Going, going but not gone yet
By Jean Godden
I have just finished watching the WDOT video of giant cranes demolishing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The sequence posted on the state highway department site shows a swarm of cranes chewing into the old roadway. It's spellbinding: like hyenas tearing into road kill.
The good news is that, after 66 years, the Alaskan Way Viaduct that shadowed our waterfront and separated Seattle from its deep-water harbor is being demolished. The downside is that demolition of the Viaduct, sometimes known as "Seattle's biggest mistake," is taking longer than estimated.
Waterfront businesses, dependent on summer visitors, had been given a tacit, though not firm, promise that the state's subcontractors would have the structure cleared away by June 1. Now it looks as if the job will not be finished until sometime in August.
In its waning days, the Viaduct is proving stubborn. In nine weeks of work, only seven of the North-South deck pairs have been reduced to rubble, leaving 27 segments intact. What takes time isn't so much the crane activity as the time it takes to load and cart away the debris.
Meanwhile during deconstruction, there are free shuttle buses that travel daily along Alaskan Way and circle through downtown to ferry visitors and residents to the many attractions on the waterfront.
Watching the demolition makes it hard to grasp why it was erected there in the first place. Museum of History and Industry executive director Leonard Garfield explains that the state picked the waterfront route because the least number of properties had to be condemned. It was the flattest and simplest pathway through town for State Route-99.
Once the two-mile viaduct was completed, it was hailed as "the shimmering symbol of progress." It soared above a gritty waterfront and, with its stunning views, was said to be "the most beautiful introduction to any city in the world."
Nevertheless, the viaduct was only 20 years old when Seattle Councilmember John Miller issued the first proposal to tear it down. His reasoning: Each year it cost more to maintain.
Over the years, there were other plans to replace the viaduct -- some practical, others fanciful. As a Seattle Times columnist in 2000, I argued for viaduct replacement. My opinion piece ignited a firestorm. Some phone calls and letters (this was before email trolls) were measured, others fiery and insulting.
Activist Irene Wall wrote: "Pity the poor Alaskan Way Viaduct, the Rodney Dangerfield of Seattle roads. Despite doing our heavy lifting and giving us great views at the same time, it gets no respect. I have an idea. Let's sell the naming rights to a new shiny world-class viaduct. Architect Frank Geary can design it with a few more curves and dips to make the ride more fun, kinda like the old Wild Mouse (Seattle Center fun forest ride)."
Shortly afterward on Feb. 28, 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake jolted the area, temporarily shutting down the viaduct and making replacement a given. Controversy waged on. Some wanted a retrofit, others a rebuild and still others opted for a tunnel. When he became mayor, Mike McGinn wanted to tear down the viaduct, not replace it and beef up bus routes.
It took Gov. Christine Gregoire, Sen. Majority Leader (later mayor) Ed Murray and a state gas tax to finally get the waterfront tunnel and viaduct teardown on the drawing boards. lt fell to other legislators and Seattle city councilmembers to protect those plans. And now, finally, the cranes of state subcontractors are churning the old roadway into sacks of reuseable building material.
If I had to pick one memory of that old roadway, it would be the time I parked underneath the viaduct while attending an evening event in Pioneer Square. When I returned, I discovered that nesting pigeons had left their mark on my windshield. I could see nothing but chalky -- er -- residue and had to dig out an ice scraper and then limp to the nearest gas station. I'll always think of the viaduct, not for its harbor views, but for elation over its final removal, the end of a stranglehold as the city gains acres of parkland promised years ago.