Tunnel
(Photo by Greg Shaw)

Seattle City Council this week approved a timeline for tearing down the Highway 99 viaduct. Damaged by an earthquake in 2001, the double-decker highway is being replaced by a controversial, long-delayed deep bore tunnel that’s finally set to open in 2018. Currently cast in the shadow of the elevated highway, Seattle’s waterfront will be transformed into a linear park and promenade when the viaduct comes down in 2019.

Amid these changes to the landscape, Recharge the Battery, a grassroots group of architects, planners, artists, engineers and community members, sees another opportunity to transform infrastructure. Currently, Highway 99 runs through the 2,000-foot-long, 60-foot-wide, cut-and-cover Battery Street Tunnel, which takes drivers under the Belltown neighborhood. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will decommission the tunnel along with the viaduct.

The department plans to fill the tunnel with concrete from the teardown and cap both ends to block access, but the group at Recharge the Battery says that would be a mistake. Instead, they want to see that 120,000 square feet of unused space in the heart of the city converted into a subterranean park to serve growing Belltown.

“We believe it’s a bad decision, but it’s not too late to change it,” says Jon Kiehnau, co-founder of Recharge the Battery and a Belltown resident. “To look at the tunnel simply as a liability and fill it in is a one-sided take. You have to look at the fact that the tunnel is 120,000 square feet. Based on the current price of real estate it’s worth more than $100 million. You have to look at what a positive thing it can be.”

When Recharge the Battery asked neighborhood residents in September to imagine alternative ideas for the tunnel, suggestions included a natural park, an ice skating rink, a skate park, event spaces, underground retail, art galleries, gardens and a public bath house. The southern exit of the tunnel sits adjacent to the future northern end of the redeveloped waterfront.

“I think it wants to be an amenity to both the neighborhood and the broader city. It wants to be inviting to everyone around the clock and around the calendar and to all ages and all income levels. It should feel truly public and be comprised of a variety of interests and activities,” says Lyle Bicknell, principal urban designer with Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development and a member of Recharge the Battery’s advisory committee.

The group is looking to examples of urban reuse around the world for inspiration. They point to the New York Transit Museum, which is built in a decommissioned subway station. Washington, D.C., turned a defunct underground trolley line in Dupont Circle into the Dupont Underground, an art space that’s still developing. The city of Seoul removed a 6.8-mile elevated highway and built the Cheonggyecheon, a public park along a now-unearthed natural stream.

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Originally written by Josh Cohen