Highway clunkers: the state's design ideas

Seattle's livability has been based on progress with restraint. It's questionable whether our two current mega-projects, the waterfront tunnel and a new Highway 520 bridge, embody either.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire says that tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct without building a tunnel would be a form of social engineering.

Seattle's livability has been based on progress with restraint. It's questionable whether our two current mega-projects, the waterfront tunnel and a new Highway 520 bridge, embody either.

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?

Things could be worse, of course. And it's worth looking back to see what might have been. For Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, it's time to turn back the dial on the freeway era. It's also true that Seattle has already fended off a level of state-boosted freeway fanaticism, resistance that has benefited us enormously. Fifty years ago, there were supposed to be four bridges across Lake Washington by now. There was supposed to be a bridge across Puget Sound, too. There was supposed to be a new north-south freeway through the Cascade foothills. Seattle was supposed to be encircled by a network of expressways and interchanges, like R.H. Thomson and the Bay Freeway. The full 1962 vision built out was conventional wisdom in its time, yet would have been appalling in reality. Our livability has been a product of progress with restraint.

Design is an issue we've long struggled with. And things have changed. People wonder why, for example, the Viaduct was built along the waterfront: what were we thinking? But the waterfront of the 1950s was largely man made, industrial, packed with wharves and railroads, not tourists. It had the charm of a Harbor Island. A highway through there? No problem. Plus it was the modern thing to do: Every city worth the name had elevated highways, why not New York Alki?

Indeed, there was a frontier, working-class pride in turning our backs to the waterfront. My favorite street-level example is the bar at The Athenian in the Pike Place Market where drinkers have their backs to one of the best views of Elliott Bay. But the attitude showed up in other ways. Back in the early 1960s, University of Washington urban planning professor Myer Wolfe complained that Seattle kept ignoring and trashing its unique environment. The Pacific Science Center, he pointed out, turned its back on Puget Sound and the Olympics. Our major civic structures were too generic. Seattle, he said, had "Omaha Syndrome," putting up buildings that might as well have been built in Nebraska. "Seattle's beauty was here before man came and consciously built ugliness and ruined scenery."

Since then, we've matured some in trying to bring the built environment into harmony with the scenery, and the environment, though we're a long way from making that work. But there is still too much tolerance for overbuilding, trying to hit grand slams with projects that tackle too much. Personally, I'd rather see less ambition in terms of scale and complexity and more high quality small ball.

In some ways, the worst case for the tunnel is that, I suspect, it's an expensive effort to hide a lack of faith in our ability to create surface solutions that enhance urban life. The appeal of the surface option is its idealism in enforcing realism: that we would make it work with creative solutions and changed behaviors. But that would take a kind of commitment and approach that is not the norm.

Yet imagining a WSDOT-impelled surface solution, rebuild, or retrofit is scary to contemplate, given the lousy designs put forward for even the Seattle projects they're enthusiastic about. Having the city stay in the process at all levels (council, mayor, SDOT) is absolutely essential to finding something workable, which might have to include cutting brutalism down to size and not biting off more behemoths than we can chew, let alone pay for.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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