Affordable housing over I-5? It’s not as crazy as you might think

The “X-1” group was the set of volunteers tasked to come up with ideas on how to connect the lids with each other to make Seattle more of an interconnected city. The group was joined by six other groups working on various sites at the Lid I-5 Kickoff Charrette at 12th Avenue Arts on Sunday morning. (Image: Alec Dietz)

By Alec Dietz, UW News Lab/Special to CHS

When Interstate 5 was built more than 50 years ago, many didn’t consider the problems associated with a massive highway splitting up the University District from Wallingford, Capitol Hill from downtown, and First Hill from the International District in the Seattle area.

But, a small group of architects, engineers, and community members met at the 12th Ave Arts building on Capitol Hill Sunday to discuss ways that they could heal those divides, and fix lids that had already been built in Seattle, at a Lid I-5 Kickoff Charrette gathering led by co-chairs and architects John Feit and Scott Bonjukian.

“Freeway Park is a beautiful design, but it didn’t work,” Feit said of one of the lids Seattle had tried already. “People are acknowledging that it is a beautiful design, but that it doesn’t work, and we want to make it better. That’s just something the city struggled with for decades.”

In a room full of close to 50 community members, engineers, and architects, Feit led a discussion on how lids — a bridge-like structure that spans over the gap of a sunken freeway — over freeways could be a way to potentially create affordable housing and reconnect old neighborhoods.

The charrette — a meeting in which stakeholders in a project work to map a set of solutions — was also focused on adding a few civic amenities for the greater Seattle community.

The volunteers were a group of community members with varying levels of engineering and architecture experience. Some groups included experts in the field that have had careers in architecture, but others were volunteering as average architectures, but were important for the project nevertheless.

The end goal for the group is September, when all their ideas will be finalized into a presentation and put on display for leaders in the Seattle area. That will hopefully include Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and various representatives in the city.

Thomas Pitchford, a member of the steering committee, and a former candidate for 43rd District representative, was excited about how the kickoff charrette went.

“That’s why we have these community events,” Pitchford said, “because we can get all of this input from folks all across the community, and then we can have their involvement.”

The participants were put into seven groups: two groups responsible for the south site (Freeway Park), two groups responsible for a central site (Washington State Convention Center), two groups for a north site (Between East Thomas St. and Olive Way), and one group responsible for connecting the three sites.

John Feit, the co-chair of the Lid I-5 committee, speaks to the group of volunteers who have offered their time to work out ideas on how the lids could work in Seattle. The event took place this past Sunday at the 12th Avenue Arts building in Seattle. (Image: Alec Dietz)

Each of the groups discussed building schools, parks, and various other amenities to their specific site, but the central group had an idea that really stuck out, due to the site’s proximity to the Paramount Theater.

“I’ve always liked the idea of leveraging the performance of the Paramount, to some outdoor theater,” Feit said. “I always thought that was intriguing. I don’t know how it would work with our weather and their operations, but that’s a fun idea.”

Feit was also proud of how the group wanted to use the space, and that they had plenty of ideas on how to drive people to these potential community areas.

“They recognized that open spaces need to be active to be successful,” Feit said. “That can come through adjacent uses, with buildings and whatever their functions are, but it can also go through them. That you can funnel traffic through them.”

Participants also discussed how to deal with Seattle’s uneven topography, which remains a big challenge for the city to institute lids over I-5.

“There was a lot of talk about connectivity and dealing with the topography,” Bonjukian said. “If you look at lids in other cities, a lot of them are built where it’s pretty flat, but Seattle is hilly, so that seemed to be a constant theme people were talking about. So, how we can take advantage of that and be creative.”

For example, in Dallas, Texas, Klyde Warren Park is one of the shining examples for cities that have implemented lids over their highways. The park is responsible for helping bridge the gap between districts, and creating new residential and commercial life in the city.

In Seattle, various community members are attempting to do the same thing, bringing the community together to create change, and coming up with good ideas to use these lidded spaces in the best ways that the city of Seattle can.

A volunteer sketches over a map of I-5 with ideas on what a lid over the freeway could look like. With close to 50 volunteers in attendance, the citizens worked in seven different groups, each responsible for a different site, or task. (Image: Alec Dietz)

Next for the Lid I-5 group is another meeting at Optimism Brewing in March that will allow them to further hone their ideas and insights in a few weeks. After that, they’ll hold two more events before their big showcase in September.

