SEATTLE — Kurt Cobain performed in a grubby club underneath it. Drivers called it a road of kings, four wide open lanes far above the pedestrian horde. And generations of Seattle residents felt a shiver of romance in the moody shadows it cast over a waterfront already famous for gray skies and gloom.
Now, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is going away.
The viaduct, the last remaining 1.4-mile stretch of this city’s elevated highway through downtown, has been a sublimely ugly and stoutly utilitarian force of engineering since 1953. After years of planning for an alternative, the viaduct will be demolished and hauled away early next year.
Seattle has been made and remade in transformational moments — the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, the 1962 World’s Fair, the explosive rise of Amazon — and the demise of the viaduct will open up an entirely new waterfront. Where there was hulking concrete, there will be a view of Puget Sound. Where there was a roar of traffic, there will be relative quiet.
“It will transform the city in ways people don’t even anticipate,” said Jenny A. Durkan, the mayor of Seattle. “When the viaduct is removed, there will be a collective gasp.”
In truth, the end of the viaduct is less a moment of change for the city than a recognition that it already has changed. Seattle’s gritty, freight-hauling waterfront of another era has long since moved to the city’s margins, leaving this downtown section with a growing number of tourists, apartments and cruise ships.
No one wanted to be anywhere near the working waterfront of the 1920s when planning for the viaduct, four stories above ground, began as a way to move cars quickly through the area. But this part of Seattle is now the focal point of growth in one of the nation’s fastest-growing big cities.
Once the viaduct is gone, there are plans for a 20-acre waterfront park, borrowing from New York’s High Line along the Hudson River, Chicago’s Millennium Park on Lake Michigan and the Harbor Promenade in Oslo. Seattle has never had a central park. The viaduct will be replaced with a tunnel under downtown for cars, as part of a $3.3 billion overhaul.
“The viaduct coming down gives us arguably our only opportunity to really create breathing room for the heart of the city again,” said Marshall Foster, the director of the city’s office of the waterfront and civic projects. “Fundamentally it’s about reclaiming that waterfront, where the city started, as the front porch.”
There were plenty of reasons to tear down the structure, including safety concerns revealed in 2001 after an earthquake. The new two-mile tunnel is expected to remove the street noise from vehicles and encourage the city’s growing public transit system.
Seattle has long been ambivalent about change and growth, especially its own, and so nostalgia for the viaduct is already flowing. A husband-and-wife team of composers who call themselves “The Argument” and record in their Seattle basement have even released a song about it.
“O, Viaduct, you’re outta luck, we put you up and we let you down,” the song goes. “They said you’d fall and kill us all, but you were tried and true.”
Tony de Lapp, 35, a car enthusiast who works in a salmon processing plant, has organized a memorial drive along the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and underneath it, past its 400 concrete columns.
“This was our road, our way of getting around,” de Lapp said.
Besides, he added, “I don’t like tunnels.”
Trevor Boone, who co-owns a guitar store a block from the viaduct in Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, Pioneer Square, wonders what the place will sound like when the roar of the traffic overhead — 90,000 vehicles a day — suddenly vanishes Jan. 11.
“When it’s silent, I might miss it a little bit — it’s like that friendly white noise,” said Boone, 29. “You hear it all the time, and it’s like a totally subliminal thing now.”
Some corners of the city, including the Pioneer Square neighborhood, have wrestled with rising crime and homelessness lately, and the prospect of more upheaval seemed daunting. A sparkling new waterfront would mean more change, but no one seemed certain how far the economic growth would spread and what it might mean for their block.
At the north end of the viaduct, some retailers and workers in the funky labyrinth of the city’s famed Pike Place Market said they feared the changes might bring a different culture. Hippie-era values were stamped into the place in the 1960s and early 1970s when the city planned to tear it down and residents rose up to save it. Now some are concerned that the new, sleeker look might also bring a more corporate culture. The market, which opened in 1907, includes a food bank and hundreds of low-income apartments in addition to the fishmongers, flower sellers and spice stalls that visitors see.
“I want to be optimistic; I want to be just pro-everything because it’s happening whether I want it to or not,” said Cynthia Hope, the owner of Hands of the World, a shop selling folk art and jewelry.
But Hope said she already sees the chemistry shifting.
“Old and funky and market traditional businesses are not faring well,” she said. “You come down on a Friday or Saturday night and say, ‘Where is everybody drinking beer?’ and it’s not in the market; it’s in the newer places.”
In an interview, Durkan, the mayor, said that given the pace of growth in her city, she understood residents’ worries. Of 725,000 Seattle residents, 115,000 arrived just since 2010. Zoning has changed, allowing denser housing. Few neighborhoods have been untouched.
“We have this moment where get to make that change intentional, and get to decide what it’s going to be,” Durkan said of the transportation overhaul. “You don’t get that opportunity many times in an already built city.”