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A Gondola with a Cherry on Top

2012 February 21
by Matt Roewe

The promise of an aerial gondola connecting the waterfront, Seattle Center, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill.


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When we think of aerial gondolas and trams, ski resorts and carnival-like strings of pods hovering overhead at past world fairs usually come to mind.  But what if a gondola took you to great urban destinations where people live, work, play and shop? What if these districts were served by other modes of transit? Could a gondola be a truly effective and self-sustaining transportation alternative that just happens to be energy-efficient and quiet?

The concept of an aerial gondola in Seattle was introduced by Matt Gangemi and featured here on Citytank last year, and like many I was initially skeptical. But the more I thought about it the more sense it made.

As a city we are making significant investments to generate new jobs and housing around the Capitol Hill light rail station, South Lake Union, the Seattle Center/Uptown area and the soon to be viaduct-free waterfront.

  • South Lake Union is growing like crazy with Amazon and the biotech industry settled in and a 20-year growth target of 12,000 housing units and 22,000 jobs. And the City is considering increasing zoning to allow an additional 21,000 housing units and 32,000 jobs.
  • Seattle Center has 12 million annual visitors and an exciting new master plan.
  • The Gates Foundation and the street re-configuration around the new SR 99 tunnel will enliven the underutilized Uptown Triangle.
  • A new waterfront will connect to SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park, bringing even more people to the north end of the waterfront.

These districts are some of the hippest and most diverse, vibrant and fast-changing destinations in the region.  As someone who frequently travels between them, I know firsthand how unpleasant it is to bike, walk, ride or drive between these places. I-5 is a huge barrier with limited access at Denny Way. Elevation changes make it difficult for those with mobility challenges, and Metro’s bus #8 comes by at 30-minute intervals. These districts are liveable and walkable places that ought to be better connected to each other.

Urban aerial cable lifts are quite common all over the world, and you can read more about existing and planned systems at  London is building one for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Chicago is considering one at Millennium Park. Other examples regionally include the Oregon Health and Science University tram in Portland and the Whistler Peak2Peak gondola. Another is being planned in Vancouver, B.C., to reach the top of Simon Frazier University.


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Rise above it all, for real this time!
My proposal shown above connects Seattle Center to the new Capitol Hill light rail station, which are separated by 7,200 feet or 1.4 miles as the crow flies. Please keep in mind that no technical engineering has been done on this—it’s just a preliminary concept for discussion purposes.

Gondolas are most effective if they follow a straight line. Changing direction requires complicated engineering, more maintenance and more cost. Luckily there is a naturally straight alignment from the intersection of John and Broadway to the foot of the Space Needle along the John Street right of way.

Instead of intermediate towers to support the gondola’s cable, some supports could be incorporated into a mid-station stop on the upper floors of a new development. Restaurants and public viewing decks would be up to 20 stories high with public elevators to reach street level. There would be multiple stops along the way, where riders could commute to work at Amazon, catch a streetcar at Westlake or go to REI and the Cascade neighborhood. A string of destinations would enable the gondola to become a transit system that attracts commuters and tourists. Integrating the gondola into private development could also help fund the system.

A separate aerial gondola could be built, potentially as a second phase, near the Science Center to travel along Eagle Street to the Olympic Sculpture Park and new waterfront. This is only one-third of a mile, but for many the hill climb is not easy, and walking along Broad is unlikely to get less noisy and busy. This connection would capitalize on our investment in a world-class waterfront and enable a loop with the waterfront and downtown.


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A detachable car system, much like Whistler’s Peak2Peak gondola, carries approximately 25 people in each car and arrives about every 45 seconds. Portland’s fixed tram carries 78 people in each car and takes 3 minutes to travel 3,300 feet. With intermediate stops in buildings, two separate fixed trams may be the better solution.  Each type of aerial tram has pros and cons, and they both should be studied as options here.

This concept shows the spans between supports at 2,500 feet, and the bottom sag of the cables’ centenary curves would generally remain between 85 feet and 100 feet above the street (except at the Seattle Center and sculpture park terminals, where the gondola would drop to grade).

I’m guessing that  a 78-person tram could arrive every 10 minutes or a 25-person gondola could arrive every 3 minutes. So as many as 8,400 people in an 18-hour operational day. Of course, more work would need to be done to estimate demand, but one could reasonably assume 2,400 commuters and 1,600 tourists on a typical day. Weekends and bigger events would certainly increase ridership. According to SDOT, the South Lake Union Streetcar carries about 3,000 people each day (July 2011) in the north/south direction.

As illustrated in the map below, this proposal capitalizes on a multitude of mobility opportunities by connecting to north-south transit, bicycles and pedestrian routes. Beyond the existing streetcar, monorail, bike lanes and paths and multiple bus routes, Metro is adding high-capacity Rapid Ride bus routes on Aurora Avenue and 15th Avenue from Ballard with major stops in Uptown. The new light rail station at Capitol Hill will be connected to the First Hill Streetcar line and a new Broadway bicycle track. (Read more about South Lake Union’s recent mobility plan here.)


