Urban freeways continued: Seattle

Alaskan Way Viaduct

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is a three story barrier, separating Seattle from its historic waterfront.

Continuing the thread started yesterday on urban freeways and the CNU Teardown Survey, we have a guest blogger today. Cary Moon is the co-founder and director of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which is a grassroots group that formed a few years ago to support alternatives to the viaduct that result in a more livable Seattle.

The alternative proposal that the Coalition came up with was widely praised, winning 2nd prize in Metropolis Magazine’s 2005 Next Generation: Big Idea national design competition, and was featured on a PBS doc called Edens Lost and Found. Learn more at the People’s Waterfront Coalition, and nominate your urban freeway today. Enjoy – SGA.

Seattle’s new shore
By Cary Moon, People’s Waterfront Coalition

Like many waterfront cities, Seattle has lived with an elevated highway along the water’s edge for the past 50 years. Back in 1953, a mod new highway — Seattle’s first — probably made sense; the land was already trashed by abandoned rail lines, most of the decaying piers were headed toward industrial obsolescence, and the action was all in the suburbs. Over the decades, forward-thinking architects would periodically suggest the Alaskan Way Viaduct be torn down, but never got any traction.

Then, in 2001, an earthquake just strong enough to damage the viaduct struck. (But not strong enough to damage it beyond use.) The state highway department rallied, and set to designing a bigger highway, citing their usual justifications: The City is growing! We need to prepare for more cars! We must expand capacity! Because they were willing to hide the central 12 blocks underground in a tunnel, civic leaders thought this was a pretty good deal, and went for it.

However, there were fatal flaws from the get-go. Seattle watched nervously as Boston’s Big-Dig was wrapping up, the cost continuing to balloon far beyond the initial estimates. The proposed partially tunneled highway was estimated to cost $4 billion to $6 billion (depending on how you count), already well over the state budget allocation of $2.8 billion. Other funding was scarce.

While the tunnel lid covered up what people would rather not look at for 12 blocks, the structure elsewhere would be 2- 3 times the size of the current highway. Progressive transportation gurus in other cities were tearing down highways; why was Seattle still stuck in the 50s mindset? Then there was Seattle’s much vaunted commitment to reducing global warming pollution; could environmental leaders really be that blind to the chasm between expanding highways and reducing emissions?

In 2004, a group of citizen activists and design / planning professionals formed the People’s Waterfront Coalition to fight the new highway. After participating as individuals in the early days of the WS-DOT sponsored planning process, we quickly realized the State was ignoring 30 years of innovation in urban transportation planning and most of Seattle’s civic and environmental goals in their unwavering intention to build a bigger highway. Our organization, populist and grassroots, was formed to build awareness and support for a more sustainable, progressive, urban transportation solution. Seattle has a tradition of great ideas coming from outside the system through citizen-based advocacy. We saw this as the most viable model for action.

Armed with a vision for what a reclaimed waterfront could look like, a broad proposal for how traffic could still flow without the highway, case studies of teardown success stories elsewhere, and a long list of community and economic benefits, we started making the pitch wherever we could. In those days, we were generally dismissed as naïve, advised not to bother fighting the highway department, and encouraged to please shut up.

In 2005, the Congress for the New Urbanism and Center for Neighborhood Technology found us, and promptly turbo-charged our effort with coaching and creative resources. John Norquist of CNU and Scott Bernstein of CNT spoke with local elected leaders, presented their teardown success stories at local forums, and even funded the brainiacs at Smart Mobility to disassemble the dubious logic in the highway department’s technical work.

As more flaws were revealed with the highway proposals, more leaders started considering our solution as a potential Plan B. In March of 2007, a stubborn political standoff between the City (pushing for the more expensive partial tunnel) and State (pushing for the slightly cheaper but awfully ugly elevated) culminated in a public vote. The result: No and Hell No. “There will be no highway on our central waterfront,” Mayor Greg Nickels declared.

Post-viaduct Seattle

Tearing down the Viaduct could help reconnect the city to the waterfront, also helping the city meet their ambitious greenspace goals.

In these past 10 months since the vote, the political logjam has broken free. The project goals were broadened, focusing on local mobility and accessibility instead of highway capacity. City, County and State agencies are working together instead of at cross-purposes; the state highway department is listening to local interests. Fantastic consultants are now on the job, led by Nelson Nygaard and Glatting Jackson, national leaders in urban transportation systems.

Local civic and environmental groups have joined together to keep leaders on track. Mayor Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Governor Chris Gregoire all understand that meeting their goals of reducing global warming emissions means reducing car trips by providing better alternatives. The new planning work underway now will identify a solution within about 6-8 months, and it’s pretty clear that it will not be a new highway. We anticipate some mix of transit expansion, demand management, pricing and policy changes, street connectivity improvements, smart traffic management, freight priority routes, and a regular urban street on the waterfront.

State highway departments still seem organized around perpetuating the 1950s suburban dream: more highways, more sprawl, more car-dependent development, more cars, more highways — and on and on. Seattle’s future vision moved away from that dream, but state bureaucracies and their funding streams have not yet.

Every teardown success story finds its own mix of active ingredients. Our group and our early allies pushed on a lot of levers till we found the ones that connected. Pointing out the high cost and risk of urban megaprojects — and the looming specter of the Big Dig overruns — worked. Offering a plausible transportation alternative, even if only broad-brush, addressed the incredulity of removing capacity. Showing multiple diverse successful case studies of teardowns convinced people the highway department’s predictions of chaos and gridlock might be wildly wrong.

Our cool renderings of a highway free shore trumped whatever images the highway department could produce. And our particular ace in the hole was this: to reconstruct a highway, the viaduct would have to be taken out of commission for 3-7 years anyway, during which time Seattleites would surely have figured out how to get by without. So why, exactly, do we need to replace it? That always made steam come out their ears.

Transportation investments should serve the City’s future vision, not drive it.

Seattle aspires to be a livable and sustainable city, so it needs a well-connected and efficient street grid, great transit, biking facilities, and compact walkable neighborhoods. If Seattle can get the highway department to support this local vision, it could prove that a tipping point is upon us, and the age of highway expansion is closing. We’ll keep you posted.

Cary Moon is the director of the People’s Waterfront Coalition. She has a BS in engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture and Certificate in Urban Design from the University of Pennsylvania. PHOTOS courtesy of  the People’s Waterfront Coalition

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