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Downtown ‘Pike-Pine renaissance,’ 23rd Ave reinvention — time to cap I-5 and repair E Madison’s grid?

Last week’s community meeting to discuss the 23rd Avenue Corridor Improvement Project featured some continued frustration from residents living near the roadway destined for a $46 million overhaul — and more patience and a few answers from City of Seattle representatives on hand to talk with the neighbors at the Miller Park Community Center meeting. Seattle Department of Transportation officials announced the project will break ground in late 2014 or early 2015. An update on the project is below. But while we’re talking about improving 23rd Ave for a multi-modal future and working on “renaissance” redesign of the downtown sections of Pike and Pine, it might also be time to consider a few additional ways to fix the Capitol Hill grid.

Capping I-5
As much as 23rd Ave divides the neighborhoods of eastern Capitol Hill, the motor vehicle-choked canyon of I-5 creates an even more massive gap on the Hill’s western flank. The Northwest Urbanist has a proposal. Let’s bury I-5:

The reasons for burying I-5 through Downtown are numerous. The noise, for one, is a major issue that makes for an unpleasant experience anywhere near it; even at my apartment in the U-District, I can hear the road noise from a half mile away.

When I walked above the freeway in Downtown I registered a constant 80-100 decibels, which is similar to the noise intensity of a freight train or jet flyover. Exhaust fumes have negative health effects on people living next to the freeway, who tend to have lower incomes, and the noxious smell is especially obvious during peak hours when traffic backs up. There is also the aesthetic issue; I-5 is a gash through the heart of Seattle, which is a city that prides itself on alternative transportation and reducing single-occupancy-vehicle use. And amid the need for new housing, such a wide strip of underused land is increasingly attractive.

Turn E Madison into a “complete street”
Capitol Hill’s southern edge also features a barrier to connectivity — the mighty flow of E Madison. Aleks Bromfield has proposed a strategy to “repair the grid” by creating “better spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, and other ‘slow’ uses, while simultaneously improving mobility for drivers and transit users (or at least not harming it).” Unlike the I-5 cap, Bromfield’s strategy is made up of relatively simple components — not a bad approach considering how some of the city’s more complicated transit projects are working out.

Bromfield’s Improving the grid in Pike/Pine comes down to a basic count: “Madison Street breaks the grid. Between Broadway and 16th Ave, Madison has 10 intersections; Pine only has 6.”

Bromfield makes three proposals for the street:

  • Between 16th and 24th, give Madison a “road diet”, to slow down traffic and improve permeability.
  • Between 12th and 16th, create the Madison Street Park, a 4-block “woonerf” that is designed for people first.
  • Rebuild three intersections, to restructure Madison’s role as part of the street grid.

You can read the full plan here.

23rd Ave Update
“(The project is) planned, designed and built to accommodate all modes,” said Susan McLaughlin, SDOT Complete Street’s rep at last week’s community meeting to discuss the 23rd Ave project. “The pedestrian environment was deficient… is deficient.”

Issues raised for the “rechannelization” of 23rd as presented by the city reps included: potholes, narrow lanes, no turn lanes at key intersections, narrow and uneven sidewalks, and an inadequate buffer zone between pedestrians and vehicles. Lorelei Williams, SDOT Project Manager, said “We’re still trying to figure out the paving scope.” A hard deadline wasn’t given for the start of construction (the SDOT website states fall 2014 to winter 2015), but here is what you can expect:

  • (Image via SDOT)

    (Image via SDOT)

    Phase One construction: between John and Jackson on 23rd. The four traffic lanes will be reduced to three — turning the center into a turning lane. SDOT will also install bus pullouts so that buses can pull off and (ideally) be out of the flow of traffic. The City also plans on increasing the pedestrian-vehicle buffer zone and fixing up the sidewalks

  • Phase Two construction: between Jackson to below Rainier on 23rd. It establishes the same changes listed above. Construction is estimated to occur between fall 2015 and spring 2017, pending additional funding, according to the SDOT website. SDOT has secured $45 million for the project and will need an additional $19.5 million to finish phases two and three.
  • Phase Three construction: between John and Roanoke on 23rd. This section of road will remain four lanes, partially due to projects on 520 and Montlake, and not wanting to create dualing-project traffic delays. Plans to make this section to three lanes are on the backburner for now, but transit, sidewalk and signal improvements will be implemented. The SDOT website expects construction to start from Winter 2015 to Spring 2017.
  • According to SDOT, each phase will include: new pavement, sidewalk improvements, lighting improvements, increased transits reliability, traffic signal improvements, public art, and an adjacent neighborhood greenway.

