Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
Dutiful Servant, Brutal Barrier: The Viaduct at a crossroads
My first view of Seattle was from the back seat of the family Ford, rumbling northward on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. For a 14-year-old, the view from the top deck was a midsummer's dream — on the left, white ferries and the sawtooth Olympic Mountains set against an impossibly blue Puget Sound, on the right that handsome, pre-skyscraper cityscape, with the Smith Tower glowing orange in the late afternoon sun.
That was in 1962, the summer of the World's Fair. And that is when I decided I would live here. Forty years later, every journey along that concrete esplanade reminds me that I made a good decision.
It also reminds me why the viaduct has got to go.
After 30 years of civic debate over the relative benefits and risks of the elevated viaduct, that conclusion is fast becoming conventional wisdom. Last year's Nisqually Earthquake shook its dubious footings, closing it to traffic while makeshift repairs were made. Had the quake been a bit closer, or more violent, it would have been worse.
"There are at least a couple of ways it can fail in a heavier quake," says Tom Madden, project engineer with the state Department of Transportation. He stands beneath the viaduct, pointing up into its suspect underpinnings, seeing things I don't.
"Maybe it's not an emergency," he says. "But you might say we're in an emphatic hurry. We have an opportunity to learn from other people's mistakes, and to do this right."
The opportunity goes beyond that. If Seattle gets its act together, replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct could be the project that reconnects Seattle with its waterfront and links urban landmarks from Safeco Field and Pioneer Square to Pike Place Market, Seattle Center and even South Lake Union.
With this in mind, a team of state and city engineers has begun examining the alternatives — a new elevated freeway, a covered trench, a deep tunnel or, most likely, some combination of the above.
But taxpayers are liable to be wary. There is no official estimate of the costs, but think billions. Replacing the viaduct is likely to be the most costly project in Seattle history, more than the I-90 bridge, the Convention Center, both sports stadiums — combined!
Boston's notorious "Big Dig," which set out to replace a similar, 1950s, elevated freeway, has turned into a fiasco with a price tag of $14 billion — and counting. And Seattle's recent record of building big projects is dubious. This is the city that built a domed stadium, then blew it up because it didn't have enough bathrooms. This is the city that has already spent $1 billion on a mass-transit system that has yet to begin construction.
To make matters worse, the tax revolt leaves city leaders scratching for some way to pay the tab in the midst of a local and national recession — and a continuing tax revolt. Even as they study ways to replace it, these leaders have no certainty they will get the $30 million or so they need for preliminary planning.
It looks like there will be no way around the dreaded "T" word — "tolls." That's how recent freeways in Southern California have been financed. But officials here find it nearly impossible to even mouth the word.
All this to replace a venerable highway that may be drop-dead ugly but still carries 110,000 cars and trucks a day through the guts of the city.
THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT dates to those heady years after World War II, when Seattle was riding one of its periodic booms. Thousands of engineers and skilled workers had migrated here to build Boeing bombers and warships. Wages were good, and the quality of life was even better.
But all those people created hopeless traffic jams in a city where water closes in on two sides and virtually every road of consequence converged on downtown Seattle. The jobs were in the South End while a lot of folks were seeking housing in the north. There was no I-5, and Aurora Avenue, the closest thing to a north-south highway, stopped at Denny Way. Commuters had to make their way along Fourth Avenue, the bottleneck in Seattle's hourglass. Something had to be done.
So engineers went to work, looking for some way to get traffic not to but through downtown. They looked at turning Sixth Avenue into a highway, but ultimately, in 1948, rejected that idea in favor of an elevated highway — the region's first "freeway" — right along the waterfront, connecting with Alaskan Way on the south and with a new tunnel under Broad Street, which in turn connected with Aurora.
From the outset, planners considered the aesthetics of the project. City Engineer R.W. Finke promised that the structure would "achieve good architectural lines without any sacrifice in economy." However, he warned the City Council, "it is not beautiful. The requirements of rigid economy have dictated a slenderness of line that is not in harmony with the overall proportions."
Which was City Hall's way of saying: Well, it will create a concrete wall along the waterfront — but it's worth it. The waterfront was dying anyway, as shipping moved south to Harbor Island, which could handle the huge vessels and cranes needed for containerized cargo.
