Before Interstate 5 (I-5) sliced through Seattle, residents knew the harm it would cause. Protesters marched, and volunteer designers put up ideas for relief like landscape buffers, lids and transit lanes. But ultimately the freeway opened in 1967, displacing 40,000 people and a multitude of small businesses. This drab, car-choked, concrete canyon served as a warning to neighborhood leaders and civic activists who successfully rallied to stop other freeway projects, like the R.H. Thompson Expressway that would have torn through the Central District and Washington Arboretum.
Since that period of “freeway revolts,” the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has not built new routes in Seattle. But as freeway structures age or are discovered to be vulnerable to earthquakes, WSDOT has been reconstructing them, sometimes with community benefits. Interstate 90 was rebuilt in the early 1990s with large lid parks in the Mount Baker neighborhood. State Route 520 is currently being reconstructed with lids and bridges taking shape in Montlake and Roanoke. And Seattle’s downtown waterfront park is nearly complete after the State Route 99 viaduct was replaced underground.
WSDOT is now finally turning its attention to the elephant in the room: I-5. Completed only a decade after the SR-99 viaduct, the freeway is showing its age and obsolescence. Under recent direction from the Washington Legislature, WSDOT is studying the future and resiliency of the I-5 system between Canada and Oregon, with a special focus on the 20-mile section of I-5 in Seattle city limits.
WSDOT is studying the freeway’s risk of failure in an earthquake and assessing opportunities to consolidate or relocate on-ramps and off-ramps.
This study is a great opportunity to consider how this valuable public land can be better used. Currently, I-5 occupies dozens of acres of prime land in Seattle’s greater downtown neighborhoods. The freeway is a major source of harmful pollution from high volumes of traffic passing through our communities, whose residents are also more likely to be traveling pollution-free by foot, bike, bus and mobility devices. This situation is an environmental injustice.
This is why we are advocating for lidding I-5, which will transform the freeway from a car-centered environmental liability into a vibrant new district for people. Lids will buffer the direct harm of air and noise pollution while expanding usable public land for community use. This idea was planted in Seattle with Freeway Park, one of the first projects of its kind when it opened in 1976. Now, we are looking to expand it.
We are “Lid I-5,” a grassroots community project whose mission is to build the case and constituency for lidding more of I-5. Our vision is to lid as much of I-5 as possible throughout the city, potentially covering a mile or more of freeway in the central neighborhoods.
Freeway Park, the Convention Center and nearly 100 other lid projects across the nation show us the possibilities. In 2020, with public benefit funding from the Seattle Convention Center, the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) completed a groundbreaking feasibility study. The study concluded that the project is not only realistic but could unlock a wide set of social, environmental and economic benefits for the city and region.
Earlier this year, the Legislature provided additional planning funds to Seattle. In September, the City Council adopted Resolution 32100, which officially throws support behind the project, and Seattle OPCD applied to a new federal program called Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhood Access for additional funding to do engineering studies and planning. Momentum is building toward getting the project done, but many years of additional outreach and design remain before construction can begin.
What the new “land” on top of the lids is used for is open to debate, and a design plan is an important next step. That’s why we are channeling the community’s priorities of open space and affordable housing along with complementary civic and commercial uses. The central Seattle neighborhoods make up about 3% of city land area but have been absorbing nearly 30% of the city’s growth without a similar increase in these critical public investments. The area is among the city’s highest priorities for new parks and needs at least 13 acres of additional open space to support residents, especially families and seniors.
While what’s good for greater downtown is good for all of Seattle, the people who would most directly benefit from the project are the 62,500 people who live within walking distance of I-5. Contrary to popular belief, these residents are a cross-section of Seattle’s diversity. Among these residents compared to the city: 54% are people of color (compared to 39% citywide), 88% of households are renters (54% citywide), 49% of households own no vehicle (17% citywide) and 15% live in poverty (10% citywide). The median household income in 2017 in this area was $63,612 ($85,063 citywide). This area has the highest concentration of low-income housing, with over 6,000 public and subsidized units, at least 1,000 of which are within one block of the noise and fumes of I-5.
More family-friendly amenities in our urban neighborhoods, like parks and a community center, are needed to support new residences, including potential office-to-housing conversions. Affordable workforce housing is also a need — we could cut down on the time and emissions spent commuting if there were more options for workers to live near where they work. Private and non-profit housing providers like Seattle’s new Social Housing Public Development Authority could help build mixed-income housing on I-5 lids. As WSDOT ponders the future of I-5, it needs to include community benefits like lids in its master planning. Combining a likely earthquake upgrade with lidding the freeway is an option that makes good sense for taxpayers and minimizing construction impacts. However, the lid vision is complex, and it will only be realized if the public continues to voice their support and if our elected leaders work together at all levels of government.
We at Lid I-5 firmly believe that together, all of us can build a stronger Seattle and a more connected, equitable and sustainable community.
Learn more about the Lid I-5 project at lidi5.org.
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.