Lid I-5: Reconnect Seattle

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Image courtesy of Patano Studio Architecture

Seattle is growing fast, and if the number of people moving here did not make that clear, the number of cranes that can be seen over our skyline does. As fast as we want to build, what limits us in Seattle is the amount of available land.

Recently, the Lid I-5 steering committee hosted a morning bicycle tour from downtown Seattle to Mercer Island and back. We were able to experience the range of freeway lids the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has built. The lids help us create more buildable land.

Photo courtesy of Scott Bonjukian

We were joined by about twenty people including Representative Nicole Macri of the 43rd Legislative District. Interstate 5 (I-5) cuts directly through the 43rd Legislative District, separating many neighborhoods that were once connected. The Lid I-5 effort is focused on Downtown for now but could expand north and south and could also consider “non-liddable” conditions, such as the Chinatown-International District to reconnect communities disconnected by the interstate.

Re-imagining how we can reconnect our neighbors along I-5 is within our grasp. The Lid I-5 campaign is inspired by numerous examples nationwide both completed and planned, ranging from Klyde Warren Park in Dallas to Capitol Crossing in Washington, DC. If we take this innovative opportunity suggested by the Lid I-5 campaign, we could have 20 acres of new public land Downtown. Land costs are rising as buildable sites diminish. Lidding provides us with a tried-and-true way to create new public space while reducing the noise and pollution which spills into neighborhoods.

Image courtesy of © SOM

You may remember the effort in 2004 put forward by Allied Arts to imagine what the waterfront could look like if re-designed. Community leaders called for a tunnel, removal of the viaduct, and a waterfront boulevard. Many people called us dreamers, but we knew then that a connected community prioritizing “green over gray” public open space is more enjoyable for all and is healthier for residents and businesses. Now, 14 years later, we can literally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the dream for a connected waterfront where you can hear the waves instead of rumbling traffic is only months away.

Image courtesy of Patano Studio Architecture

The same opportunity is true when considering the addition of one or more lids over I-5. It may seem at first blush that we are dreaming to say we can create 20 new acres of open space Downtown, but this is a real possibility that we should take seriously. Lids are already in place on I-90 in Seattle (10.3 acres) and Mercer Island’s lid (12.3 acres) is a veritable forest now.

Image courtesy of Scott Bonjukian

Freeway Park: Beginning our bike tour at Freeway Park just south of the Convention Center we discussed current lids in the city. After experiencing the many freeway lids around the city, it is clear that improvements need to be made to Freeway Park for it to reach its full potential. Currently Freeway Park is not a complete lid and the gaps in the lid allow for noise and exhaust from traffic to overwhelm the park. This undercuts the effectiveness of the lid so much so that it was difficult to hear the two-story waterfall at the park. We need to start our work by filling these gaps in our only Downtown lid.

Image courtesy of Scott Bonjukian

Jackson Street: We stopped next at the freeway overpass on Jackson Street in the International District. This section of freeway will be difficult to address when reconnecting the neighborhood because the freeway is elevated for about 500 ft of roadway. Reconnecting the International District is critically important as it is the only neighborhood core that is cut in half by the freeway rather than other neighborhoods which are walled-off by the freeway. Unfortunately, a lid may not be the answer here, but the feel of the International District will improve when east-west re-connections are made.

Photo courtesy of Scott Bonjukian

The land over and around the I-90 Lid is divided into three parks; Judkins Park, Jimi Hendrix Park, and Sam Smith Park.

Judkins Park and Jimi Hendrix Park (I-90 lid): Our next stop was next to the Interstate 90 (I-90) lid where the Eastlink light rail stop will be located. From here you can see the open park space the lid provides the neighborhood, but the noise and vibration from the interstate makes it difficult to have conversations, even when standing near each other. This is a good example of how the lid also provides connective infrastructure for other regional projects, as the light rail station now has a larger walk-shed than would have been built as part of Sound Transit 2. Without the lid, the Northwest African American Museum would overlook lanes of travel and the Central District would be cut in half by I-90. Instead, the museum is surrounded by parks and stands out as an icon for the neighborhood.

Photo courtesy of Nakano Associates

Sam Smith Park (I-90 lid): It is hard to tell where solid ground ends and where the lid begins. The lid connects the neighborhood which would otherwise have endured narrow overpasses and subjected to all the negative externalities of the interstate. Luckily the Central District neighborhood and City of Seattle were adamant the I-90 reconstruction include a comprehensive lid. What could have become a trench echoing traffic noise and pollution is instead a pleasant park with bicycle trails and basketball courts. You can even have quiet conversations walking with your closest friend.

The pedestrian experience between Freeway Park and Sam Smith Park (atop the I-90 lid) is stark. For a peaceful environment, Sam Smith is the model to follow. Freeway Park is checker-boarded, leaving openings to the noise and vibration of I-5. Much of the space south of Seneca is not only unused but overgrown and an eyesore. Conversely, Sam Smith Park is a solid “land make” providing for a park, a playground, and walking/bicycle paths, two stories above the freeway lanes below. The space between the road and the park contains high powered fans and open-air space connecting the tunnel to vent stacks above in the park.

Photo courtesy of Scott Bonjukian

Mercer Island: After riding through the Mount Baker tunnel we crossed the I-90 bridge to Aubrey Davis Park on Mercer Island. Riding on the bridge was noisy – no practical enjoyment of the lake – yet we were solidly protected.

Leaving the noise of the bridge and arriving at Aubrey Davis Park we arrived at a half-mile long park complete with benches, tennis courts, cricket players and frisbees on the lawn, and surprising views of Lake Washington – you can almost hear the waves from the park! Yet, we were directly atop the interstate.

Aubrey Davis Park sits atop the I-90 lid and is named after the Mayor of Mercer Island (1970 – 1974) who famously declared he, “didn’t want to see, hear or smell” the I-90 expansion across Mercer Island. He and the community made that happen.

Image courtesy of Scott Boinjukian

Thanks to the work of the Lid I-5 team and public benefit money from the Convention Center, the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) and a consultant team will begin a feasibility study of lidding parts of I-5 starting in early 2019. I am optimistic the results from this study will pave the way for next steps in design, capital funding, and eventual lid construction to heal fractured urban neighborhoods.

The feasibility study comes as WSDOT separately begins a long-term visioning process for over 100 miles of the I-5 corridor with functional challenges and seismic vulnerabilities. Some of the challenges being studied are located in downtown Seattle. If WSDOT were to rebuild I-5 downtown, we must have complete lids included in the design.

By placing lids on top of I-5, we can reconnect neighborhoods throughout the city and create as much additional open space for Seattleites as the Olmstead Brothers did. We can stitch together the fabric of our community because we know a connected community with green public open space is more enjoyable and healthier for our residents.

Thank you to Dan Strauss for his contributions to this post.