It’s time to vote down one of the most disastrous ballot measures to come before Seattle voters in years: Initiative 123, a rogue attempt to disrupt over a decade of planning and waste millions of dollars in design for Seattle’s new waterfront park. I-123 would undo the community’s vision for a shoreline reborn with the removal of the highway viaduct, the creation of a new seawall and waterfront promenade, and a new pedestrian connection to Pike Place Market. This irresponsible and unaccountable measure must be defeated at the ballot box on August 2nd.

I’ve provided extensive background coverage on I-123 over the past two years. Read part one and part two for all of the technical and historical details.

To summarize, Initiative 123 started as a proposal by designer and 2013 mayoral candidate Kate Martin to save the Alaskan Way Viaduct—the aging, hulking, and seismically vulnerable double decker highway that has blockaded Downtown Seattle from its working waterfront for over 60 years. Martin lost the election, but when the tunneling machine for the viaduct’s underground replacement stalled in late 2013 she continued the idea as an independent effort known as Park My Viaduct. The idea was driven primarily by the desire to preserve the views experienced from behind a windshield when driving at 60 miles per hour 58 feet above the street.

Left: Alaskan Way today. Right: Alaskan Way with the Waterfront Seattle plan. (City of Seattle)
Left: Alaskan Way today. Right: Alaskan Way with the Waterfront Seattle plan. (City of Seattle)

Waterfront Seattle, the official plan for the public land along Elliot Bay in Downtown, is motivated by the anticipated demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and calls for a 26 block public park stretching from the sports stadiums in Pioneer Square to the Belltown neighborhood. The plan emphasizes the waterfront as a legacy gathering place, and its development involved thousands of citizens and 400 public meetings over the past decade. The waterfront promenade will include a wide new shoreline path for pedestrians, a series of planting beds that filter stormwater, a bike path, beach access, and a rebuilt Alaskan Way that functions better as an urban street (though there are still valid concerns about the width of that street).

Two-thirds of Waterfront Seattle’s $709 million cost is secured, with the rest anticipated to come from a tax on properties that will benefit the most from the viaduct’s removal and the new park.

Public input was collected in a variety of ways for Waterfront Seattle. (City of Seattle)
Public input was collected in a variety of ways for Waterfront Seattle. (City of Seattle)

After all of the work that went into Waterfront Seattle, which was based on the core premise of removing the dangerous and unsightly viaduct, Martin enlisted the financial support of developer Martin Selig to study if saving the viaduct is possible. Short story: it’s not, unless one wants to pay $262 million that still wouldn’t guarantee the viaduct’s safety. Not letting that get in their way, the campaign proposed instead to demolish the viaduct—save for a 400 feet long section near Pike Street—and rebuild in its place a mile long pedestrian bridge for $165 million. The vision has changed so drastically that Selig pulled his support and has actually started donating to the “No” campaign, and The Stranger reports the I-123 campaign is now at least $72,000 in debt.

The idea morphed into a political campaign to create a Public Development Authority (PDA), the same type of government-owned corporation that manages Pike Place Market, Capitol Hill Housing, and other notable Seattle institutions. Creating a PDA requires public approval. Using misleading canvassing that appropriated the City’s “Waterfront For All” slogan, last year I-123 supporters collected enough signatures to qualify for a public vote. The Seattle City Council begrudgingly put the issue on the docket, saying in Resolution 31607: “Initiative Measure 123 is inconsistent with the Strategic Plan, Central Waterfront Concept Design and Framework Plan, and the Funding Plan for the Waterfront redevelopment and improvements and undermines the vision for Waterfront Seattle”.

And now on August 2nd Seattle voters will voice their opinion on whether to proceed with the vetted and adopted Waterfront Seattle vision or to abruptly change course and undo many years of consensus-building and thoughtful design.

I-123 would establish a Downtown Waterfront Preservation and Development Authority with Kate Martin and several others automatically elected to its board. The language of I-123 grants this PDA the power to seize any and all City funds and surplus lands it deems necessary to implement the garden bridge, and the PDA would effectively have complete control over the city’s waterfront planning.

