A group of Seattle residents called Park My Viaduct is campaigning to convert the city’s waterfront freeway into a linear park, akin to New York’s High Line. They are proposing to save 14 blocks of the concrete double-decked structure, put the idea to a vote in the November 2015 election, and construct safety improvements at a cost of $250 million. But this idea is in opposition to the entire purpose of the ongoing waterfront reconstruction, which has already had a public participation process and is currently being built. The entire viaduct should be demolished as planned.
The campaign’s main point is that the view from the viaduct is spectacular. Unfortunately, the view of the viaduct from anywhere else is depressing. Its heavy gray columns and decking are an aesthetic burden on the heart of Seattle’s waterfront and a constant reminder of the car-centric planning that the city should be moving away from. Walking underneath feels oppressive, dark, and dangerous. It contributes nothing to urban livability, and that won’t change much even with well planned walkways and vegetation on top of it. There are equally stunning and accessible views of Puget Sound and the Olympics from many places along the waterfront, like Myrtle Edwards Park, the Olympic Sculpture Park, Colman Dock, and the many piers.
The planned waterfront parks include an artificial hillside leading up to Pike Place Market that will offer equally impressive sightseeing. Marshall Foster, Director of the Office of the Waterfront, explained that the Overlook Walk “…connects people and makes this critical connection from the market and Pike-Pine to the waterfront,” and “…gives you that great elevated view over Elliot Bay”. He said it is more cost effective to build a new well-designed structure for this purpose rather than preserving the old one, and that removing the viaduct is “…foundational to everything we’re doing right now”.
The seawall reconstruction, also a key part of the project, is on-track to be completed in mid-2016 and within budget. The City negotiated a win-win with waterfront businesses when it compensated them for closing during the nine months of construction, which Foster said is cheaper than maintaining access would have been. Pier owners are taking advantage of the closures do make significant repairs to their own structures.
Park My Viaduct is proposing that the viaduct’s lower level be demolished and the upper level be preserved for the park. This will reinforce the inhuman scale of the structure even more than the opposite, which might have made a little more sense. But that top deck is about 55 feet high, and it would need to be accessible to people of all ages and abilities from street level. That means huge ramps would be needed (770 feet long, by my calculations using ADA requirements) along with outdoor elevators and escalators that would be prone to mechanical failure in the city’s wet climate (as any transit tunnel user will know). Access could be achieved by building ramps on the uphill side of the viaduct to 1st Avenue, but they would create the same kind of imposing overhang that the current ramps do at Columbia and Seneca Streets.
The estimated cost is $250 million for seismic retrofits and building a five acre park, which would come to $50 million per acre. Compare that to my rough estimate to cap I-5 for $20 million per acre. And so far, the group has not proposed any funding source. However, the vote that the group is planning for November 2015 is probably a local improvement district (LID). A LID imposes an additional property tax on land owners in a small area to fund neighborhood projects, but only after a majority of owners vote to approve it. This would directly conflict with the City’s plans to fund half of the $420 million waterfront park with the same mechanism,
The planned LID would not be voted on until shortly before the parks and other improvements are built in 2017 or 2018. Foster told me that downtown property owners, through BOMA and the DSA, have already voiced general support for the LID but need more details. They want the new waterfront to make connections into the heart of downtown neighborhoods, and recently the Pike-Pine corridor was added to the scope of work.
The vote may also be for a citywide levy. Seattle has taxed itself for projects that don’t directly benefit all property owners before, such as the levy for the Pike Place Market renovations ($73 million). But residents may not be willing to pay for a lone park project when they just approved forming the Seattle Park District to generate permanent funding for creating and improving parks citywide. And a citywide levy would likely not be high enough to raise money in time. Starting in 2016 the Seattle Park District will levy a property tax of about $0.33 per $1,000 of assessed value, which will raise about $50 million per year. An identical levy for the viaduct park is probably higher than voters would be willing to go, but it would also take five years to accumulate enough funding. By that time the waterfront projects are supposed to be finished.
Another major point of the campaign is that similar elevated parks in New York and Paris have attracted large amounts of private redevelopment around them, contributing to tax revenue and neighborhood vitality. This is more likely to happen with implementation of the approved plan because waterfront businesses have been able to get involved and shape it to meet their needs. At 25 feet high and significantly narrower, the High Line is less than half the size of the viaduct and runs through an area that was mostly dilapidated industrial properties, so it’s not directly comparable. If Park My Viaduct was around earlier a case could have been made for keeping the lower deck of the three-quarter mile section south of King Street which was demolished in 2011; there the viaduct ran along the rear of the seaport beside railroad tracks and could have provided a scenic connection to the Duwamish River crossing.
Much of the land uses adjacent to the viaduct are parking lots and loading docks, and there’s little reason to think that would change because there’s a bike path five stories above. Foster said there have been recent changes to development regulations for the core area between Columbia and Union Streets that includes encouragement of more hotel and residential uses, screening of parking from the street, and no changes to height limits. He also said the City is putting together new urban design standards for properties facing Alaskan Way.
But the opportunity to voice their opinion and work the viaduct into the waterfront plan has mostly come and gone. Since 2011, Waterfront Seattle has hosted or attended some 300 events for community outreach and collecting public feedback. It is unreasonable for this minority to expect to be seriously acknowledged when the city is becoming invested in the current plan after such a long and thorough process. Preserving the viaduct would also interfere with a number of planned features, including the Railroad Way promenade, a new Marion Street pedestrian bridge, and the Overlook Walk. It would also directly prevent the Alaskan Way redesign from happening, though the size of that new street has its own problems.
The campaign didn’t exist until the viaduct’s replacement tunnel was delayed in December 2013. (The replacement tunnel is an entirely different boondoggle that other writers have covered well.) But the hastily-formed effort has already received funding from developer Martin Selig for a feasibility study. The engineers’ findings shouldn’t be surprising; the viaduct is a known hazard to life and property. The state transportation department’s regular inspections indicate the viaduct has been sinking since being damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. In the video above, a (very) dramatic simulation of a future earthquake shows how the viaduct could collapse without reinforcements.
Park My Viaduct’s legitimacy, limited as it is, would improve if they answered basic questions about their proposal; multiple inquiries and asking when their feasibility study will be released went unanswered. Their silence is reminiscent of the Griffith family, who built the waterfront Ferris wheel without public input and who are now attempting to quietly build a private gondola in public right-of-way. The gondola would be equally problematic and, ironically, hinges on the viaduct being demolished. Foster said because of many policies that are in place, such as Union Street being a protected view corridor, the City doesn’t see a path forward for the project.
This proposal is also the same kind of misguided activism that led voters in the last election to decline yet another effort for a citywide monorail system. And, not surprisingly, local activist Elizabeth Campbell has been involved with both. She’s on the campaign’s steering committee and led the monorail campaign so poorly that some of the people she listed as supporters were opposed to the project. The monorail vote failed by 62 points.
While new park space is needed downtown, putting it on top of a crumbling and inhuman-scale freeway structure that is slated for removal is the wrong way to do it. The waterfront plan has already been developed after a long period of public participation, and that should not be preempted by a haphazard proposal that threatens the viability of the entire project. The Alaskan Way viaduct must be demolished as planned and as soon as possible so that Seattle can move forward with transforming its waterfront into a world class public space.