Let's save part of the viaduct and turn it into a car-free promenade in the sky, where people can continue to savor what drivers have always known is magical about the viaduct: that feeling of being suspended in a rooftop corridor of brick and glass and ferries and water. It's among the most exhilarating urban...
Now that contracts have been signed to dig a tunnel under Seattle, it’s starting to dawn on people that the double-decker highway fouling the city’s waterfront may finally, for real, be coming down.
The lead designers for remaking the area once the 60-foot-tall concrete edifice is gone have been hired and are hard at work. They have scheduled a preview look at what they think of the mile-long site, and its possibilities as a park, this week.
So it seems timely for me to throw out this call: Save the viaduct!
I don’t mean save the whole thing. Obviously the only reason we’re about to take on the big risks to bore a tunnel is because of the decades-long quest to transform downtown by getting rid of the noisy, neighborhood-destroying viaduct.
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I mean save just a short stretch of it. And turn it into an elevated park. A car-free promenade in the sky, where people can continue to savor what drivers have always known is magical about the viaduct: that feeling of being suspended in a rooftop corridor of brick and glass and ferries and water.
It’s among the most exhilarating urban views anywhere. Won’t we miss it when it’s gone?
I had this pang for the viaduct only a week ago, when I was thousands of miles from Seattle, in New York City. That city just converted a rusted old elevated train trestle into a 30-feet-wide, 20-blocks-long park, called the High Line.
Walking on it, three stories above the New York streets, made me wonder what we could do with a carless viaduct. On the High Line you feel like a chimney sweep, skipping above the city. But at the same time you’re in a park — with benches, trees, grass, art, and, best of all, quiet. Right there in Chelsea and Greenwich Village.
The High Line drew 2 million visitors in its first year. It doesn’t even have much in the way of views. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a park promenade on Seattle’s viaduct, looking out over the Sound, would be one of the biggest attractions in the city’s history.
“Can you imagine what it would be like on an August night?”
That’s Bob Donegan, CEO of Ivar’s. He’s on the citizens’ committee overseeing the design of a viaduct-less waterfront. He said he likes the idea — in theory, anyway. But there isn’t much talk about reclaiming any part of the viaduct. People seem set to just get rid of the damn thing.
Converting a section into park “would be one way of solving the biggest complaint of people in West Seattle and Magnolia, who love those viaduct views,” Donegan said.
Recently a group of landscape architecture students at University of Washington proposed saving another part, at the Seneca Street offramp, for use as a slim park and viewing platform. It also hasn’t escaped notice that the lead designer hired for Seattle’s waterfront project, James Corner Field Operations, designed New York’s High Line.
Vlad Oustimovitch, an architect and planner who sits on the waterfront design committee, says he supports saving part of the viaduct.
“Everyone for decades wanted to get rid of the Berlin Wall, too,” he says. “But today, the sections they kept are some of the most popular spots in Berlin.”
The campaign to get rid of the highway, while understandable, has gone on so long that what’s unique about it has been forgotten.
“When you’re on it, you get a sense of topography of the city that you don’t get anywhere else,” Oustimovitch says. “It has a feel to it almost like you get when you’re up in the mountains.”
Of course there are problems. One, the current plan is to put a new Alaskan Way surface street in most of the current viaduct’s footprint. Two, the viaduct is supposedly about to fall down.
“I can just hear the engineers starting to freak out,” said Charley Royer, co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee and former mayor, when I called him to pitch my “save the viaduct” schemes.
So here’s a way — maybe — around these concerns. Save the section of viaduct that runs directly behind Pike Place Market — starting at Lenora Street, for example, then extending about five blocks south, to Union Street. For much of this stretch the northbound and southbound lanes sit side by side, not stacked, so we could tear down one, keep the other and still have room down below for the surface street.
This section is the least vulnerable to earthquake, so it would take the least expense to reinforce (Donegan said maybe as little as $10 million, based on section-by-section estimates he’d seen previously). It also is crammed against the Market and a hillside, so it is not an obtrusive view-blocker like the rest of the roadway.
Picture this: You step off the back of Pike Place Market, onto a 30-foot-wide elevated promenade. It has a boardwalk, trees and benches where you can take in the Olympics. You walk south, sloping gently down, toward Mt. Rainier. After a few blocks you stair-step down — to a lower level park promenade for a block or two. Then, another stair-step down to the ground. Where you join the north end of a new, nearly mile-long waterfront park.
Anyone worried this elevated park would have dead zones underneath should check out the High Line. Now that the grime and the noise of the trains are gone, New York’s old trestle is home to beer gardens and fashion shops. It’s so popular, developers and architects compete to build as close to it as possible (in some cases, wrapping around it).
City leaders have bemoaned for decades that there’s no good route from the Market to the waterfront. The way has been blocked, physically and psychologically, by the roaring viaduct.
Wouldn’t it be a beautiful turn if the obstacle itself became the way?
Seattle both hates and loves its viaduct. We seem set to act only on the hate part, by tearing it all down.
Why not honor the love part, too?
Oustimovitch, the architect, said he walked on the viaduct a year ago, on a day when it was closed to traffic. He had so associated the structure with the crush and noise of a freeway that when the cars weren’t there, he was surprised how differently he saw it.
“To erase it totally from the waterfront would be a shame,” he said.
My modest proposal to the designers and powers-that-be is this: Close the viaduct to traffic for one day, in, say, July. Announce you’re holding a citywide charrette. Maybe put up temporary gardens right on the road deck, as they did last year on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Let the people have the viaduct for a day, to walk on, sit on, promenade about. They can envision for themselves what one of the grittiest parts of the city might be like, reborn as a park in the sky.
If we then decide to go ahead with the wrecking ball, at least we’ll have said goodbye.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.