The elevated would be worse than what we’ve got now. For another half-century.

Walking the viaduct made up my mind. I’m voting no on both. Surely we can do better for our waterfront than this.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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