A rendering of pedestrian areas planned for the Seattle waterfront. Courtesy of Friends of Waterfront Seattle

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming down, and a vast new park system is coming up.

The debates cities have over tearing down elevated urban highways can be intense—what with opponents preying on commuter nightmares of crippling traffic, despite much evidence to the contrary—but deciding for removal can open up a world of opportunities for long lost public space. Just ask Seattle.

It’s been a few years since the city started to demolish the double-decker Alaskan Way Viaduct that severs downtown from Elliott Bay. And it’ll be several more until the job is done. But Seattle is already making progress on the multi-part, billion-dollar waterfront plan that will recapture acres of prime area that have lived in the shadows of the road for half a century.

This week officials posted extensive details of the plan online for public comment, as part of a draft environmental impact statement. Last week the city broke ground on a related project called MarketFront—converting a parking lot at the historic Pike Place Market into a public plaza that will eventually help reconnect the market and the waterfront. And tomorrow construction will pause on the waterfront’s seawall replacement, another related project which is about halfway done, so shops can resume business during the summer.

“We're excited to move into a more urban future with the waterfront,” says Marshall Foster, director of the waterfront project for the city. “We've been talking about removing this viaduct literally since it was built in 1953. We've been looking at it saying, ‘My god, what did we do?’ ”

If residents like the look of what replaces the viaduct, they’ll have landscape designer James Corner to thank. The creative mind behind New York’s elevated High Line park, and more recently Cleveland’s Public Square, won an international competition for the project a few years back. Foster recalls that Corner—who hails from industrial Manchester, England—“really captured the working character of Seattle's waterfront” during a packed public meeting where he offered a three-pronged vision:

  1. See the Elliott Bay area as Seattle’s own personal Central Park, the core of a great chain of public space that rimmed the waterfront.
  2. Reconnect the waterfront with the downtown and other adjacent neighborhoods via a new local street grid friendly to pedestrians.
  3. Make the public spaces surrounding the waterfront true destinations—hence plans for Waterfront Park, an arts and culture spot that will house a performance venue, and Pier 62-63, an athletic area designed for recreation.
A map of the Alaskan Way Viaduct teardown (top) and of the Seattle waterfront plans (bottom, in pink). (State of Washington; City of Seattle)

“He simply had a picture of the industrial port on the cover and a very well-thought-out articulation of these core aspects of Seattle he found inspiring,” recalls Foster of Corner’s winning presentation. “It felt like home.”

The first part of Corner’s plans to take shape is the replacement of Seattle’s failing seawall. The new wall is not only designed to withstand a serious earthquake but is supposed to enhance the waterfront’s marine life—especially the city’s beloved salmon. Foster says the seawall sidewalk, which is cantilevered over the bay, incorporates glass panels so light can reach the young salmon that use the waterfront as a migration corridor.

The Seattle seawall replacement will have a cantilevered sidewalk with glass panels so light can reach the fish below. (City of Seattle)

Meanwhile current plans call for MarketFront to one day blend into an elevated park called the Overlook Walk—Seattle’s answer to the High Line. The walk will connect Pike Place with the waterfront over the (admittedly tamer) traffic flowing on the new surface-level Alaskan Way street. Overlook Walk visitors will be able look out at the city skyline as well as the Olympic Mountains, preserving the vistas that Foster says was one thing locals loved about driving atop the viaduct.

“There's a certain nostalgia we have in town about that view,” says Foster. “So what [Corner] did with the Overlook Walk was … basically create this sweeping public view that captures that elevated prospect over the waterfront.”

A design rendering of the Overlook Walk. (James Corner Field Operations / City of Seattle)

As with any major public project, there’s some lingering debate about the best way forward. In recent weeks a group called Initiative 123, led by former mayoral candidate Kate Martin, has made noise about an alternate waterfront plan that would preserve a 400-foot section of the viaduct, and use that for the basis of an elevated park. Initiative 123 reportedly gathered some 20,000 signatures in an effort to get the idea on a ballot this fall. (Foster calls the idea a “very different vision” that would put public space in the hands of a private developer.)

And as with any major public project there’s also some delay. Many of the waterfront plans can’t advance until the State of Washington finishes building a tunnel that will replace the viaduct. But the massive boring machine (known locally as Bertha) that’s digging the underground route recently suffered damage, and Foster now says the tunnel might not be done until 2017. The viaduct can’t be totally demolished until the tunnel is completed, with the timeline for the waterfront now pushing beyond 2020.

But the elevated is coming down eventually, which puts Seattle ahead of some other cities that haven’t yet found the courage to tear down their urban highways and begin the process of reimagining the public space underneath. “We're opening up about 26 blocks of our center city to reconnect it to Elliott Bay, which is the waterfront our city was founded on,” says Foster. “This is a very central project to the city's development, and to the continued evolution of Seattle.”

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