It seems to me that good design would be a cure for controversy.
One problem with our process of building public infrastructure is that the builders get to critique their own work (in environmental impact statements), and they also get to define the scope and assumptions about alternatives, even ones they oppose.
Don't want to retrofit the Alaskan Way Viaduct or build a replacement? Proffer alternatives designed to offend the sensibilities of anyone: big, clunky, oafish. I'm half-convinced that the main attraction of the deep-bore tunnel is that we're sure that any other option will bring out our worst aesthetically. The fact is, beautiful viaducts and bridges are being built around the world. The same could be done here if we wanted. But knowing the state's and city's failures in the past, burying the problem looks like a solution, no matter the cost.
A classic example of such a screw-up was I-5 through downtown. Activists protested the concrete "ditch" dividing the city and slashing across First Hill. They pleaded for a lid, at least. They were ignored, but they were right. To make up for the damage, movers like Jim Ellis wanted to mitigate the problem by building Freeway Park and the Convention Center over I-5, which has proved ineffective at bridging the divide. Also costly. One estimate is that for the cost of Freeway Park alone the corridor could have been lidded at the time of construction. Instead of paying now, we paid later at higher cost, for much less benefit.
Even with the deep-bore tunnel, there are problems. One is the Seattle design commission's response to the South Portal proposal, which plops a big dose of view-blocking suburban freeway chic right where you want it least. The Washington State Department of Transportation has been asked to go back to the drawing board, but it makes you wonder: Would we want any kind of surface option from the guys designing this? It's as if WSDOT can hold us hostage with their lack of elegance, finesse, art, common sense. Sure, highways need to be practical and resilient, but do they really need to be so ugly?
Another concern is in Montlake with WSDOT's 520 expansion plans. While they're planning to tear down a viaduct on the waterfront, they're also scheming to build an expanded one through Portage Bay: wide, tall, plugging more traffic into I-5. A while ago, I talked to a state official who had viewed WSDOT's plans and referred to their scale as "Third Reich architecture." Artist's renderings aren't reassuring.
One thing neighbors are worried about (and I am one) is the height of the new floating bridge across the lake. WSDOT wanted a height of 30 feet, and has since said they'd try to scale that down, but made no promises. There will be some 70 pontoons (more than double the current number) and according to the WSDOT project website, they are 28 feet high, 10 feet higher than the current ones. Gov. Christine Gregoire has literally vetoed any height limits on the bridge.
But imagine a 30-foot or higher structure across the lake at double the current width: It's the Great Wall of Lake Washington that makes the existing bridge seem like a modest ribbon of necessity. The design process is ongoing, but why would anything like that even be proposed, let alone, to "replace" a bridge project that mitigated the fact that it should not have been built where it was by at least having a graceful, modern, and minimalist profile?
One of the hallmarks of Northwest modernism was deference to the natural environment. The first two Lake Washington floating bridges reflected that; the third (today's I-90 bridge, a replacement of an earlier version) is a pig, and the new 520 is a pig on steroids, especially given its context (the lake, Arboretum, Union Bay, etc.). Is one of the reasons there has been so much opposition on the Seattle side WSDOT's overreach? The piling on of mitigations and functions (sound barriers, tunnels, lids, overpasses, rail) have turned what should be a highway safety project into a how-do-we-finance-this-hog example of environmental and aesthetic thuggery?
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