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Of course, some may disagree.
There are a lot of reasons this idea may be difficult to pull off—though that is true for any investment in our transportation system. Privacy and view interruption would likely be key points of contention. However in South Lake Union, taller buildings are yet to be developed. Also cable lines would be above most existing buildings, they are light, and cars go by quickly. Air rights and easements may be difficult to obtain: the John Street grid on Capitol Hill is offset, so the first three blocks from the station area would be over private property. The good news is this area has been recently developed to 65 feet, which is below the gondola‘s path.

Technically there are a lot of issues to study. Getting up to the terminals in buildings will be inconvenient as it requires elevators (except at Seattle Center). Integration into buildings will require negotiation, collaboration and customization. This adds significantly to the development risk and costs, and could cause schedule delays.

Convincing elected officials this is the right priority and worth the investment will be a challenge, as will the impacts, mitigation and permitting. But it’s the same story for any major transportation project. And who will finance, own and operate it? Metro or the City of Seattle or a private party?

How much will it cost?
The costs are difficult to define at this point, but based on recent projects, the cost could easily be around $75 million. The cost to taxpayers will greatly depend on the participation of the private sector. Some recent projects and their costs are:

  • Whistler’s Peak2Peak Gondola: $51 million (2008), 14,000 feet long, 10,000-foot span over land already owned by the resort, with only one stop at each end. Carries 4,100 passengers each hour
  • OHSU Tram Portland: $57 million (2006), fixed two-car tram, 3,300 feet long, 1,500 passengers each day, 5,000 predicted in future
  • London 2012 Olympics Gondola: $95 million (estimated), 3,280 feet long
  • Koblenz Rheinseilbahn Gondola, Germany: $20 million (2011), 3,200 feet long

And where will we get the money?
I’m not an expert in estimating revenue but I’ll take a guess to stimulate conversation:

  • Fare Revenue: One could assume tourists will pay $10.00 and Orca card holders would be given a 75 percent discount ($2.50). If just five percent of the 12 million annual visitors to Seattle Center ride the gondola (1,600 daily) combined with 2,400 Orca card holders, there would be 4,000 riders a day. This equates to $22,000 daily revenue or about $8 million annually. Operating expenses would need to be deducted.
  • Local improvement districts assessment (LID) on property owners and retailers benefiting from the project
  • Sponsorship/naming rights
  • Advertising on the cars
  • Metro funding: bus service could be eliminated or reduced
  • Co-development with new towers, possibly as part of the incentive program to provide public benefits
  • Tax levy on property or vehicle licenses, either as a specific benefit district or city-wide package
  • Congestion pricing to help fund the gondola and other transit improvements

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The Cherry on Top
One last exciting element here is the cherry on top of the hill. Imagine an iconic tower in the Capitol Hill light rail station area redevelopment.  I’m showing a gondola terminal located about 160 feet up a 400-foot-tall tower that would include a public viewing terrace, restaurant and bar with views in every direction.

The lower portion of the tower could be used as a destination hotel with conference and meeting facilities in the base, possibly combined with a joint-use community center for the local community. Businesses, services and organizations could symbiotically collaborate to occupy the second and/or third floors while the ground floor would be dedicated to street activation in the form of retail and restaurants.

Yes, this is controversial and certainly not allowed by current zoning. However, a tower at this location could be rationalized by the gondola, which is an exceptional public asset (and vice versa). The tower is essential to allow the gondola system to be strung well over the existing buildings on the west slope of Capitol Hill. The tower would also contain the receiving terminal, which needs to be mounted approximately 160 feet or higher above the street. It’s also a means to an end as the added development could better provide the desired neighborhood amenities and public benefits package as identified in the neighborhood’s urban design framework plan (UDF).

The current UDF plan suggests up-zoning this site by one or two stories, which may add 20-25% more capacity to the site. That will bring some value to the project, but it won’t buy much in terms of the long list of public amenities desired by the community. I’m suggesting a doubling or tripling of development capacity that is concentrated in the tower where it can take advantage of the great views.

Assuming a tower is possible, I’d propose it be a stand-alone beacon celebrating the station and the unique attributes of the neighborhood. It could be the next generation’s Space Needle, designed by a rigorous international competition and with no other towers allowed in the district. As the only tower, more sun, light, air and views would be maintained on the station area site. It could be slender and graceful, and set back slightly from the street. I’m showing a form in these illustrations for scale and to show how a gondola would be incorporated. Clearly more design work is needed, and that could be an opportunity for community engagement.

As many have observed, more people living and working in the station area is a public benefit, even if some of them occupy high-end condominiums at the top of the tower. Their carbon footprint will be significantly less living here than if they lived on 10 acres in Woodinville and commuted into town each day. They would potentially help pay for some 250 units of affordable housing, a district energy system, the Nagle Place Market and a community center.

This station tower concept is certainly worthy of another blog posting and much further discussion before Sound Transit issues an RFQ/RFP for the properties or the city entitles taller height limits. More on that later!

Meanwhile, consider rising above it all –- for real this time. I hope this sparks a lot of dialog. Let me know your thoughts.


Matt Roewe, AIA, works at VIA Architecture and has been actively engaged in civic dialog and planning in South Lake Union, Uptown/Queen Anne and Capitol Hill for the last 10 years. Please join Matt and others at the inaugural City Builder Happy Hour, tonight, Tues. Feb. 21, 5pm at the Pike Place Brewery in downtown Seattle.