Total Bore: Why Did Seattle’s New Waterfront Tunnel Have To Be So Ugly?


Has ever so dreary a car tunnel been constructed as the one we just built to replace the Seattle waterfront viaduct? The two-and-a-half-mile tube is about as artless a roadway as the looming elevated hulk it replaces, its concrete ceilings and roadways and sterile white walls broken up only by stick-figure drawings indicating distance to the nearest escape. It’s an utterly joyless utilitarian experience to traverse. Even in a city of mostly unimaginative architecture, this latest public work stands out for its brutal banality. And why?

In 1973 the city of Seattle passed a Percent for Art ordinance, mandating that one percent of every city capital project had to be set aside for art. King County Council passed a similar law the same year, and the State of Washington followed a year later with a half-of-one-percent program.

Scroll ahead 46 years and the city, county and state are now owners of thousands of pieces of art acquired through a program that has been widely regarded as one of the best in the country.

One of the best of the local public art programs has been the downtown bus tunnel stations – built in the 1980s – and more recently the Sound Transit stations along the region’s first light rail route. The Westlake Center Station is the most ambitious and luxurious of these, the art chosen and designed by lead artist Jack Mackie and program director Vicki Scuri. The walls are covered in terra cotta tiles, which gives the station a rich, Deco feel. Seattle artists Fay JonesGene Gentry McMahon, and Roger Shimomura have the most prominent pieces – giant ceramic murals that adorn the walls. They’re whimsical and engaging.

With Westlake as its flagship, the light rail stations each evoke personality. They signal visually where you are in the system. Most important, they are a pleasure to be in. The original five bus tunnel (now light rail) stations had an art budget of $1.5 million and the art program was extended to the subsequent light rail stations. Ridership on the light rail system has surged, and of course it’s not because of the art – but the art certainly makes a difference in the experience of moving around on system, the ways riders daily experience the city.

“All the signs we see are telling us either what to do or what not to do,” Stefan Hofmann, a partner in the art collective Electric Coffin recently told Crosscut. “What if moving through the city also included moments of discovery — more deliberate beauty?”

We are complacent about Seattle’s natural setting. While some cities aspire to create significant buildings to define themselves, we have tended to erect utilitarian institutional boxes with limited curb appeal rather than rising to the occasion of our surroundings. At a cost of $3.3 billion and decades in the arguing about, the tunnel was expensive both financially and politically – and one of the most significant public works projects the region has built in decades.

Half of one percent of the budget would have produced an art budget of about $15 million. It might have made the experience of using the tunnel more enjoyable, or at least less dreary. It might have made the tunnel distinctively Seattle rather than something that could be mistaken for an old 1950s Soviet roads project. For a roadway officials hope drivers will be willing to pay tolls to use, the cost to make it more of a pleasure seems like a real bargain.

Image: Washington State Department of Transportation

Douglas McLennan
Douglas McLennan
Doug is a longtime journalist who writes about journalism, the arts and technology. He's the editor and the founder and editor of and co-founder and editor of Post Alley. He's a frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works and consults for a number of arts and news organizations nationally.


  1. Of all things to worry about in this city, ya, let’s go with the lack of artisan interior design in the Tunnel. Distracted driving doesn’t matter, pretty does, hey let’s get a selfie pull off in the middle of the tunnel w/a wine bar and beard trimming service to appease the hispters and entitled crowd. Towards the end of the tunnel, just as one can see the light and the end of it, another pull off for the self loathing folks of Freeattle where they can all wallow in their righteousness and pity.

    • Interesting. So how things look around you makes no difference to how you behave or feel? Art isn’t just about “pretty” pictures, it influences how you feel about a place and behave in it. It’s why many of us choose to live in Seattle. Design shapes the way you use everything. Blighted streets beget vandalism and crime. Poorly designed parks become wastelands rather than places families seek out. A utilitarian concrete Kingdome dissuades crowds. Yes, we have lots of problems that need to be solved, and we can try to mitigate things that go wrong or aren’t working. But the longer-term solution is to use what we know about designing spaces that people want to be in to make the city a better, more livable and equitable place. A design doesn’t have to be ugly to be functional. And ugly design isn’t always cheaper than good design. “Of all the things to worry about in this city” would be a fair criticism if we hadn’t just spent $3.3 billion on this project and got what we got. But we did, and it should have been better. Surely we can do better than just utilitarian.

  2. Just be glad that Seattle is willing to invest in massive infrastructure projects. Here in NYC, our subway system is crumbling everywhere you turn, roads are often potholed, and the rail tunnels between Manhattan and NJ are teetering on the brink from lack of upkeep. It’s a similar story around the country. From what I read, Seattle has it pretty good by comparison.

  3. I think the tunnel is pretty nice, all things considered. It certainly feels more airy and accommodating than the old Battery Street Tunnel. And I kinda like the stick figures.

    Besides, given how controversial the tunnel was, and how vocal the opposition to it was, if someone had suggested tarting it up with additional millions in art, what do you think the public and media reaction would have been? A backlash against “wasting money on art” for a multi-billion dollar could have brought the whole project down. A political non-starter.

    Now, if some deep-pocketed Seattle arts patrons wanted to donate a few million in private dollars to WSDOT for some cool tunnel art…

  4. No question, passing through the 99 tunnel is, at the least, dispiriting. The driver’s mind soon becomes as blank as the walls. Doug’s right is saying that an opportunity was missed when no cash was set aside for improving its ambience. But of course the challenge would have been very different than the one facing the creators of the Transit Tunnel station art. The latter was made with the waiting passenger in mind. Anything made to elevate the 99 tunnel would have had to be conceived to be experienced at 60 mph. But I can think of half a dozen local artists and designers who would have relished the challenge. (Imagine what Micheal Spafford could with a canvas like Japanese scroll 20 feet high and 300 yards long.)

    That’s the key word: imagine. It’s the element lacking in most public art programs. It’s what sets Jack Mackie far above most creator/curators of the visual environment: imagination combined with down-and-dirty practicality and a rueful, humane sense of humor.


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