Landmarking Now a Ninth Viaduct Option?

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As my old boss Knute Berger writes on Crosscut, the Viaduct is back in the news. Preservationist Art Skolnik, so important in protecting Pioneer Square back in the day, now wants the sinking, creaking Alaskan Way Viaduct added to the National Register. It’ll never happen of course. Skolnik is among the retrofit crowd, and retrofitting is not one of the eight (eight!) new Viaduct replacement options announced by the state last month.

Welcome to the latest battle of the Viaduct replacement wars. What’s changed since last year’s “No” and “No” advisory vote on the tunnel and retrofit? Very little at first glance: Skolnik, Nickels, the city council, Sims, Gregoire, and WSDOT are all back at the bargaining table. Elevated structures and tunnels of varying designs are again being considered. And also different surface ideas, trolleys, and rerouting more SR99 traffic through downtown by sundry routes. Again we’ll probably have another vote, if only as a fig leaf for an unpopular decision (possibly to include tolls and/or congestion pricing).

If you feel you’ve read too much already about the Viaduct, you’re right. (I’ve also guilty of having contributed to that stack of newsprint.) And yet I think conditions have changed since last year’s vote on the waterfront eyesore….

Here’s what I would argue is truly new in the Viaduct impasse: the price of gas has gone up by more than a buck since that 2007 vote. Up about 33 percent, in fact. (Steel and concrete prices have also risen dramatically, which will affect any Viaduct replacement plan.) Meanwhile Metro has reported its ridership is up six percent over the last year. “The ridership trends made Metro the fastest growing large bus system in the nation last year,” according to the county.

And here’s another trend: While foreclosures and property values show worrying trends around the far margins of Seattle, from whence unhappy car commuters pour downtown via I-5 and SR99, there’s no sign of a real-estate bubble close-in. People are still willing to pay, and pay a premium, to lessen their commute. And if that means living smaller in a condo or townhouse, that also appears to be more palatable to many buyers. The old broker’s axiom, “Drive until you quality” (for a mortgage, that is), is now shifting to something like, “Dump your second car, sell half your furniture on Craigslist, buy in a neighborhood where you can walk to the grocery store, and bus or bike to work.”

The Northwest Multiple Listing Service reported earlier this month that King County single-family home sale values are down over four percent from July ’07. Yet for condos, values are up over five percent. But if you drill into the MLS stats by neighborhood, closer hoods are clearly in favor. For the sector including Magnolia, Interbay, and Queen Anne, for instance, combined values are up about 32 percent. The biggest drop (about 11 percent) was up north in Lake City-Bothell, a much tougher commute.

Last time I checked, the Viaduct carried about 100,000 vehicles a day. WSDOT doesn't produce real-time traffic counts, but I wonder if that number hasn't gone down as Metro's bus figures have gone up. Anecdotally, everyone agrees that the buses are more crowded and there are more people riding bikes to work (granted, it's summer). More buses are being purchased. And the mayor is pushing our Bicycle Master Plan at a time when painting bike lanes and "sharrows" is clearly cheaper than concrete and steel.

Back to gas prices and the Viaduct: Oil is around $140 per barrel as I write this. My last tank of gas (premium) was $60. Bush might start bombing Iran tomorrow. The Viaduct may not be an architectural or aesthetic landmark (sorry, Art), but it is undoubtedly a monument--a memorial of sorts to cheap gas, inexpensive concrete, low-cost labor, and federal subsidies for highway projects built on geologically unstable mudflats. And whether by wrecking ball or earthquake, that old monument will come down. Regardless of which of the eight Viaduct replacement plans (if any) advances, the price of car commuting will not. And that changes the math in all eight schemes.

 
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