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Is preserving Seattle’s Battery Street Tunnel just a fantasy?

Officials cemented the plan to fill in the Battery Street Tunnel years ago as the new Seattle tunnel and demolition of the viaduct was penciled out. That hasn’t stopped a group of Seattleites from trying to convince officials to change course.

“We are absolutely looking at it as something for functional purposes,” said artist Aaron Asis. “… we’ve worked hard to develop and collect ideas that turn it into something practical, super meaningful, and super beneficial to the city, to its citizens.”

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On Monday, March 26, the Seattle City Council will consider a bill that pushes forward a plan and an agreement with the Washington State Department of Transportation. The plan is to fill in the tunnel with rubble. Much of that rubble will come from the demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct.

People like Asis, Jon Kiehnau (who lives near the tunnel), and a group called Recharge the Battery, want to use the aging tunnel, not shut it down. They’ve spent a few years talking with city and state officials. They’ve also spoken with community members to come up with novel ideas for the decommissioned tunnel, developing a framework to give it new life.

Kiehnau says the city is rushing to fill in the passage. He says the property around the Battery Street Tunnel sells for about $2,000 per square foot. That means its 2.75 acres adds up to roughly $200,000,000. Another figure he drops: stabilizing the tunnel would cost about $10 million.

WSDOT’s current plan will cost between $40-60 million.

“Our neighborhood is looking at this as how we can reflect our community values more authentically …” Kiehnau said. “That might mean using it to unlock opportunities to fight climate change … activate the space for opportunities for recreation, or maybe a tourist attraction. There’s a very interesting idea to use it to fight food insecurity. Help unlock more value with a location to grow fresh, healthy vegetables. Grow food in the tunnel! It’s being done in London and Newark, New Jersey where they are using spaces like this and turning them into aeroponic farming.”

“Crazy ideas” for the Battery Street Tunnel

Kiehnau says that the aeroponics idea alone — known as vertical farming — is 70 times more productive than traditional farming. There have also been ideas to use the tunnel for sewage overflow, or as some kind of tourist attraction.

“These are all crazy ideas until they are not,” Asis said. “But there is one thing that came out from our open call for ideas from the community that was striking — it helped us think about the tunnel, not as a buried piece of tunnel infrastructure … it really got us started down this path. Now at this point, it seems absurd to move forward with the fill when there are all these better ideas that have been created out of community interest.”

“Regardless of the level of wackiness or reality that applies to these ideas, aren’t all of them better than just filling it in with rubble?” he said.

Tunnel rebuttal

KIRO Radio traffic reporter Chris Sullivan — playing the role of wet blanket — says that barring some unforeseen legal challenge or change of heart from decision makers, the tunnel will be filled in.

The state and city did not rush to the decision. The future of the tunnel was discussed years ago. The deal to fill it in was signed in 2011. The Washington State Department of Transportation says it is legally bound to fill it in, considering the environmental impact studies agreed to it.

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“The idea that this is a freebie is an illusion. It is a very appealing allusion, but the structure is a failing structure. It supports not just Battery Street … but to some degree, the adjoining properties,” Director of Major Projects Jon Layzer previously explained.

That, Sullivan says, is not something the people trying to save the tunnel address.

“We’ve gone through a couple of rounds of due diligence where we looked at general or specific uses of the tunnel and in each of those exercises we found that adaptive reuse of the tunnel would cost on the order of $100 million dollars,” Layzer said.

In other words, it would cost a lot more than $10 million to stabilize the tunnel.

An old fight

The question about what to do with the tunnel has been raised for years, Sullivan reports.

“Each time we’ve revisited that issue [city officials] decided that’s not a reasonable amount to spend to create an open-space opportunity or another opportunity,” Layzer said.

Additionally, Seattle Public Utilities and City Light will use the space for upgraded pipes, including a new sewer line. Capping the tunnel on the north end will allow parts of Belltown to rejoin South Lake Union, as east-west streets will finally connect.

The city and the state couldn’t be more clear as to what they say it going to happen.

“We’re going to stick with the plan that we had in 2009 to fill the tunnel and to essentially retire that structural risk,” Layzer said.

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