Comments to “WSDOT Expert Panel” on
Why “the Rebuild” is not a practical solution
The Rebuild option is not a politically realistic solution. It cannot be accomplished because of what I call the "Westlake Park phenomenon."
Some background. Back in the late 60's the voters of this region authorized a host of public works known as Forward Thrust. One of those works was to have been a park, a public open space, a "town square" on the the site which is now Westlake Center, a shopping mall and office tower in Seattle’s CBD. Over several decades Seattle debated the nature of this civic space. Finally, in the mid-80s, the City Council decided that a park on the site was not appropriate and that a shopping mall and office tower should be built instead.
The first stage of the project was to demolish the buildings then on the site.
To the surprise of everyone (except perhaps the visionaries who had advocated for the park in the first place,) once the site was cleared a huge number of citizens saw the site’s power and the wisdom which had motivated its inclusion in Forward Thrust. The site was a magnificent and logical one for a civic open space. It was a space where several plats came together and the street grid was interrupted. The site had views -- believe it or not -- to Lake Union which had hitherto been obscured by the buildings. The planners had planned well -- it was a great place -- and many citizens finally saw it when the buildings came down.
There was sufficient civic uproar. Some activists -- one current and one past City Councilmember among them -- organized to reverse the City Council's decision. (Bear in mind that in Seattle, all decisions are subject to reconsideration and no decision is final.) These activists came close to succeeding. The Council was under a lot of pressure and from what I understand came very close to killing the retail mall/office tower. The primary thing which stopped them was the City had already signed contracts with the developer and would have suffered severe penalties had it decided to keep the site as public open space.
Well I don't think I need to draw out the story for you in too fine a detail as I am sure that you can see the analogy of Westlake Park to the Viaduct. Once you tear down the Viaduct you cannot replace it with another elevated structure.
I suggest that the Rebuild is not politically realistic because the same Westlake Park phenomenon will surface. Once the existing Viaduct is torn down to make way for the a total Rebuild, people, including thousands hitherto not involved, will see how magnificent the waterfront is without the Viaduct and will organize to prevent the Rebuild.
The Westlake Park activists had only a month or so, at best. Here, open waterfront advocates will have the advantage of a vastly longer time frame. There will be at least a year in which people will both hear the improvement -- no traffic noise -- and see/experience an open waterfront. It's hard to visualize a building before it is built -- or visualize a vacant lot before the building on it is torn down. So once people see a waterfront without a Viaduct, there will not be the political will to build a new one.
Once people see how nice the waterfront is when there is no Viaduct, I do not believe that State and Local politicians will be able to withstand the uproar and will be pressured to kill a Rebuild.
(Btw, this is by no mean an argument for the Tunnel, of course, as it has its own set of fatal flaws such as money and the construction period mobility problem about which everyone is finally aware. In fact, as an aside, I think that the Tunnel is a very bad idea but so many people are commenting in that vein that I see no reason to say anything more than that the Tunnel is also not realistic.)
Of course I make one very big assumption: the Westlake Park phenomenon only comes into play if WSDOT's Construction Period Transportation Plan actually works and that there are very few traffic jams and no significant impact on the life and economy of the City, including especially downtown retailers and office tenants.
Of course if that Plan works really well then you run into the situation which many other have suggested: if the Construction Period Transport Plan is so good, why rebuild anything at all? Save the billions and fix 520 and the many other transport facilities around the State which are decaying.
Then again, it might be that the Construction Period Transport Plan is a fiasco and there is total chaos with massive tie-ups on I-5 and in the CBD itself and with business declining everywhere as even in-city residents travel to the suburbs for shopping and entertainment. Well in that case the the Westlake Park phenomenon might not apply and the pubic will be feverishly and angrily waiting for some replacement -- any replacement. And in that case I wouldn't want to be a public official running for reelection. As well, if I were an elected official now, I would be very cautious about entrusting my job to the opinions of traffic engineers about what will work in the construction period. The elected officials will eventually decide that they like their jobs.
For this and many other reasons (primarily related to the construction period) I suggest that the Rebuild is not a realistic solution.