September 14, 1961: First Hill vs. I-5

Seattle: It didn't have to be this way.

Seattle: It didn’t have to be this way.

Once upon a time, Seattle was not dominated by the concrete monstrosity known as Interstate 5. In fact, citizen activists once tried to stop its location through the heart of our fair city. On the date in focus here, a coalition of First Hill residents and Seattle civic leaders spoke out against the proposed I-5 route during a public hearing.

The hearing, held in Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus, concerned the proposed route of what was then called the Seattle Freeway. It drew a crowd of some 200 First Hill residents, along with local architects and activists Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) and Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Objections against the route were raised there from both pragmatic and aesthetic angles. Steinbrueck, who represented the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and who would later lead the movement to save Seattle’s Pike Place Market from demolition, cautioned that there was a need for further study of automobile traffic patterns and pedestrian access between downtown and First Hill before finalizing the proposed route.

The First Hill Improvement Club, assisted by Thiry, advocated a landscaped lid over the downtown portion of the freeway between Madison and University Streets and between Pike Street and Olive Way for aesthetic reasons and to preserve economic development downtown. Best known as the primary architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also one of the first Seattle citizens to propose a lid over I-5 where new businesses and apartments could be built.

These activist efforts were part of an ongoing civic battle against the location of I-5 through the heart of Seattle. Earlier that year, on June 1, a march was held in downtown Seattle to demonstrate against the project, involving a group of roughly 100 Seattle residents, including Thiry. Since the new freeway was already a done deal at the time, having been previously approved by the Washington State Legislature, the march was aimed at persuading the Seattle city government to construct a lid over the portion of the freeway that would run through downtown.

The campaign against I-5’s location through Seattle was ultimately too little, too late. After nearly a year of public debate on the topic prior to the Meany Hall hearing, Washington State Governor Albert Rosellini demanded a halt to the construction delays on the freeway project, despite the fact that the lid issue was not yet resolved. The Seattle portion of I-5 would be officially completed on January 31, 1967. Infinite traffic jams would eventually ensue there.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “2 Groups Challenge Freeway Hearing,” The Seattle Times, September 14, 1961, p. 1; Stub Nelson, “New Delay Looming On Freeway,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 15, 1961, p. 1; “Freeway Delay On Central Part Forecast,” The Seattle Daily Times, September 15, 1961, p. 3; unpublished report by Bureau of Public Roads Area Engineer R. M. Barron, Box 15, RG 30, National Archives, Pacific Northwest Region; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, “Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works” (Tartu Publications, 1998).

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About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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