A recent ULI Northwest panel discussion brought together experts on lidding freeways and explored the questions around whether it’s possible to lid more of Interstate 5 in Seattle. The motivations seem obvious: creating new urban land, restoring neighborhood connections, and mitigating environmental impacts. But what would it take and who would pay for it? The four expert panelists dived into the details that excited many of those in attendance.
Keynote speaker James Burnett provided an overview of this urban design trend and how it played into his landscape architecture firm’s design of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, which won ULI’s 2014 Urban Open Space Award. Burnett noted that the way many urban freeways are designed—sunk below street level—provides the opportunity for lidding and that the idea is accelerating around the country.
The state highway that Klyde Warren Park covers was ideally situated 17 to 18 feet below grade and eight lanes wide. To keep the surface of the park level and flush with surrounding streets, the design team used a series of beams with troughs to support the roots of trees and above the troughs, the park has about one foot of soil. The result is that park visitors can walk in from virtually any direction, promoting the idea of pedestrian connectivity and enabling a safer “eyes on the street” approach to security.
In addition, one street overpass was actually closed to make a larger park area, and there is interest in closing the one remaining street that bisects the park to improve pedestrian safety. Similarly, the one-way access streets on both sides of the park were narrowed from three lanes each to two lanes by creating on-street parking.
Since the park opened in 2012 it has spurred significant real estate investment within five blocks of the park. The developer of a $300 million residential tower across the street said the park was the main impetus for that project. Within the park there is also economic activity with a high end sit-down restaurant, a grab-and-go cafe, and a rotating series of food trucks that park on the perimeter. These help fund maintenance and operations of the park, which is managed by the non profit Woodall Rodgers Park Association.
The design of the park reflects the growing population of families in downtown Dallas and the demands of modern park users. There are features as varied as a children’s play area with splash pads, a dog run, an outdoor reading room, ping pong tables, mini-golf, walking paths with moveable seating, large lawns, and a concert pavilion. Burnett said the children’s area and dog run should have been bigger, and in fact the playground is being expanded onto a botanical garden that has little use. These variety of amenities attract up to 5,000 people a day.
The park was funded with a mix of private and public sources. Starting in 2004 the park was identified in the Downtown Plan, and the next year a feasibility study was funded with a $1 million ULI grant. Ultimately, about half of the park’s capital funding came from private donors, a significant rate for a public project. The other half came from a mix of local, state, and federal funding, including a boost from the 2009 federal stimulus bill that was aimed at shovel-ready projects. Many of the features are subtly sponsored to provide operations funding; for instance, the outdoor reading room is sponsored by the Dallas Morning News. The name of the park itself comes from the son of a major donor.
Local panelist Rebecca Barnes, University Architect at the University of Washington, described her experience working on Boston’s “Big Dig” project that rerouted an elevated freeway into a tunnel through Downtown Boston and created a linear park on the land above. Though not a freeway lid, the project showcased the opportunities and challenges of reclaiming such a large amount of transportation right-of-way. The Rose Kennedy Greenway park has had challenges with programming and activation because of its size, but in recent years that has improved through more careful management.
Chris Salomore, Planning Director at the City of Bellevue, described the progress of the “Grand Connection” project that will link Bellevue’s Lake Washington shoreline to the Eastside Rail Corridor trail with pedestrian and bicycle improvements. A centerpiece of the plan is a proposed bridge or lid over Interstate 405 near City Hall. A charrette with professional designers earlier this year yielded a variety of ideas for what the lid could look like, but in any case it is set to be a new iconic public space in Downtown Bellevue.
Christopher Patano, Director of Pantano Studio Architecture, described his firm’s pro-bono work for a vision of lidding 45 acres of Interstate 5 in Downtown. Patano emphasized his firm’s work isn’t just a park, but a civic centerpiece that incorporates a museum, a new basketball arena, and affordable housing on the topographically-challenge Eastlake Avenue. The Seattle CAP project would turn I-5 into less of a liability and more of an asset.
One audience question included whether lids can support buildings. The panel affirmed that they can, and we need only look at examples like the Washington State Convention Center. Another person asked about safety and homelessness in a large park over I-5; James Burnett responded that the activation strategy of Klyde Warren Park makes it very safe and comfortable, and in fact 65 percent of visitors are women. Private security and proximity to nearby residential and commercial buildings also provides safety for Klyde Warren Park and should be replicated in Seattle.
Whatever form it takes, lidding more of I-5 in Seattle would a major endeavor that could create new major public space in an area of the city that significantly lacks usable park space. It might be on the scale of Millennium Park in Chicago, which covered acres of railroad tracks and parking lots to create one of the most diverse and successful urban parks in the country.
For those interested in promoting the lidding of Interstate 5 and joining an on-the-ground, grassroots effort, they can sign up at the Lid I-5 campaign email list.
The Northwest Urbanist