The Drive to Close Downtown Seattle's Freeway Divide Gains Speed

Proposed I-5 lid seeks to bridge downtown Seattle’s freeway chasm
TERRA FIRMA: Rendering of an I-5 lid concept prepared as part of a 2018 grassroots design project sponsored by Lid I-5 and the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council.

This article appears in the May 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Seattle recently unveiled the SR 99 tunnel and is in the process of reconnecting its waterfront to downtown with the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct — a redevelopment effort that cost some $3.3 billion and took nearly 20 years to come to fruition. The city is now eyeing an ambitious, expensive effort that would place a lid over a nearly one-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Denny Way to the north and Madison Street on the south, uniting neighborhoods divided by a slice of I-5 that cuts through the eastern edge of downtown.

A $1.2 million study is underway “to look at the technical feasibility and the management options and the cost issues,” Sam Assefa, director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development, says. The office is administering the contract with the consulting team chosen to carry out the feasibility study — a team led by global engineering firm WSP.

The plan calls for creating a 12.2-acre cap, or lid — essentially, a new slice of land — that would reconnect the thriving First Hill and Capitol Hill neighborhoods with Seattle’s downtown core and the booming Denny Triangle neighborhood just north of the central business district. Ideas for the lid include a new city park, a blend of green spaces and limited commercial development, or private development that includes housing, retail and office space.
The business community is increasingly supportive of the plan because it would make downtown more walkable and create more land in an area approaching development capacity.

A park would require greater public financing, says Jon Scholes, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Seattle Association, whose board has endorsed the effort to explore the lid.

“And then, the other end, where it’s entirely private development, there's really a limited public-financing contribution, but also limited public space,” Scholes adds. “Those are the two ends of the spectrum, and I think somewhere in between is probably where this ends up.”

Costs for this project are unknown but estimates for a 7-acre freeway-cap project underway in Washington, D.C. —a privately funded, mixed-use development called Capitol Crossing — are estimated to be up to $800 per square foot, says Liz Dunn, a principal with real estate developer Dunn + Hobbs LLC and a member of the Lid I-5 Steering Committee. Based on that estimate, the price tag for Seattle’s proposed I-5 lid alone, not including what is built on top of the cap, would come out to about $418 million.

Considering, however, that downtown Seattle land, as scarce as it is, now sells for about $1,000 per square foot, according to the Lid I-5 citizen group, adding a dozen acres of new land to downtown via a freeway lid would be a bargain, especially if that new land creates opportunities for additional public space and for badly needed affordable housing. The Downtown Seattle Association found that 85,000 jobs have been created downtown since 2010, but only 38,000 housing units have been added.

FREEWAY CAP: Another rendering of what an I-5 lid might look like created as part of the 2018 design-concepting effort.

“We’re out of land downtown, and developers of affordable housing would be buying that land somewhere,” Dunn says. “If it turns out we can build it in the heart of downtown, for less than it costs to buy it in some less-than-optimal location, then it starts to make sense.”

Dunn and Assefa, along with Karen Thompson, director of planning for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), which is overseeing a freeway-cap project in Philadelphia, offered their takes on the proposed Seattle freeway lid during a recent panel discussion at the Downtown Seattle Association’s annual State of Downtown event. Thompson says the $225 million Penn’s Landing park project in Philadelphia, which involves constructing a 4-acre freeway lid, is slated to break ground in 2021, some 11 years after initial planning for the effort began.

“We never had an expectation that we were going to be potentially developing office towers or mixed-use residential on this [lid, or cap, as it’s called in Philadelphia],” Thompson says. “So this [freeway cap] is going to be anchored and surrounded by development and be a park within that larger area. So, we never really intended our structure to hold more than what we're planning for, which is a cafe and a pavilion supporting an ice-skating rink.”

The bulk of the funding for the Penn’s Landing project came from the city and state. The economic boost from the freeway-cap park — a projected $1.6 billion in added tax revenue over 40 years — is expected to be generated from nearby real estate development. As many as 2,000 residential units, 750 hotel rooms and more than 100,000 square feet of retail space could be developed, according to a DRWC-sponsored consultant’s analysis.

Elsewhere, Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, built atop a 5-acre lid extending over an eight-lane freeway in the city’s downtown, has created more than $2 billion in economic development and increased property value in the area surrounding the park since it opened in 2012. The Dallas park, financed with a mixture of public and private funds, is owned by the city but operated by a nonprofit foundation, and has a built-in restaurant, food-truck parking and programmed entertainment events, including concerts and markets.

In the case of Seattle, however, the opportunities for spinoff development surrounding the freeway-lid plan now under study are quite limited, Scholes says.

“I think a lot of that land is already zoned at a very high density and is largely built-out,” he says. “So, I don’t think this project necessarily will unlock a lot of new private development adjacent to the actual study area.” He adds, however, that the proposed I-5 lid project may create opportunities to enhance and better link existing park spaces downtown, such as Seattle’s 5.2-acre Freeway Park — which, along with the expanded Washington State Convention Center, is built partially on a freeway lid that bridges I-5.

“We have experience with lids within the region, and certainly we’re seeing a lot of investment in design and construction of lids around the country,” Scholes says. “So, this isn’t a fantasy and isn’t an impossible construction problem to solve.”

Scholes says it’s likely some type of “dedicated entity” would have to be created to oversee the construction and development of the proposed I-5 lid, as well as to take on the long-term management and maintenance of the space. That decision, as well as how the lid would be paid for and what would be built on it, are squarely in the focus of the city-led feasibility study, which is expected to take the balance of the year to complete.

If the project does advance from that point, Scholes says it could be up to two decades before the lid is actually built, given its complexity and the number of stakeholders involved, including multiple neighborhood and citizen groups as well as a number of local and state agencies and the federal government.

“It’s really critical that we have a well-supported and understood outcome out of the feasibility study,” Assefa says. “The most fundamental question is what kind of community value is added by this project, and what is that worth? What kind of place do we want Seattle to be 20 years from now?”

That will be known soon enough.

Related Content

Tech-construction company Headlight brings a level of scrutiny to projects

Weyerhaeuser Campus

The end may be in sight over the controversial redevelopment of the company's former property.

Sumner Ridge

Industrial space is in high demand

Dexter Yard Rendering

The commercial real estate community is cautiously optimistic that companies will gobble up space as the pandemic fades