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50 years after ‘Freeway Revolt,’ I-5 lid between Capitol Hill and downtown Seattle visions take shape

There’s a sort-of joke that floats around in land use circles that when deciding what to put on a piece of property: They’re not making any more land.

But if a Seattle group has its way, the city just might make more land — smack in the middle of it all — by putting a lid on I-5.

“A freeway lid is literally making land out of thin air,” said David Yeaworth, a consultant who worked with the group proposing the idea.

Lid I-5 Collaborative // Final Presentations

A citizen-led effort to put a lid over I-5, and develop ideas for what to do with the new real estate, is nearing a new phase with a presentation event next Wednesday night, October 3rd, on Capitol Hill. Teams will share their ideas shaped over months of community design gatherings for how a lidded I-5 might look, and what sorts of buildings and facilities could possibly go on it.

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“It’s a chance to educate decision makers and the public about what is possible,” said John Feit, one of the leaders of the Lid I-5 group, which started in 2010.

The design ideas won’t really even mark the end of the beginning for the effort, explained Feit. He noted that it could be a decade, or decades, before anyone tries to make a serious effort to cover the freeway and close the gap created when the highway split the city in two and kicked off the Seattle Freeway Revolt.

50 years ago, the Seattle Freeway Revolt kept the Central District from being ripped apart

The group’s ideas are unofficial and non-binding. If WSDOT, which owns I-5 and the land along it, ever decides to lid the freeway, it could incorporate all, some or none of the plans. Feit notes the state agency has been paying attention to the idea, but they lack the funding and time to start considering it right now. But WSDOT notwithstanding, the plans will be put to some use.

Feit said the University of Washington will conduct a real estate analysis of the economics and value a lid might have for private development. It can also look at the possibility that funds generated by the new buildings might offset the costs of building the lid. The Lid I-5 proposals will directly inform that study.

Also, in the next year there will be a study of the technical feasibility of building such a lid. The public benefits package for the Washington State Convention Center expansion project approved in May included $1.5 million to pay for a study of a lid across I-5 near the project. The issue isn’t really whether or not it’s possible to build –- virtually anything is possible with sufficient funds. The study will look at just how much money it might take to build a lid, in order to help decide if it’s worth the expense. That City of Seattle study also won’t have to use any of the ideas presented by Lid I-5, but it could choose to do so.

But before any of that will come the event where the plans are unveiled.

Feit explained that the proposed lid area, extending roughly from Madison to Thomas streets, was broken into three segments. The south segment from Madison to Pike, the central section from Pike to Olive, and the north from Olive to Thomas. Two separate teams brainstormed ideas for the south and central sections, while one worked on the northern portion.

Yeaworth, the consultant, said he was struck that groups studying all three sections tried to find ways to knit the city back together. I-5 acts almost like a river, splitting the city into eastern and western sections with a handful of bridges connecting the two parts of the city. The lid teams, Yeaworth said, strove to reconnect neighborhoods that had been cut off from each other when the highway was built in the 1960’s.

“So far its been pretty exciting to see a wide variety of ideas,” said Scott Bonjukian, one of the other leaders of the Lid I-5 group.

Each of the groups came up with different proposals, but some themes emerged overall. There was a call for adding green spaces and public parks, schools, and affordable housing developments.

In broad terms, Feit said both of the southern groups tried to find ways to preserve and enhance First Hill’s Freeway Park, and try to better connect it with Pike Street. Both of the groups looking at the southern section called for large amounts of parkland to be added, and one suggested a school.

The central groups devised more active uses for their segment. Both groups called for adding in more retail, hotel, commercial and residential buildings, in addition to creating some open space to balance out the new development.

The group handing the northern section which focused on adding housing had some of the largest design challenges in terms of topography. The height difference between the east and west sides of I-5 in that area can run as much as 45 or 50 feet Feit said. He was impressed by their ideas for addressing the steep grade.

Bonjukian explained the event will start with presentations from each of the five groups, and then comments from guest speakers including City Council member Sally Bagshaw, Seattle Office of Planning and Community development director Sam Assefa, and Seattle Parks Foundation executive director Thatcher Bailey.

After the presentations, there should be an opportunity for some questions and answers, and a chance to get a look at detailed drawings of each of the five groups’ ideas.

Visit the Lid I-5 website for more details about the group, and to get a look at the proposals as of August 2018.

The event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. (with presentations starting at 6) Oct. 3 at Melrose Market Studios, 1532 Minor Avenue. Appetizers and a cash bar will be available.

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7 thoughts on “50 years after ‘Freeway Revolt,’ I-5 lid between Capitol Hill and downtown Seattle visions take shape

    • Perhaps, but 50 years from now everyone will be glad it was done, and no one still living will admit having once opposed it.