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Two Efforts Work Together to Lid I-5

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By Kristin Bentley

In an effort to geographically reconnect the city by lidding a portion of the interstate highway I-5 that cuts through downtown Seattle, citizens of the city are banding together their professional talents and skills an effort to explore such an opportunity.

Currently, there are two efforts pushing for approvals from the city. One effort, led by the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council (PPUNC) involves the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) addition project and includes a study of the proposed lid between Pike Street and Olive Way that would include affordable housing, neighborhood businesses and open space. The other effort led by Chris Patano, director of Patano Studio Architecture, proposes a two-mile long lid from Downtown to Capitol Hill on top of which sits an affordable housing development and a park. While the groups are working separately, together they have gained the attention of the city leaders who are starting to take notice of the proposals.

The Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, spearheaded by local architect John Feit, has been around for many years, but it really evolved when it engaged the WSCC about the convention center addition at the end of 2014. The organization believes it can heal “the I-5 scar,” which has divided Seattle’s neighborhoods, and create new spaces for parks, housing, businesses, a school, and other uses deemed fit by its community-driven process. PPUNC has already kicked off the design review process with the city of Seattle, with the third design meeting scheduled for early May.

Anticipating the long approval process, PPUNC is focusing its efforts on funding a study on its current proposed lid, as it continues to gain popular public support for its vision. Depending on this outcome, Feit admits that the council may push for further lidding of I-5. “Four of us have gotten together and are leading the debate on lidding this contained area between Pike and Olive as a first step in a larger freeway lid,” Feit said. Exactly how large of a lid has yet to be decided.

Chris Patano is heading the Seattle C.A.P. effort that will provide a two-mile freeway lid, capping five street connections between the First Hill neighborhood and the southern end of Lake Union. Patano and his architect team see a park atop I-5 solving multiple problems at once, like reconnecting the severed urban fabric, reducing noise and air pollution, managing storm water and creating affordable housing.

Patano’s proposal fits in with several developments under way within the city of Seattle, and the lidding would provide just the last puzzle piece to connect them all. “Ninety-eight percent of what we’re proposing has to happen anyway. The convention center has to get built, the city’s going to build an arena. That section of I-5 has to be rebuilt. We need public housing, we need affordable housing, we need parks. Almost all of it is going to happen anyway, so really we’re just trying to push that last two percent forward to tie it all together,” Patano said.

One of the biggest concerns of those opposing the proposals for lidding I-5 is cost. However, Scott Bonjukian, a recent University of Washington graduate student was able to de-bunk that theory when he began researching freeway lids throughout the country and in the Puget Sound over two years ago. Last June, he adopted the idea for his thesis and joined the efforts of PPUNC. While working on his thesis, he discovered the average cost for a high-quality lid is in the range of $465-$575 per square foot, less than half the current cost of Downtown Seattle land of over $1,000 per square foot.

Another big concern is containing the freeway and preventing further expansion as Seattle’s traffic congestion increases with the population rise. However, Patano counters that an expansion would be impossible. “That is the most valuable land between Vancouver B.C. and San Francisco. There are buildings on both sides, up to the very edge. So to think that you’re going to cut more of the city out for a mode of transportation, that’s proven to be on the down-swing, is ludicrous to me,” he added.

According to Feit, Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien has also voiced concerns of the public benefit of the lid. “We decided, because we want to stay engaged in the public process, to turn our attention from the design of the building to the design of the public realm and the enhancements that the expense of the convention center can bring to its immediate area,” said Feit.

Right now both efforts are looking for continued strong community and city official support. “The length of the process depends on how much is lidded and how much political will there is with the Seattle City Council and other elected officials. I think more support from the community will help make it happen faster,” said Bonjukian.

Patano says that public support has not been a problem for him and his architects over the last six to seven months, as they receive emails and phone calls daily from land use attorneys, planners and city officials asking how they can help. “In a skeptical city like Seattle that typically shuns ‘the big idea,’ the fact that it has been so widely accepted and the people are really asking how to make this happen, I think that is the biggest hurdle.”