By closing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle ushers in a period of short-term commuter pain for long-term waterfront redevelopment gain.
The view from the deck at Pike Place Market is postcard Pacific Northwest: Moody gray clouds hover over ferries slicing their way through cobalt Puget Sound set against a snow-capped Olympic Mountain backdrop. There’s just one wrinkle—the streams of traffic from a double-decker highway running so close to the market that its famous fish throwers could nail a Subaru with a sockeye.
The dull roar of cars and trucks on Alaskan Way Viaduct, a 2.2-mile stretch of Highway 99 that runs along the city’s waterfront, has been a feature of downtown Seattle since 1953. That era ended Friday, when the elevated eyesore closed for good. The viaduct was deemed seismically unsafe after the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, and its scenic-but-white-knuckle driving experience falls well below 21st century highway safety standards.
The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.
The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)
The state, county, and city have rolled out a handful of mitigation options. A free waterfront shuttle will expand its route and run earlier, later, and more frequently. Water taxi service will benefit from an additional vessel. On-demand vans in West Seattle will move people to the water taxi terminal, and accept ORCA cards for fare payment. Uber and Lyft is providing discounted ride-hailing to the water taxi dock, light rail stations, and park and rides.
Mark Hallenbeck, who directs the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, gives this collaborative effort between three layers of government a passing grade, but no gold stars. “I don’t see anything extraordinary or original (no new technology, no closure of lanes to cars to expedite buses), but there isn’t anything wrong with what they are doing,” Hallenbeck wrote via e-mail.
Transit boosters, meanwhile, are cautiously optimistic that the pain of the Seattle Squeeze could have beneficial after-effects, by encouraging motorists to reconsider driving downtown. “When there’s a change like this, it causes people to think about their behavior,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director for Commute Seattle. “When the tunnel opens, some people are going to keep that new behavior they learned—they might start biking or keep taking the bus or the water taxi.”
But even as transit boosters hail the Seattle Squeeze as a cudgel-sized stick to keep spurring the city’s already impressive shift to public transportation, there are plenty of nostalgists in Seattle who are sad to see the viaduct go.
“I like it because it represents the grit of old Seattle,” said Kelly Mucklestone,* 27, who works at a kitchen goods store in Pike Place Market. “There’s a certain thrill in feeling like you might die on your way to Costco.”
This is a city that has been grappling with big changes in recent years, thanks to an Amazon-fueled economic boom that’s sent housing prices skyward, dimmed Seattle’s once-bohemian soul, and spawned a cottage nostalgia industry. So misty-eyed sentiments toward the viaduct have sprung up in recent months. A husband-and-wife duo, The Argument, recently released a wistful musical ode to the doomed highway, “O, Viaduct!” (Sample lyric: “They said you’d fall/And kill us all/But you were tried and true.”)
At Bryan Ohno Gallery in the International District, a few blocks from the viaduct’s southern terminus, Laura Hamje’s painting series Fifty-Three Views of the Alaskan Way Viaduct translates years of photographs she took as a passenger hurtling along the highway into paintings large and small that capture both the epic sweep of the upper-level vista and the claustrophobic views from motorists sandwiched between decks.
“I’m curious to see what happens after it’s gone,” Hamje said inside the gallery, where nearly the entire series has already sold. “I’m hoping it will give us more access to the water and less clutter. But then I might want it to come back afterwards.”
As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.
Local enthusiasm is high for an overlook spanning the new Alaskan Way boulevard that will connect Pike Place Market directly to the waterfront and the rebuild of Pier 62 into a public space with an outdoor concert venue. The entire waterfront project is slated to cost $717 million and take until at least 2023 to complete. Mucklestone lives downtown and will pay a new tax negotiated by Durkan last week to fund $160 million of the waterfront park—and she doesn’t mind paying her fair share.
Even those grinning and bearing the Seattle Squeeze see the light at the end of the tunnel, above and below Highway 99. Erin Andrews runs indi chocolate, a small-batch chocolate producer with a production facility inside Pike Place Market. She drives in from a nearby suburb—her Prius doubles as the company delivery vehicle—but as a regular visitor to San Francisco’s reborn Embarcadero and nearby Ferry Building, she is eager to see a similar vision for Seattle.“The investment Seattle is making is the right step,” she said. “The city is going to be a lot more livable and a lot more enjoyable.”
Back out on the market’s terrace, Mike Arndorfer, a pharmacist from Bellingham, Washington, 90 miles north of Seattle, strained to hold a conversation with two friends over the traffic noise as they soaked in the view on a winter afternoon. He won’t miss the highway one bit.
“Whenever I’m on the viaduct, I’m trying to get someplace and figure out where to park,” he said. “I’m not enjoying the view.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect first name.