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520 replacement bridge seattle

Photo: Ron van der Veen

I ride my bike to work almost every day, and frankly, sometimes it gets old—especially in the winter. I live and work in Seattle, and my normal route is from Columbia City, along Lake Washington Boulevard, through the bike tunnel to downtown. On those days that I start feeling a bit grumpy about pedaling, I look out over picturesque Lake Washington and remind myself that 99 percent of the human race would die to have a commute like mine. Part of the view includes a pencil-thin line hovering just above the water in the far distance: the 520 bridge.

Anyone who has experienced gateways into great cities around the world and taken a long look at the 520 replacement bridge will be compelled to agree that it is among the least designed in human history. Long, straight, utilitarian and boring! And this for one of the richest, most dynamic, smartest, greenest, most sustainable, geographically blessed, politically enlightened, creative, hip cities in the WORLD? Seattle’s smaller siblings to the south have more imagination and vision. Have you driven over the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge toward the city? Have you seen the delightful new pedestrian/light-rail bridge that Portland just constructed over the Willamette River? How about the design for the elegant Sellwood replacement bridge just to the south? And consider the graceful I-5 Whilamut Passage Bridge in Eugene! All of the above celebrate the spectacle of moving over water between structural pylons. They seem, well, designed … 

This is why I want to replace the 520 replacement bridge. 

Now, granted, I haven’t exactly used the new bridge yet, since it’s still under construction, but I’ve studied it, and here are three reasons why I want to replace the replacement:

1. It looks like a freeway, not a bridge. Yes, it floats on water, so it lacks the structural opportunities to celebrate long spans. But as one leaves the Eastside and encounters the view towards the city, there is no sense of choreographed drama, no celebration of the lake. And with the elevated roadway, the sense of floating is greatly diminished. It’s really just a freeway that happens to be traveling over water.

2. Have you ever noticed on the current 520 and I-90 bridges that you can’t actually see the water while driving? Bridges over water that block the view of the water … The vistas are obstructed by those hideous, solid concrete guardrails. The new bridge appears to be similar.

3. The whole project is a massive, unrelenting sea of engineered concrete. I scoured WSDOT’s website trying desperately to find some design rationale and discovered this on a page titled “SR 520 – Practical Design”:

“Practical design is an approach to making project decisions that focuses on the need for the project and looks for cost-effective solutions … The result is smarter, more effective designs that maximize results with limited funding.”

Now I ask, would Tokyo, San Francisco or Amsterdam take a practical design approach to its new city bridges? Would Barcelona tell its population that its new gateway to the city “maximizes results with limited funding?” Would Shanghai boast that its new bridge was cost effective? Name another city with world-class aspirations that would take such a maddeningly timid approach to something with so much iconic civic potential.

Imagine your company was just awarded the commission to design a brand-spanking-new connection across magnificent Lake Washington, a stunning entry to Seattle for tens of thousands of commuters daily. Sure, you need to allow for a shitload of traffic (or not**) to flow safely and smoothly, you have to think about copious amounts of practical issues, and you have to build it while the ugly old bridge is still in place. It’s very hard, meticulous work. But at the end of the day, you get to design one of the most breathtaking entry points to a city in the whole world! Calatrava would salivate!!!!

This is why I want to replace the 520 replacement bridge.


*A quote by John Hren of the Sellwood Neighborhood Advisory Committee at an early design review of the Sellwood replacement bridge in Portland. He was responding to a less expensive utilitarian design proposed for the project.

**It might be noted that I failed to mention that this concrete megaproject represents an unsustainable 20th-century notion of car-centric transportation that is literally going to choke us to a standstill. In the new design there is currently no room for lightrail! That would require adding substantial width to the already 116-foot cross-section of the bridge (the old 520 bridge is 60 feet wide, for comparison). The gargantuan size of this project suggests that at the end of the day, for all its enlightenment and sophistication, Seattle is just as subjugated to the automobile and the global future-balminess it promises to bring as any other major US city.

This is another reason why I want to replace the 520 replacement bridge …