August 19, 2006

Monorails, Viaducts, and the Westlake Park Phenomenon

For years Seattle residents debated over whether their monorail system should be expanded to become a true mass transit system. It was a heated contest, with much fighting over taxes, financial issues, and the environment. In the end they decided to do nothing and leave it the way it is.

But since no one can live for long without a controversial issue to latch onto, the next big debate has sprung up in Seattle. And this is one where they can’t just decide to “do nothing”, because that could end up with people getting killed. It all centers around the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker raised freeway that was built in 1953 along the Seattle waterfront. To keep the story short, it’s falling apart. A strong earthquake in the Puget Sound area could bring it tumbling down to the ground just like the freeway in Oakland, leading to massive death and injury. Not to mention great embarrassment for the city. So the viaduct clearly has to be torn dorn before it falls down on its own. But what should be done after it’s torn down?

Copyright © 2006 Under The Light/Gary Sutto

This is where the debate starts. Some folks, like Ken at The Urban Blog, think it should be rebuilt pretty much the way it is now, with modern materials and techniques to make it earthquake-sound. Other folks, like the Mayor of Seattle, want to route Hwy 99 into an underground tunnel along the waterfront. They say the viaduct is an ugly barrier that separates the waterfront from the rest of downtown, and rebuilding it will keep them separate. Seattle without a viaduct would be a more attractive and vibrant place, just like San Francisco is now with the Embarcadero Freeway gone.

Two options, and Seattlites have to pick one. I’m glad I’m too far removed from the mess to have an opinion.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I read the post Why “the Rebuild” is not a practical solution over at the City Comforts Blog, and it jogged my interest in the project. David Sucher says that what he called the “Westlake Park phenomenon” will doom the rebuild, even if there’s wide public support for it at first. Westlake Park was an area of Seattle where there were also two options. In the late 80s, the city wanted to tear down a block of buildings and had the option to either leave the space open as a park, or build a shopping mall and office complex on the site. They chose the office complex, and got to work on the demolition. But once the residents were able to see what the area looked like as open space, and admire the views they had from the spot down to Lake Union, they suddenly changed their minds and wanted to have the park built instead. The city already had a legal obligation with the developer, though, and had to go ahead with building the mall. That’s how Westlake Center got built (which, coincidentally, is the end of the line for the monorail. See how it all comes full circle?)

So, David’s point is that even if a majority of Seattlites support the idea of rebuilding the viaduct, their minds will change once the old one is demolished and they see with their own eyes how having an open waterfront really benefits the city. There will then be huge public support for the tunnel, and the city will have to change course, probably at great expense. Go read his post. It’s an interesting trip into the psychology of crowds and the inability to visualize something, and gauge your emotional reaction to it, until you’ve actually seen it.

Also read this comment thread, where there’s a sparkling debate going on about the viaduct options.

Anyway, no matter what happens, the viaduct as we know it today is going away. So photographer Gary Sutto has started a project, located at, to document and capture how the viaduct looks today, in what are probably the last years of its life.

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