From a post-Great Fire Beaux Arts Civic Center to 1950s-era underwater traffic tubes, Seattle’s past is filled with schemes that never materialized.
IMAGINE THAT SEATTLE’S history is not a flat mirror revealing the city as it is, but a disco ball with hundreds of reflective facets. Each one shows a Seattle that might have been or that might exist in some alternate dimension, where our alternate selves zip about in jet packs or get stuck in alternate traffic even worse than what we know.
Gaze into one facet, and you see nothing between downtown and the Ship Canal but asphalt and concrete; what used to be Queen Anne Hill has been sluiced away, filling much of Lake Union. Highways are everywhere. One runs up the Rainier and Madison valleys and under Union Bay to the city’s northeast edge. Others cut through Interbay and Ballard, from West Seattle to the Duwamish industrial belt, from Matthews Beach to Carkeek Park. Pike Place Market and most of Pioneer Square’s historic buildings have given way to high-rise offices, apartments and hotels. Not for nothing does Seattle tout itself as “the Houston of the West,” a city that dares to forget the past and look to the future.
Look at another facet, and you see another possible Seattle: a city of tree-lined boulevards and urban forests that even boasts a downtown salmon stream. Downtown has not one but two verdant central parks, one nestled between department stores at Westlake and Pine, the other running all the way to Lake Union. Underground lies a fully developed subway system, whose construction began more than 100 years ago. So comprehensive and convenient is this system that hardly anyone misses the interstate highway that was supposed to slice through the middle of the city but was routed around Lake Washington instead.
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HOWEVER IMPROBABLE some of these projects might sound, all (except perhaps the Queen Anne regrade, which seems to have been only rumored, never attempted) were seriously proposed by architects, engineers, officials or civic commissions. They and many more proposals can — and, in those alternate universes, may — be mixed, matched, sliced and diced in endless combinations.
Every city is a hybrid of plans and projects that rose, sank and jostled to be completed. But Seattle seems to have been especially fertile ground for diverse visions, since the days when its founders argued over whether its street grid should follow the cardinal directions or the shoreline’s changing contour. Failing to agree, they platted their land grants each as he preferred, producing today’s colliding grids.
Seattle also has been a town that dares to think big and dream beyond its means. In 1853, a few die-hards hung on at Alki Point, the newcomers’ initial settlement site, after their comrades decamped across Elliott Bay. As every Seattle schoolchild learns, they audaciously named their would-be village New York Alki — Alki meaning “someday” in Chinook jargon. That prediction seems less outlandish now.
For all their grandiose proclamations, the pioneers did not leave behind grand unbuilt schemes; there was too much to be built then and there. But the more streets and tracks get laid and buildings erected, the more possibilities open up. Each project spawns potential future projects. And so it was that Unbuilt Seattle’s golden age began when Built Seattle reached critical mass, in the first decades of the 20th century.
A FORETASTE CAME in 1889, as the city was rebuilt in stone and brick after fire had leveled its wooden downtown. Local boosters brought the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan out to propose what would have been Seattle’s grandest musical venue and, by the standards of the day, its first skyscraper: an opera house with a massive 12-story tower at Second Avenue and University Street. The project fizzled when the British bank financing it went bust, but in 1998, the Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall opened at the same site.
That’s far from the last time a later project has uncannily reprised an unbuilt ghost from the past. In 1906, R.H. Thomson, the city engineer and regrader-in-chief, made the earliest known pitch for a Seattle subway system. Its main line would run under — you guessed it — Third Avenue, site of the 1990 transit tunnel that is now the heart of the Link light-rail scheme. The next year, the Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company, which operated the streetcar system, offered a more fleshed-out subway plan, to cost $1.3 million. Like today’s line, it included deep elevator shafts to stations under Capitol Hill.
In 1910, Seattle was flush from the Gold Rush; swollen with immigrants and land annexations; and infused with City Beautiful ideology, which extolled parks, boulevards and civic monuments as agents of uplift and social harmony. Seeking a makeover, it asked the eminent civil engineer and City Beautiful stalwart Virgil Bogue to design a plan.
