After the federal government constructed I-5 in 1961, the Seattle Times compared the aftermath to the Blitz of London. The feds severed Downtown, First Hill, and surrounding neighborhoods from each other. Famed architect Paul Thiry’s dream of dealing with the mess by putting a lid over “The Big Ditch” with green space and buildings led to the creation of Freeway Park in the 1970s. Today, that spirit manifests in the Lid I-5 movement.
This determined group’s vision of reconnecting communities should inch forward on Tuesday, when the city council will likely address a pro-lid resolution, spearheaded by downtown Council Member Andrew Lewis.
More Housing, More Green Space
Advocates say the lid would revitalize a struggling downtown, which is so built-up that little space remains available for affordable housing, let alone a wide-open park where families could throw a frisbee around, as Lid I-5 Steering Committee Member Scott Bonjukian envisions. Depending on community needs, the lid could boast housing, a school, a library, or even fire station. In general, the lid offers the City a rare opportunity to literally create new land in the dense downtown core, according to the 2020 feasibility study.
Business supporters include the Downtown Seattle Association and the GSBA, an LGBTQ and allied chamber of commerce. Businesses like the idea because they're struggling to hire workers in part because it’s so expensive to live nearby, GSBA policy staffer Gabriel Neuman said over the phone. Plus, downtown retailers would surely love to absorb some of Capitol Hill’s foot traffic.
In addition to offering “breathing room” and amenities for Capitol Hill, the lid offers a kind of poetic justice for the neighborhood, Neuman argued. “Because of its separation from the downtown corridor, a lot of folks who weren't included in the mainstream economy back in the day set up shop in Capitol Hill, and we were really able to bloom from there. Now, I see this as a great way to no longer have that separation between the folks on the Hill and the folks downtown," they said.
The Lid I-5 movement touts potential health and environmental benefits of the plan, too. They’re collecting stories of asthma and insomnia from those who live near the freeway, including from residents of the low-income Olive Tower. The lid could also mitigate the highway's heat island effect and filter stormwater like the Swale on Yale.
One of Team Lid’s biggest advocates in Olympia is state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, whose district covers a lot of downtown. Along with Sen. Marko Liias, he helped secure $200,000 in the 2023-25 transportation budget for an updated feasibility study. “There's no way in the modern world that we would ever plow down a huge swath of the city and make a giant chasm over which people have to travel to get from literally one street to the next… I am 110% in support of figuring out the right plan to bury the thing and reknit those neighborhoods together,” he said in a phone interview.
So, why the need for an updated study? Because assumptions have shifted since 2020; office buildings are out, and affordable housing is in. Lid I-5 also wants to investigate removing freeway ramps and forgoing parking requirements for housing built atop the lid, which the 2020 report noted could shave off a tidy $500 million.
While a paltry sum in the grand scheme of the $13.4 billion transportation budget, that $200,000 for the updated study was still a matter of debate, said Rep. Jake Fey, chair of the House Transportation Committee. Some members balked at spending on hypothetical projects rather than on present-day problems. Fey mentioned several ongoing, multi-billion “megaprojects” such as the I-5 Bridge replacement. He worries about seismic risk, too.
“We can't get too far along this pathway until we’re certain that we don't have to do a lot of [seismic] work, because if we have some kind of failure in that geography, we're in a world of hurt,” he said.
In fact, part of Lid I-5’s game plan is to prod the Legislature to hurry up with freeway planning so that the group can hurry up with lid planning. For the 2023-25 budget, the Legislature set aside $11.9 million for an I-5 Master Plan, with a deadline of 2029. Travis Phelps, a WSDOT lead on this project, explained that I-5 has “a whole slew of resiliency issues,” including earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, which will be exacerbated by climate change.
The I-5 Master Plan will analyze exit ramp configurations from the U District to the International District, which Lid I-5 recommended. According to the 2020 report, the parts of the lid built around ramps would be the most expensive per square foot, soaring above even viaduct replacement tunnel levels.
While removing ramps altogether sounds appealing, Phelps cautions that ramps exist in a delicate ecosystem of freight, transit, commuters, etc. What if, unbeknownst to WSDOT, King County Metro has a top-secret plan for a new route that uses one of those ramps? Basically, WSDOT would need to set up a lot of Zoom meetings before they do anything major (or minor).
“Think of traffic a little bit like water, right? Let's say you’ve got a house and you remove a section of pipe. You still want to run the same amount of water, but you have that much less piping to do it. What happens to our transportation network if we take out a ramp? That can have ripple effects across our system,” he said.
Sen. Pedersen believes the lid could essentially pay for itself. Developers interested in building would need to buy the air rights from WSDOT, money that could go straight into lid construction. And to save on start-up costs, he argues that we should build the lid while we tear up I-5 to deal with its “resiliency issues.”
Phelps agrees that downtown urgently needs work, but he can’t confirm whether combining projects would bring down costs without knowing what those projects are: “It'd be a wild guess on my part.”
Lid I-5 is also currently applying for the federal Reconnecting Communities grant, which Reconnect South Park won last year (thanks, Mayor Pete!). Lid I-5 actually delayed its application so as not to steal South Park’s thunder, said Bonjukian.
Long-term, Bonjukian wants the federal government to foot most of the bill for the lid, but Rep. Fey cautioned that the feds only contribute around 15% of the state transportation budget, even post-infrastructure bill. It’s all a bit ironic, given that the federal government chipped in 90% to saddle us with I-5.
Regardless of how the math pencils out, does Seattle have the appetite for another megaproject after the spectacle of Big Bertha and the perceived disappointment of the waterfront? According to Bonjukian, Neuman, and Pedersen, broad community buy-in should prevent such infrastructure fatigue. Besides, it’s Lid I-5’s turn for a megaproject.
“We were rebuilding 520. Before that, we rebuilt I-90 with lids. And we took care of the monstrosity of the viaduct in the waterfront. So this is the last freeway in the central Seattle area that needs to be dealt with,” Bonjukian said.
He envisions boots on the ground in 10 years. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps. Lid I-5 may be used to waiting, since they’ve been doing it for 70-plus years. But they argue that it’s high time to deal with this Big Ditch.