Farewell to our biggest mistake
By Jean Godden
If the late, mostly unloved Alaskan Way Viaduct had been human, he -- I think it was a "he" -- would be getting social security and Medicare. The viaduct that kept Seattle fenced from its beautiful deep-water harbor was tired, creaky and 66 years old.
It is shocking that what some called "the city's worst mistake" was allowed to stand so many years, blighting city landscape. It is equally hard to believe that the jury-rigged structure managed to stay upright after it was rattled by two strong earthquakes.
The Viaduct didn't rate a memorial service, but it did have a rollicking sendoff. At the scheduled 10 p.m. closure on January 11, Seattleites crowded both decks, honking horns, dancing in the roadway and watching fireworks. It was a better farewell than the eroding roadway deserved. Heck, there was even a next-day event with hundreds ignoring yellow caution tape and trespassing onto the highway's remains.
Mechanical claws are now tearing away at the elevated roadway, fast obliterating it. However, memories of the road and of the lengthy, drawn-out Viaduct wars will remain.
How well I know those Viaduct wars. My own tenure in Seattle parallels the Viaduct's lifespan. I came to Seattle as a teenager in the 1950s days when the Viaduct was still being saluted as the latest wonder: a downtown bypass. Highway engineers located it on land above the shabby waterfront -- cheapest property available in the central business district.
Some of the city's architects, including the late Paul Thiry, warned townsfolk not to commit such a mistake. Thiry wanted a tunnel instead. Nevertheless, the state poured $8 million, 60,000 yards of cement and 8,000 tons of steel into the elevated structure. Some said that Viaduct supports were several degrees out of plumb, "but close enough for highway work."
Over its 66-year life span, there were dozens of plans for the Viaduct. Earliest serious suggestion came from Seattle City Councilmember John Miller who proposed demolition in 1974 because it cost more each year to maintain. Most fanciful plan came from Klaus Bodenmuller, an Austrian architect who wanted to locate housing, stores, restaurants and walkways atop the roadway.
The ultimate wake-up call came on Feb. 28, 2001, when the Nisqually Earthquake struck. Although the Viaduct didn't collapse, it was damaged enough to fuel fears. As part of a state route (SR99), its fate would be determined by the state; but, because the Viaduct sliced through the city, it became a focus for city ontroversy.
During public hearings, the City Council --I became a member in 2004 -- heard from those who said the Viaduct should be saved and rebuilt. But opponents maintained the rebuild would cost $400 million and we would still be stuck with an ugly, noise-polluting structure sunk in unstable soil. Some people backed a cut-and-cover tunnel; others opted for a deep-bore tunnel.
Speaker of the House Frank Chopp wanted the Viaduct rebuilt. He had elaborate plans featuring a high-level park like New York's Highline, topping a two-way highway that would be encased in glass with vehicle fumes and noise piped away. Opponents dubbed it the Chopp-aduct.
The Viaduct became an even bigger political football in 2009 when mayoral candidate Mike McGinn campaigned to simply tear the Viaduct down and add more buses. Days before the election, McGinn backtracked, agreeing to honor the state's plan. Once elected, McGinn flipped again and helped gather signatures for an advisory ballot hoping to stir opposition. Seattle voters surprisingly stuck with the tunnel.
In the end, it took Gov. Christine Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray and a state gas tax to get tunnel approval. Bertha, the tunnel machine, began digging in 2013, but was stalled by mishaps including damaged machinery and nagging soil problems. After a rebuild, Bertha resumed digging and now, years later, the tunnel is complete, set to go into service weeks after the Viaduct closure.
Like San Francisco, which demolished its waterfront highway, Seattle will reclaim its magnificent bayside setting. The waterfront will become a vibrant people place. I saw a little of that on the Sunday following Viaduct shutdown. Crowds swarmed Pike Place Market overlooks, gazing at the last of the old roadway, no longer spewing noise and fumes. The Alaskan Way Viaduct has taken its place in history, resting not in peace, but in pieces.
I still ❤️ Viaduct.