Last week brought new challenges to the key components of the city's ongoing plans for a waterfront rebuild. Three neighboring associations filed appeals questioning the adequacy of the city's impact analysis, or EIS, for reconstructing Alaskan Way and building a new promenade and overlook walk.
The main bone of contention? That the city plans to install a seven to eight-lane highway spanning four blocks of the project that was meant to reconnect Seattleites to the waterfront. On the Southbound side to the west, adjacent to the water, the configuration includes one transit lane and two general purpose lanes. On the Northbound side to east, the configurations includes two ferry terminal left-turn lanes, two general purpose lanes, and a transit lane. The Northbound side will also have a parking lane. West of the Southbound roadway there will be a planted buffer, a two-way bike lane, another buffer, and finally, a promenade along the waterfront itself. East of the Northbound roadway there will be a parking lane, a buffer, and a sidewalk. (As we reported this Spring, the Viaduct carries 20,0000 fewer cars than it did five years ago, and now includes Rapid Ride bus service, which suggests that perhaps a general purpose lane, rather than a transit lane should be on the chopping block.)
The appellants, including Alliance for Pioneer Square and the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association, argue that the current design defeats the project's original goal to "create a waterfront for all." The city's EIS, they say, neglects to explore alternatives to the surface highway or lay out how businesses and pedestrian accessibility will be impacted by the current design.
However, according to Marshall Foster, the city's waterfront program director, the wide surface road is a necessity to accommodate the 65,000 drivers and transit passengers that will use the SR-99 extension daily to get in and out of downtown.
"We’re trying to strike a balance between ensuring the street can be crossed easily and also being able to bring 30,000 people a day in on buses and 35,000 vehicles off of 99," Foster said.
Still, Leslie Smith, director of Alliance for Pioneer Square, calls the highway a "transportation project" that would disrupt any kind of pedestrian pathway from SoDo to the waterfront, effectively cutting off Pioneer Square from the amenities the project promised.
"When we think about people who will visit the waterfront and walk south on the promenade, are they going to continue south or will they be intimidated and turn away from the historic district when all of a sudden the road is twice as wide?" says Smith.
Feet First, an organization whose goal is to ensure Washington communities are "walkable," shares the appellants concerns, according to Smith, as does Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog.
"I’m concerned that after an immense investment to dig a tunnel highway to replace the viaduct, the city and state are poised to ruin this chance to reclaim our downtown waterfront for people and civic life," Fucoloro says.
While Fucoloro says the road would be difficult to cross for cyclists, he says it will be even more intimidating for pedestrians and will make visiting the waterfront unappealing.
"This will limit business and will undermine the public’s investment in it," he says.
Ultimately, Smith says the goal is to find a way to reduce the road to a reasonable size, potentially by relocating some of the 600 metro buses the highway is meant to accommodate.
"All of the transportation studies and the parking studies were done on data from 2009 and 2012. The landscape has changed a lot, the transportation infrastructure horizon has changed," she says. "We need to take another look at this."
But Foster believes the current design will address Smith and Fucoloro's concerns once realized; every intersection along the highway will be raised to give pedestrians priority and landscaped medians will divide north and south-bound lanes to provide a protected waiting area should slower pedestrians need more time to cross. "That doesn’t resolve the issue with the width but we’re doing everything we can given that situation to make that crossing work well for people," Foster says.
The next step, Foster says, is for Seattle's hearing examiner to review both the appeals and the adequacy of the city's EIS. It's a nine-month process that could send Foster's office back to the drawing board if the examiner rules in favor of the appellants.
Regardless, Foster doesn't believe the appeals will slow the city's plans.
"The kind of restoration the waterfront will go through will create a great new park for the city," Foster says. "I just don’t want people to lose that perspective on this issue."