There are plenty of nicknames for the concrete canyon of I-5 as it bisects downtown and First Hill, particularly at Pike and Pine, where the center of downtown leads up to the Paramount Theatre and then drops off. Pedestrians continuing up to Capitol Hill have narrow sidewalks on the freeway overpasses, with traffic on one side and a deep abyss of roaring I-5 traffic on the other.
Even in the early 1960s, some far-sighted Seattleites called to “Block the Ditch” planned for I-5, but the freeway bulldozed through anyway. Now, with the Washington State Convention Center pushing ahead with plans to expand capacity by building on an additional downtown site, there’s hope that “vacating” some streets at the edge of I-5 to accommodate WSCC’s plans could be traded for opportunities to lid I-5. Some grand conceptualizations for lidding I-5 and replacing our concrete canyon with pedestrian-friendly development and green spaces have been covered by CHS in recent months. The Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council has set May 7th, from 8 AM to 1 PM at 12th Ave Arts for a community design charette to set a vision for the effort.
One of the crew with a vision for fixing Seattle’s “urban scar” is Scott Bonjukian, education and programming director for The Urbanist, the nonprofit that partnered with the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council to host a Sunday morning walking tour on lidding I-5.
The tour starts at Freeway Park, built as an I-5 lid in 1976. We gather at the plaza at 6th and Seneca, one of the few areas of the park that is open to and fully visible from the street. Its lack of “way signs and sightlines,” says Bonjukian, is a reason the park is underused, even in the daytime. He says most people are unaware that there are a total of 10 entry/exit points to this park—they’re concealed around concrete corners and down dark passages.
Bonjukian leads us toward the Convention Center through what, in a world without crime, would be a delightful deconstructed maze of a park. In this reality, Bonjukian makes a good argument for doing some work to open up the design and bring in the public. When we reach the Convention Center, he reveals his urban designer chops (“The Case for Lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle” is based on his master’s thesis) with the phrase “Brutalist pixilation” to describe the park’s design elements (those impressively huge concrete planting beds) you see as you enter the 4th floor atrium from the terrace that connects to Freeway Park.
Bonjukian takes us down the escalators (another under-appreciated fact: they’re classified as a public hill-climb) over to Convention Place Station, where WSCC is planning a $1.4 billion, 1.5 million-square-foot structure built right up to the pavement. Bonjukian thinks one of the project’s most do-able public benefits would be freeway lidding over at Boren and Pine, where there’s some big stone urns, the sliver of an off-leash dog park, and a steep slope down to I-5. The triangle of wasted air space over the freeway is a good candidate for a lid, he explains, as he leads us across Boren to the other half of Plymouth Pillars Park..
There we get a vista of freeway, framed by salvaged limestone columns. Bonjukian looks determined. It’s just a matter of time, he says—“within a decade or two”— before work has to be done on I-5 anyway. Infrastructure is one of those things you have to update now and then, on top of which, I-5 was not built to modern seismic standards. For a moment, we share the vision: pedestrians strolling through an open park that covers the I-5 “ditch” and heals that urban scar.
Tuesday night brings a public meeting on the WSCC Addition Draft EIS. CHS wrote about the process around the environmental impact statement here.
WSCC Addition Draft EIS Public Meeting
Tuesday, March 29, 2016 – 5:30 pm – 7:00 PM
Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place, Room 206