"I am very strongly of the opinion that the structure will not depreciate the appearance of Alaskan Way and the waterfront," Finke persisted. "On the contrary, I am sure that it will improve it."
And so the viaduct was built — 8,070 lineal feet of concrete roadway, two levels, 24,000 cubic yards of concrete reinforced by 10,000 tons of steel. It was a project only an engineer could love — a brutalist barricade, 60 feet tall, that blocked views and broadcast traffic noise for blocks around.
From an engineering standpoint, the viaduct was impressive — big, solid, efficient and, at less than $4 million, a bargain. When it opened in 1952, it was heralded as a civic asset, a "motorists' dream," and a tourist attraction on a par with Mount Rainier and the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. Soon it was carrying an average of 50,000 cars a day past downtown Seattle.
But the engineers blew it on two counts. First, they built on landfill — dirt from the various "regrades" that sought to flatten downtown streets. To make matters worse, the dirt is contained by a makeshift seawall of logs and concrete slabs, some of which dated as far back as 1905. That works fine under normal conditions, but in an earthquake, there is a risk of liquefaction — hard ground turning to mud. Finke's pitch to the Council never mentioned that.
It was to be only the first crucial piece of a web of concrete that would crisscross the city. Interstate 5 came along in the early '60s, closely following that Sixth Avenue route Finke had studied 20 years earlier. Plans called for yet another north-south freeway, the R.H. Thomson, that would slice along the ridge overlooking Lake Washington, plus east-west freeways to link them all into a regional grid. Planners even had the foresight to build elaborate concrete interchanges that would save the taxpayers money later.
And then came the revolution. Perhaps it began with transplanted Californians, who had seen what freeways did to Los Angeles. Maybe it was the Lesser Seattle movement, which argued that freeways are self-fulfilling prophecies that immediately fill with cars.
And maybe it was that slab of concrete, strewn along the waterfront — a rude reminder of the consequences of our infatuation with the automobile.
Whatever the reasons, Seattle in the 1970s turned thumbs down on freeways. The Bay Freeway across South Lake Union was wiped off the books. So was the R.H. Thomson. Critics almost killed plans for the new I-90 bridge across the lake; only an agreement to cover much of the thing saved it. Those orphaned interchanges remained ramps to nowhere, waiting for some future civilization to dig them up and speculate on their religious functions.
The viaduct was becoming a metaphor for whatever was wrong with Seattle. In 1975, a tanker truck crashed on the upper deck, spilling burning gas onto the street below, almost trapping 150 people in a Pioneer Square nightclub. The critics winced and wagged their fingers.
But the Alaskan Way Viaduct stood firm, sucking cars in and out of the city, blocking views, barricading city from Puget Sound, and providing crude shelter for the homeless.
By the late '70s, the contraption had fallen so far out of favor that two councilmen — Bruce Chapman and John Miller — proposed tearing it down and replacing it with a tunnel.
Then along came an upstart, Austrian architect Klaus Bodenmueller, who argued that the structure should be recycled into something better — an elongated 2 million-square-foot urban village with shops, condos, a new art museum and a grand galleria with sweeping views across Elliott Bay. Bodenmueller became obsessed with the idea, peddling it to anyone who would listen. Eventually, he went home to build a similar project over an old railroad yard in Vienna.
In 1985, a local developer got no further with his proposal to turn the viaduct into a parking garage. In the early '90s, another group of businessmen proposed to replace the viaduct with a series of tunnels, paid for by tolls.
None of these ideas went anywhere. Seattle was intent on building other things — sports stadiums, a convention center, an art museum and a symphony hall. After 80 years of failed proposals, the region approved a plan for a mass-transit system — but no new highways.
Then came Feb. 28, 2001. A severe quake, centered 50 miles to the south in the Nisqually Delta, rattled the city's foundations — and the viaduct's. There were isolated cases of soil liquefaction, many of them in the Duwamish area just south of downtown — some in the virtual shadow of the viaduct. The highway remained standing, but with cracked columns and weakened joints. Four months later, engineers released a report warning there is a 1-in-20 chance the structure would fail in a more severe quake in the next 10 years. They recommended replacing it.
That report conjures images of similar structures — San Francisco's Embarcadero and Oakland's Cypress Freeway — parts of which collapsed in the 1989 earthquake.
