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Evaluating Infrastructure in Seattle: Miller Hull Proposes Radical Alternative for Decommissioned Battery Street Tunnel

Seattle, Battery Tunnel, The Miller Hull Partnership, San Diego, Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation

By Meghan Hall

Seattle’s Battery Tunnel was completed in 1955 and has since served as a major thoroughfare in Seattle and the primary connector between the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Aurora Ave. N. The tunnel’s decommissioning, however, has sparked a movement to save the structure and create viable public space once the road closes. A community initiative called Recharge the Battery is spearheading the effort to find an alternative use for the tunnel. The group presented a number of options to the City Council in the Spring of 2018, including one by The Miller Hull Partnership, an architecture firm based in Seattle and San Diego, Calif.

“We’ve always been passionate about what we could do in Seattle to elevate its thinking and envision a better connection to the environment,” said David Miller, founding partner at Miller Hull, who became involved in the initiative to revitalize the tunnel through a competition hosted by Recharge the Battery in 2017. Miller estimates that there were roughly 30 submissions, of which Miller Hull won first prize.

Miller Hull’s proposal, entitled, “The Right Way: Taking Back Seattle’s Right of Ways,” would remove the roof of the tunnel and create a landscaped ravine along University Street. A network of trails at the bottom of the ravine — formerly the road bed —would connect Denny Park to the Seattle Waterfront while a new pedestrian walkway at street level would be created by repurposing concrete beams from the original structure.

“This proposal is based on the premise that the city’s current urban condition contains latent opportunities created by past actions,” read the opening line of Miller Hull’s proposal.

Miller admits that the proposal is out-of-the-box but believes that such solutions are possible and needed in Seattle’s rapidly urbanizing environment.

“We’ve had a history of doing competitions and thinking about the city in conceptual ways, and how Seattle could connect to its environment in ways that are unique to our ecology and our history,” said Miller of the team’s inspiration behind the proposal.

Terraced ponds, waterfalls, a salmon run and native forest green space are all a part of the Miller Hull proposal in an effort to reconnect Seattle with its surrounding natural environment. Miller says that the proposal is important because downtown Seattle lacks green space and the city will need to prepare for a future in which cars are no longer the dominant means of transportation.

“Long range, we are not going to be in our cars as much, and that future is going to come very quickly,” said Miller. “We really feel strongly we should give back to the natural environment and create green pathways.”

“I would love to see some of our political leaders take a bold step and think about what we could do with the city that isn’t so dedicated to the automobile,” he added.

According to Miller, reforesting the ravine would create a carbon sink and would lend itself to better air quality within the city.

Recharge the Battery presented the proposal to the Seattle City Council in the spring of 2018 but were reminded that plans were already in place for the tunnel’s future use; the fate of the tunnel had already been sealed.

“The City Council was very supportive and of course they’re great listeners, but they thought it was too late in the game,” he said.

The City Council voted 7-2 in March 2018 to execute its previous agreement with the Washington Department of Transportation to decommission the tunnel and fill it with the debris created from the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The project will commence once the State Route 99 tunnel is complete. Councilmembers Debora Juarez and Sally Bagshaw voted “no” on the initiative, according to public documents.

The council’s decision was based on the fact that it had already negotiated with the State Department of Transportation, the Seattle Parks Department and the Seattle Department of Transportation to fund the decommissioning and filling of the tunnel. Additionally, retrofitting the tunnel to allow for an alternative use could cost tens of millions in seismic upgrades, said the Seattle Department of Transportation in a statement.

However, the effort to propose and execute an alternative use for the Battery Street Tunnel poses a greater question about what other unique approaches can be taken when updating Seattle’s infrastructure. Miller’s vision of a future Seattle includes more ravines.

Miller Hull and Recharge the Battery are in talks with the city about pursuing similar, but different opportunities throughout Seattle. Miller says they will remain persistent and continue to pursue various options through Seattle agencies and community groups.

“If these ideas could go forward, it would have a big impact not just on the grand visual idea that would be signature to Seattle, but it would also perform an environmental service.”