By Jack Stubbs
There’s been a lot of development activity occurring in Belltown over the last several months, and a new initiative is in the works: “Recharge The Battery,” a community-driven effort working to encourage the conservation of the Battery Street Tunnel, a 120,000 square foot tunnel in Belltown that runs along Battery Street from Denny Way to the waterfront.
The Recharge the Battery team is comprised of various Belltown residents, artists and designers, non-profit organizations and sponsors. Some of these organizations include Friends of Historic Belltown, Project Belltown, Bellwether Housing, Downtown Seattle Association, Growing Vine Street and Seattle Parks Foundation.
Through various community outreach efforts and public engagement events, the team is currently working to generate interest in the past, present and future possibilities for the Battery Street Tunnel, which is now obsolete for vehicular traffic.
The city’s current plans call for the Battery Street Tunnel to be closed off and filled with material from the demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct, an undertaking that will begin in 2019.
The Battery Street Tunnel spans 2.75 acres and comprises seven blocks of covered open space in the heart of downtown Seattle—and the tunnel’s history in the city spans several decades. The Battery Street Tunnel was completed in 1952 and has serviced the city of Seattle for over 65 years. As the City of Seattle’s Engineering Department’s first project in tunnel design, it was originally designed to minimize traffic disruption and reduce the risk to neighboring buildings. Currently, the tunnel is the primary connector between the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Aurora Avenue North, serving over 120,000 commuters a day, according to the project web site.
The project team hopes that the city will suspend its plans to fill the Battery Street Tunnel to allow for a public visioning process regarding the future of the tunnel: the hope is that it can become a model of infrastructural reuse and a community asset for Belltown and the City of Seattle.
The Recharge the Battery team recognizes that the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and opening of the new State Route-99 Tunnel will proceed on schedule, but it hopes that the future of the tunnel will be considered as a separate issue, according to Jon Kiehnau, a Belltown resident on the project’s board of advisors who is helping to lead Recharge the Battery. “We are simply asking to separate viaduct demolition from tunnel decommissioning,” Kiehnau said.
In its attempts to prevent the tunnel from becoming another landfill site, the project team is exploring ways that the tunnel can be repurposed for community uses, activities and events. In the long-term, the team is considering various open space, recreation, water conservation and stormwater collection and pedestrian priorities.
Kiehnau thinks that with a re-envisioning process of future uses for the tunnel, a better use for the site can be determined. “With downtown land selling for $1,100-plus per square foot, we think a landfill is a counter-intuitive use of public resources. We consider the 2.75 acres simply as a developable ‘void’ more valuable to the public than a landfill,” Kiehnau wrote in an email.
And the future uses for the Battery Street Tunnel might have financial implications as well. Property values of $1,200 to $2,000 per square foot in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood fixes the tunnel’s value at $133 million to $240 million, according to the project’s web site.
And while the Battery Street Tunnel occupies a prominent location in Seattle’s downtown urban core, the project team is also taking cues from other adaptive reuse projects, both nationally and internationally, to give further weight to its case. “We’re advocating a standard practice from cities around the world,” Kiehnau said. “When a tunnel is decommissioned, the space is secured, often for decades, with the notion that in the future, there will be a meaningful use,” he added.
Some of these project precedents include the Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project in Seoul, a 6.8-mile stretch of transportation infrastructure that was repurposed as a public recreation space; The Dupont Underground, where abandoned tunnels below Washington, D.C. were repurposed as art spaces; and the Philadelphia Rail Park, the revitalization of three miles of unused rail lines into a public park.
Locally, the project team is currently working with WSDOT and city officials to explore alternate uses for the tunnel. Specifically, the team is asking the city to consider new information that further informs the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision regarding the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project and the Battery Street Tunnel.
On January 8th, 2018, WSDOT issued an RFP that combined demolishing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and landfilling the Battery Street Tunnel. However, the project team is still urging the state to consider new information that was not available in 2011, when the city first published its decision regarding the tunnel. The project team is planning to submit an interim strategic plan for the tunnel sometime before March 31st, 2018.
Over the next few months, the process regarding the future of the BST will continue to unfold. On March 31st, contractors’ RFPs for the Viaduct demolition project are due back to the state, and on June 1st, the state will choose a contractor for the project. The city plans to start construction on the project by September 1st.
The final decision could have significant financial consequences as well. At this point, it is estimated that the Viaduct demolition project would be anywhere from a $80 million to $100 million undertaking, with the work on the BST accounting for around $30 million of that figure.
In the meantime, the coalition is circulating a petition to the public that opposes the landfilling of the Battery Street Tunnel and continuing to push for the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition and the tunnel decommissioning to be viewed as separate projects. Additionally, the coalition is hosting a variety of public events to communicate potential uses for the tunnel, the next of which is the “Walk the Battery” event, which is scheduled for March 4th, 2018.
Ultimately, Kiehnau hopes that ongoing community support for the prominent site will give it a new lease on life moving forward. “The reason why we’re being vocal as a community is that this is public property. While it’s useful life for vehicular traffic is done, if we conserve it today, we can repurpose it productively in the future.”