Washington state

Effort tries to minimize effects of bridge project

VANCOUVER – For the four teams presenting ideas for a landscaped bridge over Interstate 5 in Vancouver, Wash., winning the design competition might seem like the easy part. The hard part will be healing a city that has been cut off from its history.

An immeasurable added weight from the hope of planners and city leaders piles onto the project. They’ve described I-5 as a “wound” or “scar” on the city and called for healing it in dozens of reports and position papers over the last decade.

The huge Columbia River Crossing bridge process threatened to deepen that wound by cutting three acres off the western edge of the Fort Vancouver National Site. Federal rules require that the National Park Service, which owns the land, get something in return, however.

The Community Connector project grew out of that requirement, said Elson Strahan, president and CEO of the Fort Vancouver National Trust. “The National Park Service, looking at this connectivity, really felt that as we do this, we need to rejoin the historic district with the downtown,” Strahan said.

Freeway projects typically require some sort of mitigation: a sound wall to keep the noise down for neighbors is a common example. According to park service documents, Fort Vancouver, as a national historic site, needs more.

The Columbia River Crossing project must include steps to shield fort visitors from the sights and sounds of the freeway through “culturally and historically appropriate design or visual buffers,” according to the draft environmental impact statement on the project.

That’s what the four design teams propose to do with the Community Connector project, a partial cap over I-5 near Evergreen Boulevard.

The winner will be announced on Monday.

Each design also includes a pedestrian crossing at Seventh Street. Together with a new Evergreen Boulevard overpass included in the Columbia River Crossing and the Community Connecter, Vancouver will get a sort of patchwork freeway cap instead of a solid covering, Strahan said.

“Once you extend the cover a certain length, you have to deal with a whole other range of issues,” he said, including exhaust and emergency vehicle access.

Half a century ago, planners embraced huge multilane freeways that carved channels through cities. Ever since, they’ve been looking for ways to bring the divide together.

Less than a decade after work finished on I-5 through Seattle, planners there were working on a cap to reclaim some of the land the freeway had plowed through. The result, Freeway Park, was completed in 1976. In Vancouver, the divide between downtown and the historic district dates back longer than the interstate freeway. According to Randy Powell of the Washington State Department of Transportation, a smaller highway was in place when the Interstate Bridge was completed in 1917.

That highway was incorporated into U.S. 99 in 1926. A four-lane Vancouver Freeway opened in the mid-1950s and connected with the second bridge span in 1958.

The U.S. 99 label was removed in 1968, Strahan said, and the last portion of I-5 was completed in 1969. The portion of freeway near the bridge was widened to six lanes and upgraded to interstate standards in the late ’70s and early ’80s, according to WSDOT records.

Vancouver, for the first time in many decades, will have a greater link between its financial center and the major tourist attractions of the fort, Officers Row and Pearson Air Museum, Strahan said, thanks to the Community Connector. “It will enhance the economic viability of the whole area, both the historic area and downtown,” he said.