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Dave Gering
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Seattle Industry is published by the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle

SI eBulletin

Heaven Up, Hell Down

Posted: November 23, 2011

The prospect of removing the Alaskan Way Viaduct is arousing plenty of speculation about the impact on real estate along Seattle’s central waterfront.

But, the more immediate action is taking place underground.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is in the process of buying the underground property rights for an enormous, 1.7-mile-long rectangle extending beneath downtown Seattle that will hold the tunnel that will replace the viaduct.

According to Wikipedia, the concepts of above-ground and underground property values date back to medieval Rome and were captured in the Latin phrase Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum et ad inferos.

That translates into, “For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell."

The English incorporated the concept into common law, which is how it comes down to us today.

Fifty-three parcels of downtown real estate and dozens of buildings stand on the ground above the tunnel route.

The state is buying the rights beneath them to form a giant rectangle of dirt that will be 165-feet tall and 84-feet wide. The top of the rectangle will exist at a variety of depths, with most of it about 50-feet below the surface, and with both ends coming to the surface.

When the deep-bore tunneling machine begins its work, it will chew through the rectangle to form the tunnel.

Underground property rights were also at play in recent tunneling projects by King County and Sound Transit. In the case of the 13-mile-long Brightwater sewer pipeline project, the county simplified the process by offering most property owners $3,500 per parcel for an underground easement, and in about 90% of the cases, that’s what the property owners settled for.

It is expected to be a more complicated proposition to buy property rights beneath downtown Seattle.

The state’s offers are based on the difference between the value of the underground land before and after the tunnel is built.

Having a highway tunnel beneath the lot could conceivably constrain the development potential of buildings and parking garages. But, state officials say their analysis shows the tunnel will not stop anyone from building up or down to the extent already allowed by downtown zoning.

So, at least when it comes to viaduct-related underground real estate, the sky will not be the limit.

Then again, until the public needed to purchase them, the underground property rights weren’t worth squat.

Is this a great country, or what?

If we had an appropriate Latin phrase, we’d use it here, but Wikipedia fails to supply us with one. So we’ll close instead with a link to a good WSDOT video illustrating the deep bore project which you can view here.



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