Was it Seattle's worst mistake?
By Jean Godden
The late architect Ibsen Nelsen once said that the Alaskan Way Viaduct was "the worst mistake Seattle ever made." Some would argue otherwise, but Nelsen likely was more right than he knew.
Seattle's "worst mistake," two miles of aging, double-decker cement roadway, will close down forever on Jan. 11, 2019. Soon after closure, crab-like claws will begin the work of tearing down the roadway, munching the old dingy concrete into reusable cement. Working long days, crews will obliterate the structure that, for the past 65 years has separated Seattle from its deep-water harbor.
The viaduct was built in the early 1950s for $8 million with 60,000 yards of cement and 8,000 tons of steel. Its supports were sunk in watery soil, vulnerable to liquefaction during earthquakes. Workmen who constructed the viaduct confirmed that some structures were as much as three degrees out of plumb, "but close enough for highway work."
Over the years, there have been dozens of fanciful plans for the viaduct: some to build it up or enhance it and others to tear it down. One of earliest proposals came in 1974 from Seattle Councilmember John Miller (later a U.S. Congressman) who advised demolition, partly because it was costing more each year to maintain.
In the mid 70's, architect Klaus Bodenmueller wanted to build atop the viaduct: view condominiums, retail shops and even an art museum. His elaborate plans circulated throughout the city. Skipping ahead to the 1980s, former Metro director Neil Petersen advocated replacing the viaduct with a toll tunnel.
Things grew more serious in the late 1990s when a group of architects, led by Seattle's Dennis Haskell, made a convincing case for tearing the viaduct down and working out ways to handle the traffic -- some 80,000 vehicles per day.
In 2000, the Wall Street Journal weighed in, devoting a quarter of a page to the pros and cons of tearing down the useful but possibly unsafe structure. Architect Haskell drew word pictures of what the waterfront minus the viaduct could become: "an impressive 9.2 acres of waterfront property for much-needed public space and unobstructed views."
Taking the opposite view was playwright Carl Sander who argued for rebuilding the viaduct, making it quieter, more attractive and safer. He argued: "The Alaskan Way Viaduct is one of the most beautiful introductions to any city in the world."
Months later in 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake struck. Although the Viaduct survived, it was damaged enough to raise doubt that it could withstand another stronger quake. And thus began multiple years of controversy.
At public hearings, the City Council heard from those who said the viaduct should be saved and rebuilt. Others argued that a rebuild would cost $400 million and we'd still have an expensive pug-ugly, noise-polluting structure built in poor soil.
Speaker of the House Frank Chopp became convinced that the upper-level viaduct roadway could be repurposed into a high-level park like New York's Highline. His detailed plans showed a lower-level, two-way highway encased in glass and designed to pipe away vehicle fumes and noise.
In 2009, mayoral candidate Mike McGinn first campaigned to simply tear down the viaduct and add more buses. Days before the fall election, McGinn backtracked saying that he would not stand in the way of the state's plan to replace the viaduct with a tunnel, a proposal that had gained majority City Council support. Once elected, McGinn reneged and gathered signatures for an advisory ballot, hoping to fuel opposition to a tunnel. However, Seattle voters surprisingly favored the tunnel option.
It took then Gov. Christine Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray and a state gas tax to finally get the waterfront tunnel and viaduct teardown onto the drawing board. Bertha, the world's largest boring machine, began digging the tunnel in 2013 with an estimated 2015 completion date. That was before mishaps that included a stalled and damaged machine, digging a recovery pit, a Bertha rebuild and nagging soil problems. Digging finally resumed in December, 2015, and the toll tunnel is now set to go into service three weeks after viaduct removal.
The viaduct, Seattle's worst mistake, is about to go into the history books. Some residents will still remember it as the best view of the city -- albeit a view reserved for speeding cars. Others will cheer its final removal, the end of a stranglehold, as the city takes the next steps toward regaining a magnificent waterfront and the nine acres of parkland promised years ago.