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How New York’s High Line Gave Seattle a Waterfront Tunnel

More than ten years since Seattle’s Nisqually earthquake, some demolition has begun on the waterfront highway weakened by the temblor. The work marks the initial stages of construction of a deep bore tunnel, the key portion of a $3.2 billion project, to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which has loomed over downtown’s Elliott Bay shoreline for over 50 years.

The dust had barely settled after earthquake when a cacophony arose about what to do about the highway, designated a collapse threat in the event of another earthquake.

It took three public advisory votes before a rough consensus was achieved. Previously, the city was about evenly divided among those who wanted a tunnel, those who wanted a replacement viaduct, and those who wanted to demolish the viaduct and fashion a surface solution with increased public transit.

For a city known for its “Seattle nice” disposition, the slow grind toward an agreed upon plan was notable for its acrimony. The tunnel was derided as the second coming of the Big Dig. Viaduct supporters were mocked as hopeless nostalgics for aerial views from the highway. Surface solution supporters were seen as advocates for gridlock in their opposition to any new auto-serving infrastructure.

So what, other than sheer exhaustion, led 60 percent of voters this past August to essentially agree to move forward with the tunnel?

James Corner Field Operations is the short version.

Long version is that Seattle gets a once in a century do-over to give the city a world class waterfront park to go along with the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance.

By rolling out the design competition winner Field, landscape architect to the High Line in lower Manhattan, and initial renderings in May before the final decision was made on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement was made, the seemingly 10,000 member waterfront commission (process is also endemic in Seattle) gave residents something they could support, no matter their preference on how to replace the actual highway.

So, provided the tunnel boring machine doesn’t get stuck, downtown doesn’t disappear into a morass of sinkholes, and the money doesn’t dry up in a sea of cost overruns (all scenarios that were part of the debate), Seattle will get a waterfront transformed when the tunnel opens in late 2015 and the remainder of the viaduct is demolished.

Only then can the promise of the park and its supercool designer can be realized.