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Urban Ruins: Does Seattle need a High Line?

The monorail is a working relic of the city's past. Maybe it's time to remake the ruin.

At a luncheon this week for the Urban Land Institute's local sponsors, guest speaker — and Seattle restaurateur — Tom Douglas toyed with the idea of abandoning the Seattle monorail. The move, he explained, would save the cost of future maintenance and repair, and (even better) the monorail track could be replaced with a walkable, elevated green space in the spirit of the High Line, New York City’s much-touted elevated railway-turned-park. In the Tom Douglas version restaurants would, of course, line the old tracks — perhaps, even in the abandoned monorail cars themselves.

It was great to see such a vaunted entrepreneur join the ranks of urbanophiles out to remake ruins — in this case, a ruin that does not yet exist, and on such a grand and provocative scale. But our interest in this subject does not need celebrity validation, and the vision need not be as grand as Douglas’s.

An abandoned cable car bridge in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood holds the same promise of reinvention as New York’s High Line. So does the long-abandoned University of Washington entrance along Pacific Avenue (below) under the Burke-Gilman Trail (itself an abandoned rail segment). Both show the same spirit and form: we used this before, let's use it again. Crosscut's Knute Berger echoed the idea when he wrote recently about the pending demise of the Arboretum's "ramps to nowhere."

The abandoned UW entrance at Pacuific Avenue
In The Necessity of Ruins (1980), landscape essayist J.B. Jackson explained that such leftover structures often inspire us "to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty." I've often written of Jackson's advocacy for the use (or re-use) of ruins, not for what we now call “urban exploration" of abandoned places, but to reclaim something that worked before.

I'm not sure I would advocate Tom Douglas's monorail approach — creating a ruin prematurely. But with Jackson in mind, I often look for walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented places which are reminiscent of times gone by. As the Seattle examples above make clear, such places are already of a piece with the evolving city around us — remnants of earlier land uses and infrastructure that are eerily similar to what transit and walkability advocates call for today. These leftovers merge with our changing lifestyles, and illustrate firsthand Jackson's reasons for championing accessible, nostalgic vestiges of an urban past.

The Leschi cable car bridge is an example of how the Seattle of 2012 overlays the city of 1930. As the use of automobiles increased, infrastructure, such as the former cable car bridge, became obsolete and went out of service. In 1940, the cable car line was abandoned and replaced by a bus line.

These images of Frink Park (a portion of the 1903 Olmsted park plan), are consistent with today's urbanist ideals, and show the juxtaposition of the bridge, bicyclist and pedestrian. On the old track-bed, a piece of the park now continues and becomes a trail through the hillside woods above. For comparison's sake, here's a vintage photo of Frink Park (circa 1910).

How would Jackson interpret the cable car remains? Have they been lost to time, or are they an example of the inspirational reminder Jackson describes?

I choose the Jackson view.

Nearby, today's light rail is assuming the former role of the cable car. The Sound Transit tracks proceed northward, as the build out of the region's light rail system continues. In the next decade, light rail will turn east as well, and cross Lake Washington, not far south of the cable car's former terminus — a dock for a long discontinued trans-lake ferry.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 23, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Is the monorail underutilized?

Posted Thu, May 23, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Wouldn't the viaduct provide a readymade canvas for a High Line-like repurposing of an old elevated structure? Particularly since the architect for the waterfront project is James Corner Field Operations, the firm responsible for the High Line itself.

UncleZeb

Posted Thu, May 23, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

http://katemartinformayor.com/2013/05/09/the-viaduct-park/

Posted Thu, May 23, 7:24 p.m. Inappropriate

The monorail is a tourist attraction, and stays. It doesn't get turned into a park for winos and druggies, and no, it doesn't get to be expanded either.

The viaduct should be completely rebuilt and the bore tunnel dig that exists should be turned into a low-line park. Whoever wants to go there, can.

Think of the massive savings.

Posted Mon, May 27, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Turn the bore tunnel into a tent city style homeless shelter.

NotFan

Posted Tue, May 28, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Good one. A new version of the movie CHUD, cannibis homeless under dwellers.

Posted Thu, May 23, 10:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I love Tom, but the Monorail is forever. Now the viaduct, that is ripe for re-purposing. http://katemartinformayor.com/2013/05/09/the-viaduct-park/

Posted Mon, May 27, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Kate Martin, aren't you the mayoral candidate who wants to force every car owner to spend $100 for a bus pass? Did you not notice that Seattle voters rejected a $60 car tab increase? Would you please explain why you and other "progressives" have so much contempt for the people of the city you want to lead?

p.s.: The viaduct should never have been replaced to begin with. It should've been repaired. But the "progressives" could never consider an $800 million repair when they could get the state to spend $4 billion on a tunnel that will carry one-third less traffic and require payment of a $4 toll. The "progressives" of Seattle truly hate this city and the people who live here.

