Today I finally got to visit Highline park in New York City, one of the top destinations people have mentioned to me as a “must see”. It really is amazing. A former elevated railway that “went to seed” it was ultimately embraced and over the course of a decade formalized into a mile-long, elevated, threading amongst tall buildings park. It will be longer when it is finished. Sitting in a spacious section, looking down its length with buildings rising on either side I had a mental flash to a “city of the future” like I’ve seen in Star Trek movies. The only thing missing was the traffic of flying cars overhead. Suddenly, it clicked: that vision of the future has it backwards – we don’t want to add flying cars overhead, we want to leave them hidden below. We should build our subway of the future Pioneer-Square-style: by building new pedestrian walkways over top the roadways and turn them into subways, perhaps someday to be filled with electric, autonomously piloted vehicles.
There has been talk of the Highline as inspiration for what could be done with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, to imitate it in style and materials if not actually in elevatedness. The Viaduct seems to be more problematic structurally and keeping it was not an option. More importantly from a use perspective, its simply not well located. It tracks along the fringe of the downtown residential and commercial core, not through its heart. For me the magic of the Highline is the embededness it has in the city – it’s very easy to imagine it becoming a major pedestrian commuter route. Bicycles & skates are not allowed and are discouraged by the style of pavement. Walking the length of it seemed like no distance at all because it was so pleasant.
Several years ago the city seemed ready to throw in the towel on the Monorail. It was completely non-functional for more than a year, but the arrival of the Seattle Center’s 50th anniversary seemed to provide the nudge to get it back working again so we could sigh over Elvis memories and lure downtown energy to the Seattle Center’s year of events. My feeling is the Monorail has become Seattle’s Lace Doily. Grandma made it years ago so it is sentimental though archaic and even a little tacky. We keep it out on our coffee table or bedside stand because we don’t have a sideboard or buffet.
Being in NYC really brings home to me, a 12 year Belltown veteran, how much Seattle’s downtown is lacking for quiet spaces. The urban geography there has a nice alternation of very busy London-style commercial high-streets with long quiet tree-lined blocks where the noise quickly drops off and one can actually hear the birds. Our downtown layout doesn’t allow the same escape from traffic – one must go to Queen Anne, Wallingford or Capitol Hill. We spent a long time in Seattle talking about a cut-and-cover option for the tunnel downtown, perhaps as we envision our future we can skip the cut and just go to cover to bring in more quiet greenery and pedestrian spaces to the sustainable heart of our downtown.