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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Bridge idea might rise above fray

Architect Roger Patten suggests replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a suspension bridge over Elliott Bay. A miniature Space Needle sits in the upper right corner of his model as a point of reference.
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What to do about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct came to architect John Ottenheimer in a flash.

"I was thinking there had to be a better way than a tunnel, and it just hit me," says the Whidbey Island man, who learned architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright and helped erect 40 Wright-designed buildings, including New York's Guggenheim museum. For Burien architect Roger Patten, inspiration came from the din of the cars — the viaduct's crashing "Detroit surf."

"I had been painting on Vancouver Island, and it was unearthly quiet," he said. "When I came back I was downtown and the noise was just banging off the viaduct's upper deck.

"It dawned on me right then — we've got to get this thing out of here."

These two architects independently arrived at the same place: Each wants to replace the viaduct with a 2-mile-long bridge across Elliott Bay.

Ottenheimer's "Seattle Gateway Bridge" is a series of three concrete or steel arches. Patten's "Elliott Bay Bridge" is a suspension bridge, similar in appearance to the Golden Gate Bridge, supported by two towers as tall as the 76-story Bank of America building here.

Both architects sketch a route that has the bridge starting near the Battery Street Tunnel, arcing across the bay and rejoining land at the Seattle seaport south of Safeco Field.

The bridge deck would be 250 to 300 feet high in the middle, allowing ships to pass underneath. It would curve about a third of a mile out into the water. The idea is that standing on shore you wouldn't hear the traffic, except near the ends.

Such a bridge would radically alter downtown and Elliott Bay, by removing the viaduct to return the waterfront to the city, but also by placing a giant new structure through an unspoiled waterway.

It's a notion that was rejected by state planners two years ago. But people can't seem to stop wondering about it. Last week when I wrote about the joys of driving on the viaduct, I was swamped with e-mail asking, "Why not a bridge?"

"Am I the only citizen of Seattle that thinks a bridge over Elliott Bay is worthy of consideration?" wrote Clare O'Regan, a Ravenna resident.
Ottenheimer, 71, who lived with Wright for six years at his famed Taliesin architecture collective in Wisconsin, said bridges are beautiful to look at and exciting to drive across.

"None of the options they are discussing now make people happy," he said. "The drivers don't like the tunnel and others don't like the idea of rebuilding the viaduct.

"A bridge would enhance the views for the drivers, move the traffic off the waterfront and create a signature piece of architecture for the city."

Patten, 72, has pushed his bridge proposal for two years, showing a model at public meetings. He estimates a bridge would cost $1 billion. State officials say that's low but have not done a detailed cost analysis. The Golden Gate Bridge, which at 1.7 miles is slightly shorter, would cost $1.2 billion to build today, according to the public agency that operates it.

Add $800 million to repair the seawall and another billion or so for tearing down the existing viaduct and making other street improvements, and the total bridge project could still cost less than a $4 billion tunnel.

State records show the idea of a bridge was discarded early for three reasons: it would potentially interfere with shipping lanes, degrade fish and wildlife habitat and "substantially impact" the waterfront view.

It seems to me that countless bridges coexist fine with both ships and fish. Not always, of course — the old West Seattle Bridge was disabled in the 1980s when a ship rammed it — but maneuvering ships around two giant bridge piers ought to be manageable.

Certainly it would be a challenge to get environmental permits to build a bridge. And there's no doubt the structure would fundamentally alter our sense of Elliott Bay. The view west from the city is unique because there's not much manmade out there — only water, mountains and the forested lowlands. It feels a bit like you're at the end of civilization.

On the other hand, Seattle's no longer a frontier town. Both Patten and Ottenheimer say a bridge could complement the view, not obstruct it. Imagine it lit up at night and it's easy to get excited about having a highway out there.

Viaduct project engineer Tom Madden said he's skeptical people would want a bridge. State officials also chose to keep the project within the existing Highway 99 corridor so as not to complicate it.

"We tried to play within our own sandbox," he said.

Ottenheimer said this is an understandable impulse, but one likely to lead to a mediocre end.

"If something bad is already there, it's easier to get people to accept the idea of putting something bad in its place," he said.

There are no plans to reconsider a bridge, Madden says. The state is set to announce its preference — probably either rebuilding the viaduct or digging a tunnel — at the end of the summer.

But another reality is that the state has raised only 4 percent of the money it needs for this project. Until there is both momentum and money behind a plan, it's fair to say the question of what to do with the viaduct is an open one.

So, what do you think? How about a bridge?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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