A few years ago, transportation planners with the state of Washington came up with a great idea: Let’s demolish all of the buildings in the middle of Seattle and build a giant freeway so suburban commuters can drive into the city instead of having to take gross public transit. And then they did it.
Seattle existed before I-5 was built, and it’ll exist after it’s gone. But in the meantime, we’re going to have to live as best we can with the consequences handed to us by past generations: the traffic, the noise, the pollution, and the deadly cavern that decimated neighborhoods and now cuts them off from each other.
It’s hard to imagine a worse possible use of that space than handing it over to WSDOT to operate a freeway. But it’s easy to imagine better uses, which is exactly what was done in a recent study into the feasibility of placing a gigantic lid, covered in parks and businesses and homes, on top of one of Seattle’s worst mistakes.
The report is loooooong, and clearly only intended to be read by urban planning professionals, or retirees for whom the comment segment of public meetings is their only form of interpersonal connection. (And lest you think I’m being dismissive, I’m fully aware that that is the future that awaits me in my twilight years.) It was led by Seattle’s community development office and WSDOT, with consultation from a wide range of city agencies, commissions, and (ugh) regular citizens.
To give you a sense of how exhaustive the Goddamn thing is, the summary report is 151 pages long. But it can be condensed to just four words: “We can do this.” I would add three more: “And we should.”
The report raises several compelling points without overstepping into recommendations. Among them: Seattle is growing far more rapidly than many people expected, and the need for housing and livable neighborhoods along the I-5 corridor is acute — particularly as the freeway slashes through the areas with the most opportunity for housing and employment growth. For every day that the bare trench is there, it’s killing more affordable homes, eliminating jobs, and displacing residents.
On top of that, I-5 is in terrible shape right now. It’s nearing the end of its designed lifespan, and it’s one strong earthquake away from being rendered completely unusable — just to keep it operational through 2040, WSDOT needs an estimated $2.5 billion, on top of another $1.3 billion to repave sections and $550 million for seismic upgrades. It’s virtually guaranteed that we’ll have to spend that money, because highway advocates have a stranglehold on the state budget. It’s bonkers that we’re all but guaranteed to spend billions to preserve a shitty scar that makes everyone miserable.
But while we’re spending that money, the report points out, we could spend just a little bit more to completely transform what’s there. That could mean building a ton of green space, homes, bike connections, small businesses, public art, sports fields, transit, and I dunno, one of those fountains that looks like a giant muscle daddy sitting on top of a bunch of fish and some of them are spitting water up into the air. Yeah!
Technically speaking, the report finds, this is definitely possible. Obviously, the more we want to build, the more challenging it is — but these are obstacles that have been tackled elsewhere with great success. If you want to see what a lidded I-5 would look like, and you don’t feel like wandering through Freeway Park, take a look at Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Aubrey Davis Park on Mercer Island, Margaret Hance Park in Phoenix, the Presidio Tunnel in San Francisco, the South River Walk in Trenton New Jersey, the 5th Street Bridge in Atlanta … and so on, and so on. If Duluth, Columbus, and Reno can figure this out, so can we.
Economically, this is a winning proposition. The report estimates an upper-boundary of costs just under $3 billion, which is normal for something of this scale (one major impact on cost is building parking, yet another reason to reduce car usage). And while that may seem like a lot of money, once complete, it’s estimated to generate over $3 billion in economic activity per year.
So what’s next? The project needs a government entity to sponsor further work (SDOT and WSDOT have been working together well so far); it needs more design work; and here’s the difficult part, it needs to be a priority for leaders. The candidates currently running for mayor have been generally supportive of the concept, with some more vocal than others. (The Stranger’s endorsed candidate, Lorena González, gave it a cautious thumbs-up.) But nice words don’t mean much when they’re not backed up by dollars and executive action. If you want to fix the mess that past generations of Seattleites got us into, you’ll need to let the folks in charge know about it — often and emphatically.