NotFan

Posted Wed, May 29, 10:08 p.m. Inappropriate

The "progressives" in Seattle did not want to replace the viaduct with a tunnel. They wanted to replace the viaduct with improvements to I-5, surface streets and transit. This was one of the two plans that a focus group came up with after meeting (over several months) to determine how best to deal with the aging viaduct. The group had members of various interests, occupations and ideologies (including "progressives", "moderates", "conservatives", etc.). They basically settled on two alternatives: The street improvements I mentioned or repairing the viaduct. The group considered but rejected the tunnel because of the high cost and risk involved.

When the mayor saw that repairing the viaduct was going to be fairly expensive, he rammed through the tunnel idea. In his view, building the tunnel would not be that much more than fixing the viaduct -- to be fair, fixing it was wasn't going to be cheap, since the damage was such that it couldn't simply be repaired -- much of it needed to be replaced (this part is often misunderstood). However, the progressive newspaper "The Stranger" was up in arms. It basically wanted to get rid of the mayor. They were successful, and we elected a more progressive candidate. At the same time, a progressive named Mike McGinn, who was on the panel, decided to run (successfully) for city council. He was (justifiably) upset that the panel's recommendation was essentially ignored. Pick one of the two plans; but don't just ignore the work of a group because you think you can get the state to pick up the tab.

So, just to recap: The voters in Seattle voted against a tunnel in a non-binding resolution; they elected a more progressive candidate who opposed the tunnel; they elected another city council member because of his work on a committee that decided that a tunnel was a poor choice; the progressive paper "The Stranger" opposed the tunnel. In short, progressives, or "progressives" do not support the tunnel. They think it is a big waste of money. That is the truth, but if you would rather hang onto your paranoid delusion based on your last sentence, go ahead.

RossB

Posted Fri, May 24, 12:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Sacrificing one the most successful north/south arterials in the region for a congested tunnel/park with half its capacity and none of its access will be wistfully remembered as one of the dumbest transportation projects in our history.

jmrolls

Posted Fri, May 24, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

There's still the possibility that the Viaduct can be turned into a pedestrian park connecting Seattle Center with the Market and the Sports Stadiums. Open air on top an covered at the 2nd level the only thing missing is a direct link to the State Ferries. Ad its already built. The views from such a Boardwalk would make Seattle the envy of the world.

chapala21

Posted Fri, May 24, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

And just how would one keep the drunks, the druggies, and the homeless from taking over this new dream-park just like they have in every other park in downtown Seattle?

Is the goal to create as many acres of public parks as possible to spread out all the so-called 'undesireables' so they are not as frightening to our tourists?

Posted Mon, May 27, 8:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey, just wait until the combination of exorbitant parking rates, lack of law enforcement, the insane replacement of the viaduct with the tunnel, and the deliberate fostering of traffic congestion, causes Nordstrom's to vacate Seattle for greener pastures in Bellevue.

The other high-end stores downtown will leave with them, at which point we'll be presented with a $1 billion levy proposal for "downtown revitalization," complete with a homeless shelter and needle exchange on the newly "re-purposed" Seattle Highline.

When Seattle's downtown collapses, the thud will be heard for many miles. The real irony is that the new light rail boondoggle will wind up being used by Seattle shoppers who want to go to the friendlier territory in the emerging downtown Bellevue.

It'll be fascinating to see what excuses the "progressives" of the mid-2020s offer for the smoldering social ruin that will be downtown Seattle.

NotFan

Posted Fri, May 24, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

The Monorail structure provides a perfect walking path from the Seattle Center to Westlake mall and downtown Seattle central business district. All that is needed is a see through awning that arches from the Monorail supports over to the sidewalk on the west side of 5th Avenue. Seattle's very own Barcelona style Ramblas would be created. The Monorail Walk could be populated with carts and kiosks and other urban furniture. Connecting these two major public spaces would be relatively inexpensive since the Monorail supports already exist. Vacating the one lane of traffic closest to the sidewalk to through traffic still offers the option of creating truck load zone for local delivery's. As a test of the ideas worthiness a summer test program could be put in place without the awning. This idea is more like NYC 42nd redo than the Highline but with the same result. Animating an under used pedestrian corridor.

chapala21

Posted Mon, May 27, 8:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Yep, it's always about reducing traffic lanes for the "progressives" around here. Maybe that's why your favorite mayor has a 22% support level for re-election? One way or another, I predict the 2013 election here will be known as the time the drivers battled back.

NotFan

Posted Fri, May 24, 7:38 a.m. Inappropriate

If you converted the Monorail to something even approaching the Paris Promenade, you would definitely be moving in the right direction. What a great park that would be and very romantic. Now if you could only convince the landowners underneath the elevated line to spruce up their land.

Posted Fri, May 24, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Good that Chuck Wolfe does not endorse the Tom Douglas musing.

