Seattle City Council approves Bay Freeway plans in November 1970.

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 3/31/2001
  • Essay 3156
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In November 1970, the Seattle City Council approved the Bay Freeway design and project, which had been in the works since 1960. The freeway was designed to connect Interstate-5 with the Seattle Center and the proposed Kingdome stadium. The proposed link carried a price tag of $27 million for city and state taxpayers, with a 50 percent match from the federal government. It would have intersected the Cascade neighborhood located on the south (downtown) end of Lake Union. Fifteen months later, Seattle voters squelched the project. Three decades later (2001), the "Mercer Mess" just south of Lake Union remains.

Softly Curving and Sculptured

On December 19, 1969, The Seattle Times outlined for readers engineering plans for the Bay Freeway, "a softly curving and sculptured structure" designed to connect Interstate-5 with Seattle Center and its proposed King County Domed Stadium. The elevated connector route, to cut across the north end of the Cascade neighborhood, would pass 25 feet above Fairview Avenue N and 16 feet above the surface when crossing Westlake Avenue N. Off ramps would lead traffic into the proposed stadium parking garage, connect with Aurora Avenue N, and terminate onto Roy and Broad Streets. The design team blended the interchange with the physical environment by adding extensive landscaping extending from a proposed park at Lake Union between Fairview and Westlake, and along the entire freeway right of way.

In 1960, voters approved an $11 million omnibus highways bond issue for the R. H. Thomson Expressway (then the Empire Expressway), for an expressway route along Shilshole Avenue, for ramps to connect the Alaskan Way Viaduct to downtown Seattle, and for an extension of the Spokane Street viaduct westward to a connection with Harbor Avenue SW. At the same election, an additional bond issue of $1,925,000 was approved to help finance design and construction of a Mercer Street connection between Aurora Avenue N and the proposed Interstate 5.

Times Change...

By 1966, as plans were first being drawn for the Bay Freeway, the R. H. Thomson project was all but dead because of a citizenry outraged by a route that would plow through cherished neighborhoods and public parks. This controversy spilled over into the Mercer project as well.

With design plans public by the end of 1969, opposition to construction arose almost immediately. Cascade neighborhood activists banded together to fight a "Chinese Wall" to be rammed through their bedrooms, which would cut off the community from access to Lake Union and accelerate the demise of one of Seattle's oldest residential neighborhoods.

More vocal and organized opposition came from the already active citizens action groups, Citizens Against Freeways (CAF) and Citizens Against R. H. Thomson (CARHT) which eventually brought suit against the city to halt construction altogether. Citizens Against Freeways had organized in 1968 to oppose construction of SR 522 that would link I-405 with I-5 by looping around the north end of Lake Washington, "deep ditching" through Lake City, and connecting at NE 75th Street.

New Freeways Newly Problematical

Opponents banded together not to fight urban freeways, per se, but the negative impacts freeways were having on neighborhood integrity and general urban environment. The R. H. Thomson Expressway would have displaced homes and businesses affecting 4,000 central Seattle residents and the destruction of a significant portion of the Arboretum. By 1967, it was clear to freeway planners that any freeway through the Thomson corridor was problematical, and three years later the City Council voted to remove the project from the City's Comprehensive Plan.

Citizens Against Freeways and Citizens Against R. H. Thomson brought suit against the City in November 1970 charging the city council approved Bay Freeway plans that substantially differed in design and scope from what voters approved with issuance of $1.9 million bonds for the freeway in 1960. The city council, it argued, had no authority to approve the plan. Superior Court Judge, Solie Ringold, agreed, ordering voter approval for use of the bond funds "for a purpose substantially different and a major deviation from that approved by the voters in 1960."

In a special election held on February 8, 1972, voters decisively defeated the Bay Freeway project. By then traffic had become a snarl between Seattle Center and the freeway, a condition for which city engineers coined a new name, the "Mercer Mess." Drivers in the twenty-first century know this moniker all too well.


The Seattle Times, December 14, 1969; Ibid., November 4, 1971; Ibid., February 9, 1972; Northwest Passage, August 28/September 10, 1973; Margaret Cary Tunks, Seattle Citizens Against Freeways 1968-1980: Fighting Fiercely and Winning Sometimes (Seattle: Margaret Cary Tunks, 1996), 89-99; Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History: the Engineering Department, 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978).

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