Scorning New York’s “unnecessary” and “disfiguring” skyscrapers, Bogue turned to Europe for inspiration. He proposed overlaying Seattle’s rectangular street grid with leafy radial boulevards, converging on a Beaux Arts Civic Center at Fourth and Blanchard. Central Avenue, the grandest, would run to a similarly imposing central train station on Lake Union, capitalizing on the regrading of Denny Hill. Ninety miles of urban rail, 33 of them underground, would assure mobility. Scenic boulevards would bear motorists to Mount Rainier and Stampede Pass and, atop the Puget Sound bluff, to Tacoma. A Lake Washington tunnel would connect downtown, Capitol Hill, Madison Park and Bellevue. Mercer Island would become a park four times as large as Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
It was all splendid and altogether too much for wary voters. Downtown property owners feared development would migrate north (as it has, anyway). Queen Anne residents seem to have feared their hill would be flattened, just as Denny Hill and the Jackson Street ridge had been. Bogue’s Plan of Seattle crashed at the polls in 1912.
More subway proposals rose in 1920 and 1926 but, like every mass-transit idea until the 1990s, got swatted away as too costly. In 1918, the Universal Elevated Railway Company — formed by a bold Sedro-Woolley pharmacist and Capitol Hill garage manager — proposed a demonstration monorail line downtown, with a terminal at Fourth and Westlake close by today’s monorail station. They hoped the city, which was on the verge of buying the struggling private streetcar lines, would buy their patented technology instead. Their arguments for elevated-over-surface transit foretold those the “Rise Above It All” monorail campaign would deploy 80 years later. But their funding fell far short of their ambition, and with the world at war, 1918 was no time to seek financing.
Still, the transit dream beckoned. In 1939, a University of Washington student won an essay contest sponsored by the Municipal League with a rousing argument for a subway system. Even then, however, the transit dream was starting to fade. The Great Depression and ensuing World War sucked up any funds that might have gone to subways. The city dumped even its money-losing streetcar network. Rapid transit looked like roadkill, as Seattleites and everyone else took to their cars.
Highway, bridge and tunnel proposals multiplied like traffic jams. In 1950, the Washington State Bridge Authority proposed underwater traffic “tubes” from Alki and West Point to Bainbridge, a floating bridge to Vashon Island and a suspension bridge from Vashon to the Kitsap Peninsula. State transportation engineers proposed extending what’s now called Martin Luther King Jr. Way to run past Capitol Hill, under Union Bay, and on to Lake City and beyond — and naming the resulting R.H. Thomson Expressway after the doughty city engineer who reshaped the city in the early 20th century.
Foresight revived briefly in 1956, when the Seattle Transit Commission urged the State Highway Commission to include rail right of way in its plans for the freeway that would become known (and cursed) as Interstate 5. But the state deemed that provision too expensive — at $15 million ($136 million in today’s dollars) — chump change next to what a rail route would cost today.
Seattle voters showed similar disdain. In 1968, an ambitious package of bond measures — a latter-day Bogue Plan — appeared on King County ballots under the banner Forward Thrust. Voters approved Forward Thrust’s parks, arterial roadways, sewage, fire protection, aquarium, sports stadium and youth service center. But they nixed its capstone measure, $385 million for a rapid transit system, to be matched 2-to-1 with federal funds. Two years later, Forward Thrust’s backers offered a new transit measure boosted by nearly $900 million from Washington, D.C. It would have funded 500 miles of bus routes and 49 miles of rail. But Boeing-busted voters were in no mood to spend, however the feds sweetened the deal. Round 2 failed by an even wider margin.
THE ISRAELI DIPLOMAT Abba Eban probably never visited Seattle, but he could have been talking about us when he lamented those who “never lose a chance of missing an opportunity.” Still, some missed opportunities look, in retrospect, more like bullets dodged.
At the dawn of the Shopping Mall Age, Pike Place Market was an object of celebration and nostalgia — outside Seattle, anyway. As early as 1952, national magazines lauded its “joyful, busy discordance” and “wonderland of food, services and curios” as “the real symbol of the Northwest.”
But a wonderland is without honor in its own country. Post-World’s Fair Seattle was on a dynamism high, juiced by the urban-renewal ideology of the mid-1960s. Boosters turned their sights on the raucous, rundown, “blighted” and “inefficient” Market. In 1963, the City Council adopted a plan commissioned from New York’s Donald Monson to revive the fading downtown — to compete with suburban shopping malls by effectively turning downtown into a suburban-style shopping mall.
