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Seattle inches closer to putting a lid on I-5; next step feasibility study

SEATTLE - Seattle's scar. That's not what most drivers think of Interstate 5, but city planners say I-5, which was built about five decades ago, splits the city creating a divide between downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill.

"There’s not that many ways to cross the freeway,” said Catherine Hillenbrand, a 50-year resident of Capitol Hill. She says she’s active in her community and was intrigued when she heard about lidding I-5.

The Lid I-5 project finalized five design and presented them to the public Wednesday evening. A feasibility study will now be conducted and eventually, a design will be chosen to cover portions of I-5 between Denny Way and Madison Street in downtown Seattle to create land for affordable housing and public space.

The Lid I-5 campaign co-chair Scott Bonjukian says the project is inspired by the dozens of completed and planned freeway lids in King County and nationwide, including cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Philadelphia.

“Freeway lids are proving to be cost-effective alternatives to purchasing land. They can be an equitable and sustainable investment through the additional benefits of reducing local noise and air pollution, and improving connections between neighborhoods that have been divided for decades,” states the campaign on their website.

Bonjukian says people may not realize we have lids around King County, like the one WSDOT built over a part of the new 520 bridge and the half-mile stretch of Interstate 90 in Mercer Island.

The Lid I-5 project says they’ve looked at several options around the country, and the gold standard is a lidding project in Dallas which cost $110 million dollars and created a large public space with restaurants and family-friendly amenities that could be used year-round.

“It could be anything from parks, housing community center, new streets, things like that,” said Bonjukian.

He says the lid is needed space in Seattle as the city grows.

“We’ve seen a record amount of growth in Seattle in terms of population and jobs but we haven’t seen the necessary infrastructure to support all those people including parks, affordable housing, school, things of that nature,” said Bonjukian.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” said Lyle Bicknell, principal urban designer with the city of Seattle.

“We’re making new land in a city that has a land shortage that’s part of the affordability challenge and its incumbent upon us to make sure that land supports affordable housing,” said Bicknell.

What goes on top of the land is still undecided and who would fund the project, all concerns for Hillenbrand and others.

“There needs to be some balancing of what our social needs are and if you could knit pieces of the city back to together again, it would be amazing,” said Hillenbrand.

Building in an area surrounded by construction cranes and congested side streets isn’t getting past Hillenbrand either.

“We’re living in a construction hell. I don’t know when or how we’re going to get out of it,” she said, but added it shouldn’t be a reason people dismiss the project. “I think there’s a lot of people that are saying, 'No! Don’t lid I-5. It’s stupid,' but I think we should dare to imagine what would happen if we did lid I-5."

The city’s answer to addressing the questions of funding, what to build on top of the land and concerns about construction is to take the next year and conduct a feasibility study looking into those points.

“I think we can find ways to fund this that’s thoughtful, creative and are not a huge impact to taxpayers and with minimal construction impacts,” said Bicknell.

Scars may not disappear but the hope is to have it less visible over time.

The funding for the project has not been set yet and the completion could be several years away.

The city says funds would likely come from a mix of federal funding, private philanthropic money and possibly taxpayers.

The Lid I-5 group estimates lidding 12.2 acres between Denny Way and Madison Street would cost about $265 million.