As my chart shows down the page at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/Linkpassengercount.htm the monorail carries more riders in a summer month than the two Sound Transit commuter trains combined.

I visited Manhattan last summer, walked the High Line from one end to the other, and found it cute, boring, and overrated.

As I say to anybody who wants to Manhattanize Seattle, if you like that East Coast island so much, why don't you move there? I'm talking to you "Seattle Subway."

As for re-purposing the Viaduct, don't count future chickens that are not yet even incubating in eggs, not until Bertha gets by Pioneer Square.

jniles

Posted Fri, May 24, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

The truth is that I have been interested in these "personal high lines" for as long as I can remember. The monorail version is one of many--and just a variant on a universal theme.

Posted Fri, May 24, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

"join the ranks of urbanophiles out to remake ruins — in this case, a ruin that does not yet exist, and on such a grand and provocative scale. "

In that spirit, I nominate Sound Transit's elevated tracks.

afreeman

Posted Fri, May 24, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with those that see the monorail as serving the essential tourist function of efficiently transporting hordes of visitors from downtown to Seattle Center and back. But I liked the article and the conversation that it stimulated about the creative re-use of obsolescent structures. As one who in the past has ripped Wolfe for his pompous prose and fatuous intellectual overreaching, I wish to compliment him on a focused, readable effort on a discrete and relevant question.

woofer

Posted Fri, May 24, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

The 5th Ave double-track monorail divides traffic lanes poorly; bad for traffic, bicyclists, pedestrians. Single-track monorail systems impose lower visual & physical impact, stations are simpler to locate. Converting the historic monorail and the derelict AWV into elevated pathways ignores the need to improve street-level pedestrian environs.

The single-track "Circulator Monorail" proposed since 2000 is a 6-mile loop between a Mercer Garage station and a sports arena district station atop Exposition Hall. From a KOMO Station as proposed on the Greenline, a 1-mile loop circled the Center and located 4 stations. In the other direction, one line of the 5-mile loop ran the length of 4th Ave, the other line to SR99 and along the Waterfront.

Five monorail cars ran every 5 minutes on a 15 minute loop with 12 stations (4 Seattle Center stations, KOMO, Belltown, Pike Place, Coleman Dock, Arena station, King station, Central Library and Westlake Plaza), all major destinations with high travel demand. This monorail system produced twice the ridership of the Greenline at 1/3 the cost and is still blacklisted in Seattle.

Psuedo-progressive Seattlers will entertain any idiotic idea. Planning department directors and ruthless conservative business interests delight in bursting their childish pretensions. Seattle is the most corrupt city on the West Coast. Its over-educated denizens become hapless dupes. James Corner Fields is a "star-chitect" poser whose cookie-cutter designs for the waterfront and Belltown are preposterous. The waterfront beach idea, it turns out, is NOT good for migrating salmonids. Clensing the Elliott Bay toilet is low on Seattle's corporate priority list.

Wells

Posted Mon, May 27, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmmm. New York, huh? When I saw "High Line" in the headline for this piece, I thought it was a reference to the old brick-paved highway between Tacoma and Seattle, the surviving pieces of which are now mostly called Military Road (and which is the namesake for Highline Community College in Des Moines).


But as far as the monorail goes, the proposal is ludicrous. It carries two million passengers a year, the same as the Seattle-Bremerton ferry run. In what possible way is such a conveyance obsolete? Why would anyone wish to make it a ruin? What sort of veiled hatred is at work here?

The western world's other major urban monorail, the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, has been in successful operation since 1901. It doesn't seem to be destined for the scrap heap anytime soon. Get real. The monorail is as much a part of Seattle as the Space Needle and the Pike Place market. To propose its destruction just to build some kind of me-too New Yorkish aerial promenade would be laughable if it wasn't such an insult to Northwest heritage.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, May 27, 8:07 p.m. Inappropriate

The downtown elevated train track was the big reason I not only voted against the monorail, but donated a big slug of money to the campaign that finally killed it. Every now and then, as if by chance, common sense wins in Seattle. Those moments, such as when we crushed the monorail, are to be cherished.

The monorail track ruined 5th Avenue by turning it into a dark tunnel friendly to nothing, just as it would've ruined the rest of the streets if another one had been built. The "progressive" backers were mesmerized by a nostalgic mid-century modernism, just as the current supporters of light rail are entertaining their Victorian "steam punk" fantasies at public expense.

All of this would be amusing if there wasn't real money at stake, and if the rest of the city wasn't falling apart. As for a "high line," my answer would be "No." Seattle already has more parks than it can afford to maintain. Remember, this is a city that had shown time and time again that it can do nothing other than neglect its parks and other infrastructure. Not only that, but removing the monstrosity would immeasurably improve Fifth Avenue.

NotFan

Posted Thu, May 30, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I like the suggestion for using Sound Transit's elevated tracks as a highline. The whole of the light rail disaster would be better used as a park.

DavidACox

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