Connectors between I-5 and Highway 99 would form an outer-ring road around downtown, sparing motorists its congested streets. An inner-ring road would provide access to big parking garages at the business district’s four corners. One would obliterate the heart of the historic Pioneer Square District. Another would displace the “makeshift” Market; its shops and produce stands would be folded into a high-rise Pike Plaza project capitalizing on the spectacular harbor views. The Central Association, precursor to today’s Downtown Seattle Association and Pike Plaza’s most eager cheerleader, calculated that it would yield 11 times the tax revenues of the old Market.
But a new ethos of historic preservation, fueled by the Save the Market citizens’ movement and the spectacle of “urban removal” boondoggles elsewhere, put the kibosh on most of the Monson plan and its successors. Public resistance also killed the Bay Freeway, which would have run from Lake Union to the downtown waterfront, and the R.H. Thomson Expressway, leaving the notorious “ramps to nowhere” hanging over Montlake.
OUTSIDE THE Pike and Pioneer Square historic districts, however, the New York Alki dream, AKA Virgil Bogue’s skyscraper nightmare, has become reality. And the dreams that have gotten away have tended to be unfulfilled exercises in unbuilding and regreening.
For years, the dreamers’ target was the Westlake junction, the two-block pie slice where diagonal Westlake Avenue terminated between three (now two) department stores. Activists wanted a central park. Business interests wanted commercial development and feared the sort of parkgoers who had brought City Hall Park the sobriquet “Muscatel Meadows.” An upstart TV commentator named Charles Royer won the 1977 mayoral race by championing the park. But commerce eventually trumped open space, and Westlake got a shopping mall and abbreviated (though popular) plaza.
In 1978, Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger proposed reversing the regrade to “rebuild Denny Hill.” The idea sounded whimsical, but in 2006, an architect named Jerry Garcia proposed a serious slimmed-down version: a 60-foot hill planted with native trees in flat, unloved Denny Park. In 1975, an ex-city engineer named Emmett Wahlman pitched an even more improbable quasi-natural enhancement: a salmon stream running from Capitol Hill along Pike Street and Westlake Avenue to Lake Union. Westlake Mall’s patrons would watch the fish ascend a glass viaduct overhead.
These charming ideas made scarcely a ripple. But in 1991, Hinterberger and architect Fred Bassetti proposed a regreening project that rocked city politics and came painfully close to being realized.
Their Seattle Commons, a 61-acre greensward running from Westlake to Lake Union, would have fulfilled both Bogue’s vision (sans Beaux Arts monuments) and the craving for a central park. It also would have anchored high-rise, high-tech development along its margins. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen lent the Commons campaign $25 million to buy land, to be forgiven if voters approved another $111 million. But a populist backlash scourged the scheme for displacing small businesses and making homeowners pay for developer-friendly downtown amenities; it failed twice at the polls. Allen’s Vulcan Development took over the land and set about building the South Lake Union/Amazonia we know today. We lost the park and got the development, anyway.
As the Commons dust settled, an equally contentious megaproject arose: a monorail line from Ballard to West Seattle, with a northeast-to-southeast line to follow. Conceived by a taxi driver and spearheaded by a poet, the Elevated Transportation Company had populist bona fides and a technology suiting Seattle’s terrain. Voters approved it four times. But mismanagement, a skewed cost debate and withering resistance from the civic establishment dragged it down, and it died on a fifth vote.
Ponder the enormous levy bill, long build-out and community impacts of the light-rail system we’ve actually gotten, and you might wonder what it would be like to “rise above it all,” as the monorail campaign promised. In the same way, urban dreamers have long pined (many of them in the pages of The Seattle Times) for the supposedly gridlock-free Seattle that Forward Thrust 2 or the Bogue Plan would have brought us, if only they had been adopted.
But those trains, like so many others in Seattle’s tangled history of dreams and schemes, will never leave the station. At least in this universe. Unless … Sometimes there are second acts in urban design, just when we least expect them. It took us 109 years, but we finally got a temple of music at Second and University.