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."
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