Across Seattle, a chorus of feeble, “Wait…what?”s are arising as people catch sight of artist’s illustrations of the new waterfront “boulevard” envisioned by city planners. Internet philosophe Fnarf anticipates much of the reaction with his article “City Proposes Waterfront Highway on Top of Tunnel” on Slog.
Seattle Bike Blog, while approving of the cycle tracks, says, “The new Alaskan Way, located mostly within the current footprint of the viaduct, will be four or five lanes for most of its length until it reaches Columbia Street. South of Columbia, it completely explodes with travel lanes and starts to look a whole lot more like a freeway than a waterfront boulevard.”
The assumption that, with a tunnel, the Viaduct would go away and be replaced by a meandering, flower-speckled goat-track was always suspect. From the beginning, a multi-lane boulevard was sketched out by the dead hand of history — how could the city replace Alaskan Way with anything less than its current lanes and retain its self-respect? The official Waterfront Seattle rhetoric soft-pedaled that, though, with talk of healing the scar created by the Viaduct, and stitching the waterfront back to the city.
Thus the surprise when images like this surface. Look at how tiny the people are! That’s because the streets are so big.
In these illustrations, the stitch to fix the scar is about as wide as the waterfront itself, and wider at parts. Tourists will share those remarkably spacious lanes with freight traffic delivering goods to the city. (The city-bypassing deep-bore tunnel also bans anything flammable or explosive, pushing those trucks onto the scenic drive as well.) The speed of boulevard traffic means the addition of parking/loading lanes, so that the “thin” north end is perhaps (with planted median) 80 feet or more.
That median separates north and southbound traffic, of course, but it’s also there because many won’t have enough time to cross the whole street in one go. The Street and Transit Update (pdf) avoids, anywhere, detailing the complete width of the boulevard. A street tree buffer is six feet wide, a sidewalk twelve feet, but lanes go unmeasured.
Isn’t this similar to San Francisco’s Embarcadero, some ask? It is. The difference is that San Francisco opted for a grand boulevard (and its tradeoffs) rather than spend $2 billion on a new tunnel, viaduct, or freeway. The state seems willing to spend $2 billion on a tunnel for Seattle and to clog its waterfront with cars and trucks.
(That said, with tunneling about to begin, the state is still trying to locate all of the $2 billion required, thanks to shortfalls in toll revenue projections. Neither has the Port of Seattle yet put paid on its $300 million, an amount that would have gotten them a much-needed overpass.)
Although the outrage “hook” is the view of nine lanes for motor vehicles (in part to speed ferry traffic to and from Colman Dock), Fnarf has a more insightful point to make as well:
But, as usual, what is missing from these photos is a city. The planners know how to build roads, so they build roads, but they have no idea how to build a city, so they just airbrush it out.
That’s to understate the role of cut-and-paste in this plan. If there is a street “enhancement” that’s been left out, it would be hard to say what it was. But they’re provided without context, plucked from cities and situations without regard for the environment that supports them.
All those verdant tree buffers and medians make sense in cities with a history of funding the kind of meticulous, ongoing landscaping care they require. Seattle’s budget doesn’t allow for its parks’ grass to be mowed weekly. Its sidewalks are everywhere in unsafe disrepair. The city has proven so averse to maintenance and upkeep that existing waterfront sidewalks sometimes swallow people up.
A city is always evidence of argument — sometimes of compromise, but at other times a single perspective has clearly won. Down at Seattle’s waterfront, there’s no possibility of agreement. Promenades and cycle tracks and places for leisure and sight-seeing can do nothing but clash with the exigencies of the workaday commute and the freight-delivery traffic that keeps downtown supplied. The tunnel was going to bury that argument, we were told, but here it is again.