One resident asked about the possibility of bottle-necking traffic and back-ups where the four lanes turn to three, but according to SDOT Traffic Engineer, Dongho Chang, impact studies show no evidence suggesting additional traffic strain will be created. The SDOT website explains it in these words:

On streets with 25,000 vehicles per day or fewer, redesigning a street from four lanes to three can reduce collisions, reduce speeding, allow vehicles to turn without blocking traffic, manage drivers cutting in and out of lanes, create space for wider sidewalks, make streets easier to cross, and make it easier for freight and transit to travel.

The good stuff, though, came during a slide describing a before and after traffic analysis for the project.

According to the slide, post construction, travel times will be improved by 30 seconds heading northbound on 23rd and 50 seconds southbound. Williams also said the 48 bus route is seeing a 3% ridership increase annually. However, there are still questions to be answered on the impact of construction to the community.

Another resident asked about the effects of construction and how that may divert traffic to side-streets. “To let you know, we are thinking about it,” said Williams. Another resident expressed concern about the current state of the corridor but was supportive of the three-lane change. “I have two young daughters, and I don’t feel safe when I’m on the sidewalk on 23rd waiting for the bus with them,” he said, noting the uncomfortable feeling of standing very close to a bus. This will likely be resolved with the increased buffer zone.

Central Area Greenway
Next up for SDOT, and related to the project, are plans for a greenway to run parallel to 23rd. It wasn’t discussed at length during the Miller Park meeting but a session February 26 will reveal information on what you might see along the greenway. Seattle Bike Blog is not a fan of the current plan for the project.

Meeting information is below:

SDOT is hosting an open house on February 26 to share updates for the Central Area Neighborhood Greenway as well as the 23rd Avenue corridor improvements project. Stop by to speak with project staff, learn more about the projects, and get your questions answered!

Wednesday, February 26

5 – 7:30 p.m.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary

2401 S Irving Street

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Pie in the sky
Pie in the sky
7 years ago

Wow…I was just talking about putting a cap on I-5 with a friend of mine not more than 2 days ago. Sadly, I don’t think it will ever happen. Seattle never wants to pay for large projects (but loves and praises them after they are finished), and this one would be a doozy. And, yes, we haven’t really demonstrated that we can successfully tackle any large-scale infrastructure project in the past few years… sigh. But what a glorious vision for the city.

Didn’t Portland seriously consider putting a lid on the 405 freeway that runs through NW? What stopped that, or is it still in consideration?

Steven Gomez
Steven Gomez
7 years ago

While the I-5 lid idea is neat, aren’t lids unable to support full buildings? Isn’t that why they only build parks on top of them? I think the only way a building’s foundation can rest atop a highway is if it’s physically constructed on the highway. A concrete shelf isn’t going to hold a skyscraper.

There are builds that appear to stand over highways, but their foundations are usually off the highway, with parts overhanging the highway like a big patio.

Wyatt O
Wyatt O
7 years ago
Reply to  Steven Gomez

It’s feasible. The city of Sydney did it over a large railroad track yard in 2002 (as one example) – it’s called Federation Square []. I doubt the buildings proposed in this extremely poor Photoshop attempt are possible, but lighter weight structures would be.

By the way, “The Northwest Urbanist” (I won’t even comment on this title…) sure looks like a 3rd year Architecture student from his website. He even states his blog is “purely for the author’s enjoyment,” and his arguments proposed are no justification for attempting such a massive project. Take the I-5 capping portion of this article with a thick grain of salt.

7 years ago
Reply to  Wyatt O

In fact he’s a planning student and states so. That doesn’t mean he’s without good ideas. As someone who walks James and Madison streets frequently, this sounds brilliant to me. Way off in the future, though.

7 years ago

I was happy to read that converting the northern section to 3 lanes is simply being put on the backburner due to other conflicting construction projects, and not being dismissed outright. I really think the road diet should be applied to 23rd/24th all the way to Montlake. But certainly at least to Aloha, before it heads downhill. Hopefully this can happen in the future.

7 years ago

I love the I-5 Lid Idea, however reconnecting the street drid north of denny would probably prove a bridge to far (pardon the pun) the elevation differential between melrose and eastlake is pretty consequential, and eastlake to yale is a doozy too. But why not just cover with green space and pedestrian/cycle paths? It would cut down on the noise a bit, but, ever hang out at freeway park?

7 years ago

I’m all for putting a lid on top of I-5. So loud!

Where do we sign the petition?


[…] that makes more space for bicycles, public open spaces that includes putting a lid on 405 (an idea I mentioned of I-5 near Capitol Hill), an amenity incentive system for farmers market spaces as well as pedestrian oriented […]