Last stand for the Alaskan Way Viaduct

As the process to replace or remove Seattle's elevated waterfront freeway grinds on, a last-ditch pitch is being made to keep it standing.
Crosscut archive image.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct elevated freeway in Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

As the process to replace or remove Seattle's elevated waterfront freeway grinds on, a last-ditch pitch is being made to keep it standing.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is creeping back onto the radar screen. It has been largely out of public view, a decision on what do about it put off until after the November election. The process is grinding forward. The state has settled on eight options, detailed last month, which will be vetted and winnowed this summer by a stakeholders group assembled by the Washington Department of Transportation.

Those alternatives include three surface options, two tunnel options, two elevated replacement options, and a lidded roadway in a pear tree. Seattleites have already rejected elevated and tunnel options in the infamous 2007 no-no vote, but those are back on the table with different variations, such as a mini-viaduct and one with a park on top.

One option not on the table is the retrofit — fixing and stabilizing existing structure. Enter controversial preservation activist Art Skolnik, who wants to have the current viaduct added to the National Register of Historic Places. A listing would not ensure that the viaduct would be preserved, but Skolnik wants to use the issue to force the retrofit back into the discussion.

Skonik also wants retrofit advocates to have a seat at the stakeholders table, and he's asked that the National Register process be revisited. Skonik, the city's first preservation officer, has been shaking the state and federal preservation bureaucracies to voice his objections to the fact that officials both stopped the original nomination and have shunted aside the retrofit, which he argues would save an historic structure, cost less than other options, and be finished sooner, thus being the best choice from a public safety standpoint.

A nomination for the National Register was prepared earlier this decade by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) as part of a group nominations of significant historic bridges in the state. The nomination was stymied, I've been told, by the city of Seattle, which didn't want the viaduct listed, and Portland, which didn't want a bridge over the Columbia River saved. It never went forward. The viaduct was, however, found to be eligible for the National Register, but to get on the list officially, someone would have to resubmit a new nomination from scratch. Skolnik says he will submit his own nomination of the viaduct to the state Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation on Friday, July 11. That's the first step in seeking National Register status.

It's also important to point out that when we're talking about the viaduct, we're not simply talking about the "riddle in the middle," the controversial downtown waterfront portion of the structure. And that's another reason Skolnik is pushing for a public airing of the retrofit's virtues and the viaduct's historical importance now.

This month, public comment and testimony are part of the review process of the environmental impact study of the the planned demolition and replacement of the southern section of the viaduct in SoDo up to Pioneer Square (South Holgate Street to South King Street). According to the state's own impact study issued in June, which has to take into account the project's negative impacts on historic "resources":

An adverse effect will occur with the demolition of the southern portion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which has been determined to be eligible for listing in the NRHP [National Register of Historic Places]. This demolition would compromise the structure's integrity of design, workmanship, and feeling, and may affect its eligibility for listing in the National Register."

In other words, the southern replacement could doom the rest of the viaduct in terms of the National Register. But Skolnik could use the project's public process to raise a stink about the shelving of the retrofit option, an option that would render the damage to heritage unnecessary.

Many in the preservation community believe this is a fool's errand — that the viaduct has to come down and that the process of fully documenting it as an historic structure — one of the benefits of National Register listing — is already under way. Since being on the register doesn't provide any real protection, why bother?

But Skolnik's argument is also about a preservation ethic — a conservation ethic — that suggests the best public policy isn't ripping down a large piece of historic infrastructure but working with what we have. Less glamorous, perhaps, but more fiscally and historically responsible. He also believes that the case for saving the structure has been short-circuited by opponents of the retrofit option. It's certainly true that between tunnel proponents and surface option fans, few people in officialdom at the state or city level have been championing a preservation of the structure.

A list of public meetings for viaduct stakeholders and to discuss the impact of the south end replacement project can be found here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.