This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Whether you support a new SR99 tunnel or a surface/transit option to replace the viaduct, one thing that both sides agree on is that the noisy, elevated double-decker freeway coursing through downtown is preventing Seattle from getting maximum enjoyment from its waterfront.
Having recently returned from a brief trip to Sydney, Australia, however, I’m suddenly haunted by the question: what if the viaduct isn’t the problem? We tear it down, JCFO works their magic, and the result is… crickets. The same old collection of tourist traps.
Now, I admit I haven’t watched JCFO’s presentation yet. No doubt they’ve considered this. In the meantime, however, consider Sydney harbor:
A double-decker viaduct separates the downtown from the waterfront, which has an array of ferry terminals, cruise ship ports and, of course, the iconic Opera House. And yet: Sydney’s harbor is bustling! You can’t quite see it in this photo, but at night there are tons of pedestrians, street musicians, commuters, and the like. The harbor is a hub of activity; if not 24/7, then close to it.
To be sure, there are plenty of differences between Sydney and Seattle. One is that the lower deck of their viaduct is a commuter rail station (Circular Quay) where thousands of passengers pass through every day. With the shops built into the ground floor, it actually resembles Frank Chopp’s megaduct. The key difference, of course, being the transit component.
Second, the ferries that leave from the harbor are passenger-only. This means that there’s plenty of foot traffic going to and from the train station and the ferry terminal, and no long lines of cars queuing up to board. The result is lots of news stands, cafes and the like.
Finally, Sydney has beautiful weather nearly year-round. That certainly helps.
All of this is just to say that we can’t rely on tearing down the Viaduct to turn the Waterfront into a vibrant area. Transit is hugely important. It’s more than a little troubling that neither the city, nor the state, nor the county have significant plans to turn the waterfront into a pedestrian-centric transit hub.