Do the Strand

Seattle activists suggest that the best plan for a troubled waterfront freeway may be to eliminate it.

Seattle’s central waterfront is about to open up. The Nisqually earthquake of 2001 shook the two-deck Alaskan Way Viaduct, which parallels the shore, beyond permanent repair. Though still in use, it is slated to be dismantled—if another quake doesn’t knock it down first. And then there’s the 70-year-old seawall that keeps the soft soils underneath the viaduct from slumping into the bay. Microscopic creatures called gribbles are chewing at it, and experts give it only a few years.

The city and the Washington Department of Transportation are busy studying alternatives for rebuilding the highway and the seawall—in tunnel, surface, or aerial versions. But a group called the People’s Waterfront Coalition wants them to study another answer to the viaduct question: don’t replace the highway at all. Armed with a preliminary expert overview of slack in the city grid—as well as proposals for new freeway access points and dedicated freight lanes—they advocate dramatically reducing highway capacity through Seattle. “Remember the [2001] quake, when the viaduct was closed?” asks landscape designer Julie Parrett, cofounder of the coalition. “There were backups, but within two days those backups were gone. All of those trips everyone thought were really important just went away.”

The coalition—led by Parrett, urban designer Cary Moon, and activist Grant Cogswell—grew out of a charrette sponsored by Allied Arts of Seattle. Vignettes from their scheme (a runner-up in the 2004 Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition) show nonmotorized modes of transportation mixing with cars and buses, office workers lunching on grassy stretches with views of the Olympic Mountains, and kayaks plying the waters, where the salmon are running again thanks to a fish-friendly seawall design. The elevated freeway that cut off the city from its waterfront is gone. “People have an innate desire to go to the water’s edge—which also happens to be some of the most productive land ecologically,” Moon says. “It’s the most insane location for a highway.”

In this vision, dubbed Seattle Strand, the waterfront is gentle, permeable, and livable. The historic harbor has been opened up or eroded so that a new waterfront can grow. New visual and pedestrian connections tie city to water all up and down the 14-mile-long edge of the bay, but especially the 1.4 miles where the elevated highway now stands. “We propose a juxtaposition of energies there—ecological, playful, civic, and economic,” Moon says. “People don’t want to be handled in public space like so many mall shoppers.”

The problem with putting the highway in a tunnel—the politically favored choice—is that no one has a clear idea where the $4 billion–plus to build it will come from. And the city has hardly begun to reckon with the impacts of a decade of heavy construction on the waterfront. Neither has it considered that attitudes are just as important as actions. Seattle Strand is a mixture of science, creative anarchy, and psychogeography. “We are a city that remembers its recent wilderness, a city in love with our watery terrain,” the proposal states.

City council members are listening, and at least one is actively supporting the study of the “no replace” alternative. Seattle’s tendency to refuse top-down “progress” may make Seattle Strand the center of another grassroots victory—the same kind that saved the historic character of Pioneer Square and the controlled chaos of the Pike Place Market, and gave the city a quick popular vote for the monorail. “We think the best public spaces express the dreams a city has for itself,” Moon says. “For us Seattle’s dream is messy, fertile, experimental, alive.”

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