A section view of the planted portion of the waterfront that will filter stormwater. This area will be narrowed or removed altogether under the I-123 proposal. (City of Seattle)
A section view of the planted portion of the waterfront that will filter stormwater. (City of Seattle)
A conceptual section drawing of the proposed garden bridge. (Initiative 123)
A conceptual section drawing of the proposed garden bridge. (Initiative 123)

Building the garden bridge on the area currently assigned for the new Alaskan Way would force the street westward, where space is currently designated for the pollutant-filtrating plants, bike path, and wide pedestrian promenade. These areas will be narrowed or removed altogether under the I-123 proposal, and waterfront visitors will walk underneath a towering structure on narrowed sidewalks and closer to traffic. The plan also appears to create a significant amount of on-street parking, a wasteful use of Downtown land and a likely cause for traffic conflicts not anticipated by current plans.

The environmental consequences will be significant, as stormwater laced with oils, metals, and other pollutants will no longer have a place to be filtered and cleansed before running into Elliot Bay. This will directly impact the young salmon that are being attracted to the shoreline by the new seawall’s shade and habitat.

The new lid and ramp connection between the waterfront and Pike Place Market won't be possible if Alaskan Way has to be rerouted from the plan. (City of Seattle)
The new overlook connection from the waterfront to the market. (City of Seattle)

The garden bridge would also completely disrupt the vision for connecting Pike Place Market to the waterfront and the Seattle Aquarium. A new lid and ramp over the north end of the street will offer stunning views, new green space, and room for the planned Aquarium expansion, but it won’t be possible if Alaskan Way has to be rerouted from the adopted plan. The preserved 400 feet long section of the old viaduct between Pike Street and Union Street would also forbid this important connection.

A coalition behind the “Vote No on I-123” campaign is composed of several local organizations, including: the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Seattle chapter; the Seattle Parks Foundation; Seattle Aquarium; the Downtown Seattle Association; the Alliance for Pioneer Square; and, of course, Friends of Waterfront Seattle. The coalition hosted a panel discussion last week that focused on the positive aspects of the official plan, and the panelists emphasized that $44 million in public funds has already been spent on design.

The speakers also noted that the I-123 campaign’s attempt to compare itself to the High Line is inappropriate, as that project in New York has a completely different urban context and is an adaptation of existing infrastructure. Martin’s garden bridge would be taller, completely new, and require elevators and 1,000-foot long ramps to access. In fact, landscape architect James corner was the lead designer on both the High Line and Waterfront Seattle, and he dismisses the garden bridge as a “dumb idea”.

Martin attended the “No” campaign’s event and repeatedly interrupted the presentations with accusations of “that’s inaccurate”, “false”, and “incorrect”. Event organizers printed the text of I-123 on the fly to ensure the audience that the panelists were being factual, and the moderator did not give Martin a chance to take over the discussion. Later on, one of the speakers aptly declared, “We’ve got to finish what we started”.

After the event I spoke to Heidi Hughes, Executive Director of Friends of Waterfront Seattle, and she echoed the same theme. She said the Pike Place Market expansion, the Aquarium expansion, the seawall construction, and the Highway 99 tunnel construction are all underway. Waterfront Seattle has significant momentum. Initiative 123 would bring all of it to a crashing halt due to financial and legal uncertainties.

Lisa Richmond, Executive Director of Seattle’s AIA chapter, remarked that this is one of five major policy issues that her membership is working on. She said I-123 is getting too little media coverage, making the measure dangerous for the public, and she believes simply getting the word out will ensure its defeat. Local architects have contributed to Waterfront Seattle’s success for many years.

Over 80 percent of Seattleites polled support the waterfront park. Whether you love Waterfront Seattle for its new public spaces, environmental benefits, pedestrian and bicycle connections, or the new chances to touch the water, you should vote NO on Initiative 123 by August 2nd to ensure a more vibrant future for our city.

For more information, visit the Vote No on I-123 campaign website.

The Urbanist Elections Board endorsed a No vote on I-123. Voting members of the 2016 Primary Elections Board consisted of Owen Pickford, Ben Crowther, Scott Bonjukian (the author), Doug Trumm, and Ryan Packer. Click here for our 2016 Primary Election Endorsements.

Article Author

Scott Bonjukian has degrees in architecture and planning, and his many interests include neighborhood design, public space and streets, transit systems, pedestrian and bicycle planning, local politics, and natural resource protection. He cross-posts from The Northwest Urbanist and leads the Seattle Lid I-5 effort. He served on The Urbanist board from 2015 to 2018.