By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With the fate of the Chinatown-International District (CID) hanging in the balance, some community members consulted an architect not associated with Sound Transit (ST) for a reevaluation of the “park lid” concept. This is a design proposal that would divert most of the 30,000 cars that pass along Fourth Avenue daily and would otherwise have to be diverted through the CID should the transit agency choose to build a new transit hub on that thoroughfare. Eventually, the lid would be turned into a park.
ST has repeatedly said constructing a lid over the parallel railroad tracks is not practical due to technical difficulties.
Bridging the railroad?
Among obstacles raised by the agency is what it says is the difficulty of constructing a “substantial structure” to support the lid. Their engineers say this would necessitate building deep columns, or supports, on or among the railroad tracks, used by BNSF, Amtrak, and ST’s Sounder, creating conflicts with their operations.
But Paul Wu, an independent architect consulted by Transit Equity for All (TEA), a community advocacy organization, said that the technology has existed “for decades” to build a wider lid with supports on either side of the railroad tracks.
“If they can build Freeway Park across I-5, it would not be hard to build a lid over the railroad,” he said during a recent meeting with TEA.
Wu said such a lid could stretch across the tracks to a span of 75 or even 100 feet. Pillars could be built into the side of Fourth Avenue, on one side, and on the other side of the tracks, on the other.
Obstacles found by ST
ST public information officer Rachelle Cunningham, in response to emailed questions, said, “We have stated that a park lid is practical, but a traffic-bearing lid is not.” She referred to the results of studies given on a slide at the fourth workshop with the CID, on Jan. 5. These included assessments that such a lid would have to be higher than adjacent roadways to provide clearance to trains underneath. During the workshop, however, an ST staff member mentioned a single bridge that was the primary obstacle.
Other assessments included that constructing the lid would require an additional staging area near Fourth Avenue South.
As for objections about lidding the railroad, Wu said portions of the tracks are already covered.
To allow cars to drive up, a longer ramp could create an acceptable angle, he said.
At the same time, Wu said constructing such a lid, which proponents have said could later be transformed into a park, was not a “necessary precondition” for ST to build on Fourth Avenue.
“There are other ways to mitigate traffic,” he said.
CID at risk, ST under financial pressure
Not everyone in TEA shares that belief. Brien Chow and Betty Lau, co-founders of the organization, contend that the influx of even a small portion of the traffic on Fourth Avenue into the CID, for up to the decade it could take to complete construction, would be cataclysmic for the fragile neighborhood.
While other community members have called for ST to build outside the CID entirely, and spare it more harm after centuries of infrastructure projects and racist laws that have hammered the community, it now appears such a course may be unlikely.
Lau and Wu said they were told by ST staff at a recent meeting that for the agency to pursue construction of one of the options relatively distant from the CID, ST would have to initiate another draft environmental impact statement, a process that could cost between $300 and $600 million.
Cunningham said, “This is not true, and we could not confirm anyone actually said anything like this.”
ST provided “rough order magnitude cost information” in its fourth workshop. According to materials provided then, the price of a “Refined Fourth Avenue Shallow option,” which included a “Midtown” station—which TEA members said they had not seen before—was listed as $3.1 billion, making it the most expensive of options shown at that workshop, according to ST’s preliminary assessments.
Transit experts have said ST’s primary consideration at this point will be cost, given changes in the economy and falling ridership, unless the CID commits wholly to one option.
Community united against Fifth Avenue
As it is, the community has, rather, come out strongly against several of the initial options considered by ST—to wit, all of the ones on Fifth Avenue. Community leaders appear united in calling that location the “death knell” of the community, with independent experts weighing in that such a location would potentially cause irreparable harm to the neighborhood.
The necessary closure of streets and businesses for a half a decade up to a full decade, along with truck traffic, noise, dust, pollution, and other impacts, would drive out merchants, already devastated by waves of violence and anti-Asian hate crimes, harm senior citizens living there, and drive off needed tourism so that the community could never recover, say a range of advocates.
Serial closures for the CID?
Even if ST chooses Fourth Avenue, said TEA, there are other projects in the area that the city once listed as necessary that could keep the community closed for additional decades. These include a rebuild of Second Avenue, Jackson Street, the Fourth Avenue Viaduct, and Main Street.
“It could just be one serial closure after another,” said Lau.
Ethan Bergerson, press secretary for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), in response to emailed questions, said, “We have heard some community members express concerns that the City of Seattle might have to rebuild the Fourth Avenue Viaduct (the pair of side-by-side elevated structures which hold up Fourth Avenue between South Jackson Street and Seattle Boulevard South). However, SDOT does not currently have plans to replace [it] based on its structural condition. The structure is in good shape and received a major rehabilitation in 1979, and a seismic retrofit in 2015.”
As for Second Avenue and South Jackson Street, however, Bergerson said overhaul was a possibility.
“As part of our Levy to Move Seattle commitment, we will be studying options to repair or replace the Second Avenue Extension and Jackson Street bridges in 2023. Until those studies are completed, we will not know if any work is necessary or if any street would need to be closed. In general, we work hard on maintaining our existing structures and typically would choose to repair a structure when we can, and only consider rebuilding a structure when repairs are not a practical option. SDOT will update the community as soon as more information is available.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.