"In our case, it has more to do with the soils and with that seawall," explains Bob Chandler, viaduct project manager for the City of Seattle. "In a heavy quake, the fear is that the seawall would fail . . . and everything on it is in jeopardy."
Any major structure on the waterfront should be on foundations that carry down to bedrock, some 100 feet below, as was done with the stadiums, he says.
Chandler represents the city, and Madden the state, in the joint effort to draft plans for repairing or, more likely, replacing the structure. They've hired a big-league team of experts — a San Francisco planner who worked on reshaping that city's obsolete highways, an Australian authority on tunnels and risk analysis, engineers, meeting facilitators and more. So far it's been a surprisingly public process, with open meetings, lots of citizen involvement and a Web site that delivers useful information. All this is designed to minimize the conflict in hopes of speeding up the process.
In a day-long tour of the corridor, Chandler and Madden reviewed the constraints they're working under. They have one major advantage: The government already owns the corridor up the Duwamish, along the waterfront, and up Battery Street to Aurora. That helps.
But problems abound. For starters, the viaduct has to remain open while it is replaced. That's what got Boston into trouble, trying to replace an urban freeway without closing it — at the cost of untold billions.
They need to leave room for access ramps — something the 1940s builders barely thought about. Lanes need to be wider to accommodate trucks and emergency shoulders. They need to be equipped with ventilation, fire suppressants.
And the corridor has huge limitations. It must allow for a major rail line for freight and passenger trains. Chandler points to the existing viaduct just north of the Pike Place Market, where new buildings have gone up just inches from viaduct ramps. The Battery Street Tunnel is equally narrow, allowing little or no room for more lanes. And a few blocks north, neighbors such as KING Broadcasting and Holiday Inns have built right up to the property line, so expanding the corridor may mean running a lane through existing hotel rooms, or through KING anchor Jean Enersen's dressing room.
In February, the team unveiled a set of alternative plans.
Plan A is perhaps the simplest and least expensive. It would replace the existing viaduct with a new one, plus a two-level tunnel connecting Alaskan Way with Aurora.
Plan B is a combination — an elevated highway for southbound lanes and an underground, cut-and-cover trench for northbound lanes, connecting with a deep tunnel beneath the existing Battery Street tunnel.
Plan C replaces the viaduct with a cut-and-cover trench, which would be tied into a new downtown seawall, eventually leaving the surface open for parks, a waterfront boulevard, transit or whatever.
Plan D is similar to Plan C, but follows a less-direct route north from the waterfront to Aurora.
Many of the listeners wanted to drop Plans A and B altogether. After years of looking at one ugly viaduct, who wants another one? Waterfront real estate has become far too valuable to turn over to cars.
Instead, they gushed over the prospects of eliminating the wall and reconnecting Seattle with the waterfront that made it a great city. "Instead of just thinking about the costs, we need to think about the return-on-investment," said City Councilman Richard Conlin.
Others talked about possibilities for public transit — a new monorail, or an extended streetcar line. Still others yearn to extend the project even farther, creating a grand, sweeping parkway from Safeco Field to South Lake Union.
But there was an unspoken sense of the ethereal in that meeting room. While civic leaders entertained grand visions, each had to be wondering: Get real! This is the city that inspired Tim Eyman to launch a tax revolt, a city that Boeing dumped in favor of Chicago, a city where dot-coms have collapsed right and left, a city that already blew its civic wad on a transit system that may or may not get built, on a new City Hall and a convention center, on two sports stadiums and an aging second baseman from Cincinnati who had one good year. What are the chances that taxpayers will spend billions to tear down a perfectly good viaduct and replace it with a tunnel and a waterfront park?
Once upon a time, Seattle's civic leaders hired yet another nationally-known engineer, Virgil Bogue, and assigned him to craft a bold development plan appropriate to a new century. Bogue set up shop downtown and spent a year studying the city before producing a thick document that called for a new civic center, new parks, parkways and highways, tunnels and an elaborate mass-transit system. He didn't know what it would cost, but he promised a rich return on the investment.
When the Bogue Plan was put to a popular vote, it lost nearly 2-to-1.
That was in 1911. Instead of following his plan, Seattle leveled some hills and used the dirt as landfill behind a slapdash seawall.
A generation later, the city built a "motorists' dream" along that hastily-built waterfront.
And the rest is history.
Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter and now a Seattle free-lance writer.