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Monday, March 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sky bridges catching flak

Seattle Times staff reporter

No one said they were going to be pretty. But now that the Washington State Convention and Trade Center has built a pair of large sky bridges over Pike Street, critics of the project are saying this: I told you so.

The bridges are big. They block light. They obstruct views down one of Seattle's best-known streets. And worst of all, critics say, they further cut off Capitol Hill from downtown.

"It is a horrible thing to do to a city," said Clark Pickett, a neighborhood activist and convention-center opponent.

There is no denying that the walkways - each the size of a freeway overpass - are the most striking feature of the $195 million expansion project. And they will remain that way until crews start work on the similarly controversial 10-story-high glass canopy that will cover one of the bridges and nearly a block of Pike Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

But convention-center officials want people to withhold their judgment until work on the project is completed sometime next summer. Far from an eyesore, they promise the canopy and bridges will transform the dull convention-center entrance into a snazzy urban streetscape the city can boast about.

"Can you ever satisfy everyone in Seattle?" asked John Christison, convention-center president. "I don't think it's doable. But I hope this will be viewed as a positive for the city."

Officially, the city doesn't like sky bridges. A 1982 policy discourages developers from building them, although some have won approval in recent years, including one connecting Pacific Place to the new Nordstrom headquarters.

So how in the world did the convention center manage to erect two of the largest sky bridges in the city over Pike Street?

It wasn't easy. In fact, when the size of the bridges dawned on the City Council last year, the opposition of some members, led by Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata, threatened to derail the expansion project at the last moment.

But momentum is a powerful force in Seattle politics. In the five years leading up to the expansion, the city had committed $7.5 million in direct payments to the project and committed an additional $9.8 million in revenue from the Freeway Park garage in the next 20 years. The convention center had gone through years of design refinements and court battles to clear most of the opposition. The private developers were waiting to break ground on related projects, the 22-story One Convention Place office tower and the 450-room Elliott Hotel.

Convention-center officials argued the large bridges were integral to the project's design. Cut the size, or eliminate them all together, and the expansion simply wouldn't work.

The truck bridge needed to be 90 feet wide so that tractor-trailers could make the tight, right-angle turn from the current fourth-floor exhibition hall across the street to the loading docks for the new exhibition space. Suggestions of building a truck elevator or reconfiguring the existing exhibit hall to accommodate the trucks was rejected as too costly and impractical.

The need for the wide pedestrian bridge had less to do with mechanics than with perception. Convention-center officials wanted to create the sense of a seamless connection between the two exhibit halls and thought that required space enough to set up three rows of booths on the bridge.

Critics, however, didn't warm to the idea of covering such a wide swath of Pike Street for what they considered a bid to increase exhibit space. The sheer size of the two sky bridges led to the other controversial element of the new convention center - the galleria. Christison said the idea for the glass-and-steel canopy came out of discussion with the city's Design Review Commission, which wanted architects to come up with some way of disguising the slabs of concrete stretching over Pike Street.

The solution will rise 10 stories above the street at its highest point and cost $3.5 million. The impressive structure, which is almost certain to become a landmark in the retail district, has become the predominant image used by convention-center officials to tout the expansion.

The convention center and the city have also promised $680,000 to help mitigate the effect the bridges and canopy have on the Pike/Pine neighborhood through better lighting, parking and other projects.

To critics, however, the canopy promises to make a bad design worse. The chief complaints are that it will further restrict the views down Pike Street, will be difficult to keep clean and will do little to block the rain. Steinbrueck, who is an architect, suggests it will be the biggest pigeon roost in the city.

"I'm pretty much disgusted with the whole thing," he said.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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