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Fall is in the air, and on Seattle’s street signs

Like the leaves, Seattle's street signs are turning brown. Credit: Benjamin Lukoff

Leaves aren’t the only thing that have recently been changing color in Seattle. Some of our street name signs — all but one of which have, for more than 40 years, featured white lettering on a green background — are turning a distinct shade of brown.

When I first noticed these going up near my Roosevelt apartment, my immediate thought — brown being the standard color for signs indicating areas of “recreational and cultural interest” — was of Seattle’s network of park-like streets, particularly our Olmsted boulevards. My email inquiry to SDOT went unanswered, however, which led me to ponder the matter as they began to spring up elsewhere. I eventually did find confirmation, buried in Appendix G (PDF) of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan: “The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation is working with SDOT to develop brown signs for routes on Olmsted boulevards.” (What this has to do with cycling, I’m not sure, though the same document does explain the appearance of full-fledged signs for the Burke-Gilman Trail.)

Now, ordinarily, this amateur of the city would have been thrilled by such a development. I was the kid who used to name his house’s hallways and doorways by making his own street signs out of paper and taping them to the walls, and was thrilled to discover recently that I’m not the only one in the Pacific Northwest who has this slightly odd obsession with way-finding aids (apparently they are known as “blades” to the aficionado). But was this really the right thing to be doing in the middle of a budget crisis? I wouldn’t say, pace Dori Monson, that I was nauseated, but these blades, and SDOT workers’ time, don’t come cheap.

Yet it turns out that we approved this project in 2006 as part of the Bridging the Gap levy. Since then we’ve begun replacing signs at all our nearly 13,000 intersections, as the aluminum ones installed in the 1960s have definitely begun to show their age, and the new fiberglass batch is larger and more reflective. In a sense, we’re finally catching up with the rest of the country. Our timing may not have been perfect, but we’d better pray for strong stomachs, because this project is scheduled to go, according to a report in The Seattle Times, until 2016. (On the bright side, that leaves plenty of time for you to pick up your favorite old sign at the city’s surplus warehouse.

And not only are our existing signs being replaced, but paths and stairways are now indicated as such with an intuitive pictogram (Sound Transit might want to take note), and many previously unsigned rights-of-way no longer have that distinction — for example, the entrance to the NOAA campus in Sand Point, and parts of the University of Washington system that connect to the city grid. On the whole, this program was probably long overdue.

Monson and his listeners aren’t totally off-base as regards waste. Not a few signs have been going up with errors. No misspelled names — so far — but plenty of blades with missing directional designators, and a couple at 24th and Newton that make sense, but only in a convoluted manner. The copyeditor in me likes to think that thousands of dollars could be saved by imposing a simple editorial procedure on sign production. I also wonder if it’s necessary to replace the aluminum blades that went up in the 1980s and 1990s — especially the latter, which are the same size as the new model. Lastly, if this Olmsted plan has been in the works for a while, there’s no reason there should be any new green signs on Ravenna Boulevard or circling Green Lake, as they’ll need to be replaced with brown ones anyway.

This is money that I’d love to see spent — since it looks like we’ll be paying for it no matter what, and it’s not as if transportation levy funds can be switched to public safety — on better signage for our shoreline street ends and unimproved rights-of-way. The latter are irregularly signed, and the former are often hidden. How about a pictogram indicating each at the nearest intersection, and in the case of street ends and other public-access points, at every intersection as far as the nearest arterial? Or what about taking a page out of Kirkland’s and Kenmore’s books and resurrecting some of our modern streets’ historical names? Start with Queen Anne Boulevard, the route that drew the KIRO listener’s ire, then bring back Ballard’s Times, Baker, and Crawford streets, and turn Market back into Broadway!

Ah — an “address nerd” can dream, can’t he?

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