First Hill neighborhood objects to the Seattle Freeway route at a public hearing on September 13, 1961.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 4/30/2003
  • Essay 4167
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On September 13, 1961, a public hearing concerning the proposed route of the Seattle Freeway, now (2003) the Seattle portion of Interstate-5, draws a crowd of 200 First Hill residents. Objections are raised to the route from both practical and aesthetic angles, but to no avail.

The State's Rotten Egg

Residents of First Hill were by far the most vociferous critics of the proposed route. When Seattle City Engineer Roy W. Morse announced to those in attendance that the city would accept the state's proposed route, the response, as recorded by a roads engineer, was as follows:

"Mr. Baldwin [a major property owner on First Hill and in the University District] charged that the whole procedure smacks of Khrushchev. Someone across the aisle from Mr. Baldwin told him to shut up and sit down, and it appeared ... that a fight might ensue. However, no blows were struck. ... Mr. Robertson of Yesler Terrace ... believes that the whole freeway should be in a tunnel under First Hill. ... There were several charges made that the State was wrong in hurrying construction of the freeway because it will be used for many years to come and should be built right in the first place" (Barron report).

Mr. Robertson also criticized plans to landscape freeway abutments, stating, "The State cannot decorate its rotten egg with a few shrubs" (Barron report).

Steinbrueck Weighs In

Among those present at the hearing was Victor 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. Steinbrueck cautioned that there was a need for further study of traffic patterns and pedestrian access. Victor Steinbrueck also made a plea that Seattle's oldest public building, the Seventh Avenue Fire Hall (1890), which stood within the right-of-way, be spared. (The historic Fire Hall was demolished when the right-of-way was cleared.)

Several physicians present at the hearing questioned whether the freeway access to First Hill medical facilities such as Harborview was adequate for ambulances carrying critically ill patients, for whom time was of the essence.

Several lawyers present verbally charged "that the State has not satisfactorily complied with Section 128(a) of Title 23 concerning public hearings (and) Section 5 of Chapter 235 of State Highway Law of 1957, which requires full considerations of land use patterns" (Barron report). These charges, which could have resulted in at least a temporary halt to freeway construction, were never filed formally.

The First Hill Improvement Club, assisted by architect Paul Thiry, waged a battle to lid the downtown portion of the freeway between Madison and University streets and between Pike Street and Olive Way for aesthetic reasons and to further economic development. Cost estimates for the proposed lid varied greatly, with higher estimates coming from the highway engineers and vastly lower estimates from the pro-lid architects. Federal funds, however, could not be used for this purpose and state and local funds were not thus allocated. After close to a year of debate on the subject, Governor Albert Rosellini demanded that the construction delays on the freeway cease, despite the fact that the lid issue was not resolved.

Mitigation of the freeway's impact on Seattle was apparently a low priority to all but a few citizens. First Hill residents also suggested that the freeway plan should include "a complete mass transit study made as to the feasibility of putting mass transit in a median of the freeway or alongside it" (Dorpat/McCoy).

Such far-reaching suggestions fell by the wayside, and freeway construction rushed on.

The downtown portion of the Freeway remained an open "ditch" until 1976, when a four-and-a-half-acre park was completed on a newly built lid over the Freeway between Seneca and University streets. This project, funded with combined state, federal, and city funds, was a belated attempt to mitigate the freeway's impact on downtown. The Freeway Park was designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Far from creating a contemplative reference to the old growth forest which covered the site before the city arose, the park's cement terraces instead intensify the impact of their urban setting.

In 1982-8 the Washington State Convention and Trade Center was constructed over Interstate-5 at 7th Avenue and Pike Street.


Unpublished report by Bureau of Public Roads Area Engineer R. M. Barron, Box 15, RG 30, National Archives, Pacific NW Region; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Buiding Washington: A History ow Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 95.

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