A very green highway bypass
Sandpoint, Idaho hired artist Vicki Scuri to help design a highway bypass that diverted traffic from the town center. Responding to community input, Scuri created a “green wall” and a linear park, turning what could have been soulless infrastructure into a civic asset.
U.S. Highway 95 is the main north-south route through Idaho. Yet until recently, it slowed to 25 miles per hour in Sandpoint, a small city on the state’s panhandle. Big trucks, often dragging more than one trailer, struggled to make the tight turns through Sandpoint’s historic downtown. Crossing Fifth Avenue on foot was like playing a game of Frogger, and the whole area was filled with the smells of exhaust and manure from idling cattle trucks.
As early as the 1950s, the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) had proposed a bypass to ease Sandpoint’s congestion, but their plans were extremely controversial—to the point that people boycotted businesses that didn’t share their position. “People would literally say it was going to destroy downtown and kill the waterfront irreparably,” remembers Keith Kinnaird, who spent more than a decade covering the bypass for the Bonner County Daily Bee.
Various routes were explored for the highway. But state officials had long favored an alignment that brought it along the east side of Sand Creek, on a narrow stretch of land that separates the creek and city from Lake Pend Oreille. This finger of land is connected to downtown by a single bridge and is home to the city’s public beach, a Best Western hotel, and an historic train terminal.
A railroad embankment cut off downtown from Lake Pend Oreille long before the Sand Creek Byway was ever proposed, but over the years, it had become camouflaged by a number of large poplars. To fit the bypass into the narrow space between the railroad and the creek, those trees would need to be removed—drastically changing the view from downtown. People worried the new view would be concrete columns.
The most recent effort to construct a bypass began in 2000. ITD chose Dave Butzier, an engineer with Washington Group International (now URS), to lead the design team, which also included engineers and a scientist from CH2M Hill, landscape architects from Beck and Baird in Boise, local landscape architect Tom Runa, local firms Clearwater Engineering and Glahe & Associates, and Vicki Scuri, an artist from Seattle.
The decision to bring in an artist was highly unusual for the State of Idaho. “I think it was Sean Hoisington’s idea,” says engineer Jim Roletto, who worked with Hoisington at ITD. “I think he’d been watching a TV program and saw some of Vicki Scuri’s work.”
He adds, “[Our bosses at] ITD didn’t even know we had an artist for a while.”
“They said, ‘We’re going to call you a site design specialist, as opposed to a public artist,’” Scuri remembers, “because that way they didn’t have to explain anything.”
Scuri has done lots of work with concrete along highways, texturing it to catch the light. But large expanses of concrete didn’t seem appropriate for this site. One of the first things Scuri did when she joined the team was to meet one-on-one with people from the community. “They said, ‘We want it green,’” Scuri remembers.
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