Central Hills Triangle Collaborative – 30% Design
Thursday, March 15
6:00 PM
Optimism Brewing, 1158 Broadway

Central Hills Triangle Collaborative – 60% Design
Thursday, May 15
6:00 PM
The Summit on Pike, 420 E Pike Street

Central Hills Triangle Collaborative – 90% Design
Wednesday, July 18
6:00 PM
Washington State Convention Center, 705 Pike Street, Room 2AB

Ultimately, Feit, Bonjukian, and Pitchford’s goals are the same, they said. They all want to seal the rift that I-5 created.

“This is newly created land, and it’s healing the scar of I-5,” Pitchford said. “We need to make this idea a part of the city’s master plan.”

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12 thoughts on “Affordable housing over I-5? It’s not as crazy as you might think

  1. The entire length of I5 is sitting on columns from the 1960s which are no longer up to code on earthquakes. Unless the new structure is somehow entirely separate from the freeway it will simply add more problems.

    In addition, most of I5 is on a steep hill, which is likely to make building anything problematic…

    • “Nope” has it right. Take your most pessimistic lidding cost estimate and triple it. That MIGHT be enough money to rebuild the freeway infrastructure without having to shut down I-5 in downtown Seattle for years for construction. Lidding the freeway is a great idea, but only pre-construction planning will allow lids.

  2. All these great ideas – but it isn’t free. How is it going to be paid for? How about tolling I-5 exits during peak hours for commuters?

    Also – how does Freeway Park not work? It’s a park – what else is it supposed to do?

    • I have walked through there during the day and there’s a decent number of people using it (not including vagrants).

      As far as the vagrants – that’s more of a police issue vs. an issue with the park itself.

      The location might also affect its perceived usage – it’s not exactly centered in an abundantly residential area.

  3. CHS have been writing about how a lid over I-5 would likely be funded for years.

    In the related post from May of 2016 referenced above, Bryen Cohen wrote:

    “Over the past several months, members of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council have been working to convince policy makers and the public that now is the time to plan for such a project. The reason is that developers for the Washington State Convention Center Addition, planned for the base of Capitol Hill, could kickstart a nearby lid project as part of a required community benefits process. Whether or not that happens may depend on how much the public wants it.”

    In November of 2016, Ari Centon wrote:

    “The next big step in the Washington State Convention Center’s downtown expansion plan is a discussion of public benefits of the massive project. The meeting is set for December 7th, and Lid I-5, the community group looking to secure funding for a plan to better connect Capitol Hill to downtown, will be there.

    “`It’s important not only to our group, but also to the surrounding community,’ said John Feit of Lid I-5.

    “As part of the now $1.6 billion expansion plan, the convention center is asking for the city to hand over three alleys, and the land under two existing streets, Olive Way and Terry Avenue. In exchange for these publicly-owned areas, the center essentially has to pay for them.

    “In most cases like this, the payment is not in cash, but in some form of public benefit, such as a new public space that meets the value of the public area the developer takes over and adds new resources or features for the city. The exact value of the areas has yet to be announced, but Lid I-5, among a number of other groups, is jockeying for a chance at some of the expected funding.”

    • Building a lid over I5 of any size would cost more than the convention center itself. No doubt if I was a consultant I would enjoy chewing down any money I could get on consultations etc etc.

      Go walk under I5 and you will see the sorry state the entire structure is in. I would start with that problem.

    • No where in those two quotes does it outline any actual appropriations that will be used to fund the pre-construction, engineering, and design activities let alone the funding to actually carry-out construction.

      As Nope mentions above, the cost to lid I-5 would likely be over $1Bn… I just don’t see the city coming up with that kind of money short of a ballot measure.

  4. Unless they plan to have a fully fleshed out submittal package (plans, specs, real estate, environmental compliance, etc.) by July, which they’re certainly not, then it’s a bit misleading for them to use the 30/60/90% design vernacular.

    Where the group will be at best is 90% done with a 10% level “conceptual” design which may or may not be used further on down the road if/when funding is available and an array of alternatives is developed. #runonsentance

  5. I like a lot of the concept of lidding I-5, but the more the group tries to present their ideas as “project plans”, the less I am support them. A bunch of concerned but uninformed citizens can contribute ideas, not plans.