August 3, 2006

Ungrade the Regrade

Now here’s a nutty idea. But first some background.

Seattle is a pretty hilly place. Parts of it are almost as hilly as San Francisco. To get from the Waterfront to the Pike Place Market, for example, you have to go up about six stories worth of elevators (or stairs…yipe!) But in the past Seattle was even more hilly than it is now. What happened was that in the ealy 1900s, the Forces Of Progress banded together to Do Something about all those hills. They were hard to walk up, hard to get horses to go up, and just generally got in your way. So a huge project was undertaken, actually several small projects over the course of three decades, to level out the hills. Steam shovels and water hoses were brought in to tear down the hills, and the resulting dirt was taken by conveyer belt and dumped into the bay. This was called the “Regrade Effort”, and it was done all over downtown. Jackson Street was regraded and the dirt used to fill in the tideflats, where the baseball and football stadiums now sit. A small hill in the middle of downtown, where the University used to be located in the 1800s, was knocked down too. But the biggest regrade project was done just north of downtown, in the space between Pike Place and the Space Needle.

This area used to be called Denny Hill, named after the Denny family who were one of Seattle’s first settlers. This hill was pretty steep in some places, and separated downtown Seattle from Lake Union and the Queen Anne areas, which back then were just beginning to grow. So the city decided to tackle Denny Hill with a massive regrade project, the largest in the city’s history. Countless tons of dirt were pulled out of the area and dumped into the sea. In some places the land was lowered nearly 100 feet in an effort to level out the ground. Hundreds of houses were demolished, although a few were brave (and wealthy) enough to have the houses lowered too. Even the Washington Hotel, which sat at the very top of the hill, and which at the time was Seattle’s largest and most opulent, was lost to the regrade. It had only been open for less than ten years, but down it came. Finally, in the 1930s, all the work was done, the hill was gone, and all the dirt had extended the Seattle waterfront a few hundred feet further out into the bay. The area formerly known as Denny Hill was now called Denny Regrade, and was flat as could be.

So now, 70 years later, comes architect Jerry Garcia and his new plan for the area. In the middle of the Denny Regrade is a small city park called Denny Park (Denny sure got around, didn’t he?) Garcia’s idea is to reverse the regrade, bringing in enough dirt to raise the park back up to its original height, 60 feet above where it is now. The idea is to create a “people’s vantage point” that would allow “us all to rise to the promontory that would have been ours” if the regrade never happened. And there would be a funicular train to take people to the top of the hill. And (and!) on top of the hill, he would recreate the original topography of the land and build an interpretive center that tries to explain why there’s this huge dirt mound in the middle of town. The total price tag? $20 million.

This is such a silly idea, and there’s not a chance in hell of it getting built. Of course, Seattle is the city that has a giant concrete troll emerging from underneath a bridge, so I guess anything’s possible. But when you look at all the good ideas that have been shot down, like increased public transportation, the thought of public money going towards this is ludicrous. The article does talk about private funding, but I can’t imagine anyone willing to put forward that money, and risk having their name on something that’s sure to become a joke.

The best quote is from my man Paul Dorpat, who says he admires the “wonderful satire” of the project. Satire is the perfect word for it. If only this guy were joking.

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  1. Rich Jensen says:

    By the way, $20 mil happens to be the same price as the widely celebrated Cal Anderson Park/Lincoln reservoir cover project. The project also represents the construction of a resource center (swimming pool? parking? ). Essentially, its a building with a park on top. It would have a terrific view and tell an important story about the nature of Seattle’s relationship to the land it occupies.

    Posted September 17, 2006 @ 7:47 pm

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