Bulldozing Seattle's tradition of protest

The "ramps to nowhere" are in trouble. But the Arboretum is talking about some other memorial to anti-freeway protests.
One of the ramps for a never-completed freeway project that would have plowed through the Seattle Arboretum and Wedgwood

One of the ramps for a never-completed freeway project that would have plowed through the Seattle Arboretum and Wedgwood Jet/Flickr

Of all of Seattle's civic battles of the past 50 years, perhaps the most epic and least likely to succeed was the uprising against freeways run amok. State and city engineers decided to crisscross the city with a number of connected expressways — one of which, the R.H. Thompson, would run north-south east of I-5.

The result was a classic Jane Jacobs moment when grassroots activists, students, greens, Allied Arts and even the Black Panthers rose up to oppose the plan and its potentially devastating impacts on neighborhoods. The flash point was Montlake, which had already been brutalized by the Highway 520 trench and the accompanying floating bridge.

The R. H. Thomson Expressway promised to swing the path of concrete destruction through the Washington Park Arboretum and on through the Central Area. The built-out system would have stretched from Bothell to the Duwamish, with another elevated expressway through South Lake Union. In short, the city would have been "viaducted" to death.

The evidence of that madness — and proof that it was thwarted by a popular uprising that challenged engineers, planners and bulldozers — has long been the so called "ramps to nowhere," pieces of freeway suspended in time and Lake Washington in the Arboretum. These ramps never connected to the brutalist freeway system that had been conceived, but ended abruptly as the city rethought the impacts of the automobile, a city no longer willing, in the words of the late anti-R.H. Thomson activist Maynard Arsove, "to preside over its own destruction."

Roll tape to the 21st century and the ramps to nowhere are endangered, slated to be torn down themselves as part of the Washington Department of Transportation's Highway 520 expansion project. The highway will be widened and moved to the north slightly — if the west side of the project is ever funded — and the Arboretum will receive a multimillion-dollar makeover, including new trails and restored wetlands. Part of that includes tearing down the old freeway ramps. Young swimmers have always loved diving from the old ruins; others have long considered them an eyesore.

Some — including me— have objected to tearing them down. I see the ramps as potent symbols of a civic pride marking a moment when grassroots democracy prevailed and auto-centricity had its nose bloodied. Now, a group called ARCH — Activists Remembered, Celebrated and Honored — has called for keeping at least two pillars and a cross piece of the old freeway standing as a monument. The proponents include Anna Rudd, historian Allan Seidenverg, architect Rainer Metzger and Priscilla Arsove, daughter of the University of Washington math professor who was a key leader of the R.H. Thomson opposition.

According to Arsove, their idea has received support and encouragement from various neighborhood groups for their idea, including Montlake, Roanoke, Leschi and Portage Bay, as well as from such worthies as state House Speaker Frank Chopp, Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, King County Councilmember and anti-R.H. Thomson activist Larry Gossett, and former King County executive Tim Hill.

One idea circulated by those hoping for preservation

Arboretum keepers, however, says it's too late for ARCH's original concept. The Arboretum Botanical Garden Committee voted in 2011 to get rid of the ramps, and committee members want them removed from the lake. They cite environmental, liability and safety issues, among others. At a recent meeting, they declined to reverse their decision. The ramps must go, they say.

However, in lieu of the ramps, the Committee is willing to consider a compromise in the form of a significant monument or marker as part of the redo of the North Entrance of the park. For example, perhaps a piece or section of one of the R. H. Thomson ramps could be incorporated into a sculpture or commemorative feature. Priscilla Arsove says she's "encouraged and delighted" that the committee is "willing to work toward something significant."


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 3:23 a.m. Inappropriate

We don't need to keep up concrete structures that are magnets for graffiti and illegal or unsafe activity just to honor Seattle's tradition of protest. Sometimes it is that tradition of protests that causes this city to be so backwards and behind the times when it comes to things like transit systems.

Besides those bridges to nowhere block sunlight and are not "natural" to a park.

They can sell chunks of the demolished bridges or give them away to people like yourself to have your own personal memorial at home. Just like the berlin wall or kingdome.

eric1972

Posted Fri, Apr 11, 12:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Grafitti? The only people who climb up there are people who are going to jump in the lake and they don't care. As far as "illegal activity", who's going to care? They've been there for many decades and if the supposed illegal activity hasn't upset anyone by now, it's unlikely to in the future.

sarah90

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the idea of keeping some piece of these. Back when it was possible to park somewhere nearby, I'd take my inflatable boat down there on a summer day and bring a picnic. Going underneath them to emerge elsewhere not only let me enjoy the magic of the birds up close, but gave a sense of adventure. Later I shared this magic with my young niece, and hope she'll share it on when the time comes. Of course, now it's harder to access, just like everything; I don't know where I'd be able to park if I wanted to try the same thing now...

mspat

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

It's very unfortunate the great era of protest is gone along with the progressive 8intelligence behind it. Now, the question is, will we save anything?

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

The Empire Expressway, R.H. Thompson, and Bay Freeway should have been built out at 3 lanes each way. The Montlake Mess, Mercer Mess, I-5 logjams, and Alaskan Way Viaduct, Aurora, and Battery Street tunnel backups could have been avoided. Seattle suffers from too few miles of freeway lane capacity. Choke points exist everywhere in the city limits. And, the twice defeated Seattle Commons scheme in the mid-1990's surely reigns as the number one protest victory over the establishment.

animalal

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle suffers from too few miles of freeway lane capacity." Yup, let's build more freeways; that will make life lots better around here. http://www.fxguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Modus_SourceCode_trafficjam-highway_vfx.jpg

Here's a study with some good comparative data: http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/People,Parking,CitiesJUPD.pdf

Seattle does not need to climb up the ranking in "Lane miles per square mile" in Table 2.

louploup

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

What I want to know...
Who gets sued when somebody hurts themselves on any of these abandoned structures?

Sorry, they have to go!

Posted Tue, Apr 8, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the article, but please don't confuse the us freeway system with the noble, elegant tradition of brutalist architecture.

andy

Posted Tue, Apr 8, 10:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Why not? Corb would.

rnr

Posted Wed, Apr 9, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

It’s a shame that all those forward-thinking Jane Jacobites of yore didn’t realize earlier that the real threat wasn’t streets and highways…it was the wheel. Had they fought the good fight against those rolling “disks of the devil” and limited their application to more urban village style applications like roller skates, bicycles, carts and wagons pulled by livestock a kinder, gentler, more pleasanter [sic] Seattle would have evolved.

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps they could take 2 of those structures and use them as entry ways to the Arboretum on either end. Then you could drive right between the huge concrete beams. Since the passageway is probably too narrow, the top crossbeam could be removed and the concrete piles could be located at any width, straddling the roadway. And put lights on top of them. It could be symbolic to show how those ramps to nowhere are illuminating the path to the Arboretum, which wouldn't even be there if the freeway had been built.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »