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    Ramps to Nowhere: Now we're getting Somewhere

    The Arboretum says it wants a good memorial to the activism that stopped a freeway for good.
    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

    The Montlake "ramps to nowhere" just got some good news. The mementoes of a fierce political fight are slated for destruction, some coming down as part of work to be contracted by the Washington Department of Transportation as soon as this year. But on Wednesday, the Washington Park Arboretum's Botanical Garden Committee agreed to embrace a proposal made by a grassroots group to design a significant memorial to the battle for Seattle's soul that those ramps represent.

    A group called ARCH (Activists Remembered Celebrated and Honored) has asked that parts of the old ramps be preserved for an eventual commemorative structure in the park to honor the citizens who faced down state highway builders who intended to build an expressway through the Arboretum. 

    ARCH's ideas for preservation include protecting some of the ramp's columns and other sections, even small pieces after demolition that could perhaps be used in fundraising. 

    The expressway named after Seattle's über-engineer, R. H. Thomson, was designed to link to a massive freeway system that would have cut swaths through many neighborhoods. As a result of grassroots opposition, it was voted down in 1972.

    The Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee voted on a motion offered by Arboretum Foundation executive director Paige Miller to find a way to create a fitting memorial. The resolution pledged to ensure that such a commemoration would be significant, that it be part of a planned makeover of the Arboretum's North Entry, that its design be part of a process including citizens, experts in various fields and ARCH members, and that steps be taken soon to document the R.H. Thomson battle. The motion passed unanimously.

    With the ramps facing destruction as part of the state's work on the Highway 520 expansion and new floating bridge, there is some urgency. The full makeover of the North Entry to the Arboretum is not likely to take place for five or more years because funding for the west side of the 520 project has not yet been secured. That phase of work will make available some $12 million in Washington State Department of Transportation mitigation funds to the Arboretum for improvements in the zone where the memorial would be. Still, documenting the ramps and their demolition, and obtaining oral histories and first-hand accounts of the R.H. Thomson fight by aging activists and others, are aspects of the project that should proceed much sooner.

    The chief spokesperson for ARCH was Priscilla Arsove, whose father was a leader in the R.H. Thomson fight, and she gave an excellent overview of the crusade and its consequences. She expressed concern that Seattle's civic memory of a seminal moment in its history was fading. The monument, too, could be an inspiration for all forms of citizen activism. She brought examples of old flyers that were passed hand-to-hand in the pre-cell phone, pre-social media era when activists literally went door to door.

    Onetime R. H. Thomson activist Bill McCord also spoke in favor of the project, acknowledging that he was "speaking, oddly enough, on behalf of keeping concrete after opposing concrete." He wants a memorial that will be a "concrete" reminder of the 40 acres of the Arboretum that was saved by stopping the project.

    That illustrates some irony in the effort: Activists who fought the expressway wanting to preserve the hated ramp remnants; the Arboretum being asked to save some intrusive, unnatural elements; WSDOT being asked to help fund a memorial to the people who opposed the state highway department's own foolishness. Some advocates of the memorial have suggested that an enthusiastic embrace by WSDOT of the project would be a good PR move, given the 520 project's pontoon problems and westside neighborhood frustrations (not to mention Bertha's breakdown on the waterfront tunnel project across town).

    One ramp project already underway is a proposed public art installation called "Gate to Nowhere" which will wrap old expressway columns with reflective material rendering them semi-invisible. The temporary installation, planned for the "last days" of the ramps, is an effort to draw attention to the beauty of the ruins, the activism of the '60s and what the artists describe as "unintended urbanism" — that is, the way the ramps to nowhere were incorporated into city life as places people have used to swim, dance and dive, among other things. The project is the brainchild of architect Rainer Metzger, also an ARCH supporter. He wants to make sure the permanent ramps memorial is something people can see, touch and hear —that, as he phrased it, "makes a somewhere out of a nowhere."

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    Posted Thu, Apr 10, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    I dunno, Skip. After 50 years the R.H. Thompson is looking better and better. I was against it at the time, but now I'm not so sure. It did provide me and my friends an hospitable crash pad in Montlake during the summer of '62. But Seattle was a softer place then, and one could drive easily North-South through the city. Maybe we were wrong after all.


    Posted Thu, Apr 10, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate


    That's the sort of thing which makes Seattle interesting.

    Posted Fri, Apr 11, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    I hope we do a 'ruins' style memorial and not take bits and pieces for some new work of art. Ramps to nowhere are visceral. One with vines growing on them or repurposed for play would be most profound.

    Interestingly, I would not live where I live were the expressway built, unless I wanted to be right beside it. I think folks should consider that, rather than expect society to provide a manner in which one can easily commute over bridges or travel many daily miles, that living closer to work makes sense. I make choices about jobs and where I live without expectation that society will provide me a clear road for MY car.

    Posted Thu, Apr 10, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    Gabowker is right about this one. While the ramps might serve as a “concrete” reminder for McCord and whomever of their activist days, they will also serve as daily reminders for tens of thousands of commuters as to why they're gridlocked in traffic rather than enjoying the mobility to move about the region.


    Posted Thu, Apr 10, 10:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    At the expense of a lot of the city. Remember, the expressway would have done to Rainier Valley, Mt. Baker, the Central District, Madison Valley, Montlake, and Ravenna what Aurora does to the neighborhoods between Denny and Green Lake at best — at worst what I-5 does to the North Seattle neighborhoods it runs through. Not only would it have taken out blocks and blocks of homes and businesses (there goes the Madison Valley business district entirely, as well as University Village), but it would have made east–west pedestrian and bicycle activity very difficult and unpleasant. This doesn't even take into account the destruction of the Arboretum and the Union Bay wetlands.

    No, I'm glad this particular project was stopped. Which isn't to say I wish there were better north-south options. I'm very glad that my commute is now east-west, but I'm worried about what my trips to visit my aunt on Beacon Hill will be like once I can't get onto 99 just north of Pike Place Market.

    Anyway, no. Would we really have wanted everything built here as planned?


    Some point out that a lot of these routes were actually built — Elliott and 15th, for example — just not with limited access. I have to say, I'm glad for the convenience, but would you really want something even like those roads cutting through the eastern part of the city?

    Perhaps those parts of Seattle would be more affordable if this had happened…!

    Posted Fri, Apr 11, 8:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well, those are cute little neighborhoods for sure, and driving through them it's fun to pretend we're in some kind of big-city Mayberry. The R. H. Thompson would have changed all that. But Hey, look at a map of Seattle. It's an hourglass. I-5 is a nightmare. The Highway 99 Tunnel-Alaskan Way Viaduct is doomed to be an expensive and unsatisfactory compromise, literally and figuratively stuck in the mud. We built a transit tunnel, and the surface streets are still clogged with buses. No matter what anyone says, we're not all going to ride bicycles. And many of the same arguments against the R.H. Thompson are valid about Light Rail. Whatever happened to mid-Broadway? What's going to happen to Roosevelt?

    Well, right or wrong, we're fifty years too late. We'll have more stop-gap schemes, quixotic partial solutions argued interminably into gridlock oblivion. No Exit.


    Posted Fri, Apr 11, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    One more thing: East-West traffic? There is only ONE street within the Seattle city limits (Madison) that goes from Lake Washington to Puget Sound. Driving across the city is an interesting challenge or a frustrating puzzle, but not one that is likely to be significantly changed by one or two more North-South freeways.


    Posted Fri, Apr 11, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    At the time of proposed construction, I don't think anyone thought of the neighborhoods along the route south of Madison as "Mayberry." What it would have done would be to eviscerate the heart of Seattle's main African American neighborhoods.

    I entirely agree that I-5 is a nightmare and 99 is probably destined to become one. For that reason, I don't see why the Thomson wouldn't be the same today if it had been constructed. So you have destroyed neighborhoods plus traffic nightmares.

    The difference between what's happening to Broadway and Roosevelt and what would have happened to the neighborhoods along this route is that underground light rail only takes out one block where the station is located. The development around the station is something else... but that could theoretically happen with or without the transit.

    As for east-west traffic, I specifically meant east-west pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The University District between 45th and Ravenna is almost entirely cut off from what used to be its western blocks and is now probably better thought of as Wallingford and Meridian. Think of that happening south of the canal. The western sides of Madrona, Leschi, and Mt. Baker are suddenly a lot less pleasant places to live, never mind what's going on in the CD and Rainier Valley.

    And yes, only Madison goes from sound to lake without interruption (and there are people who, today, want to effectively interrupt it around 14th and make crosstown traffic even harder). If I wish anything from that plan had been built, it might have been along Market/46th/45th/Sand Point, which, incidentally, the Seattle Subway folks now want to be the route of another transit line.

    If you meant my personal commute, it's a lot easier to get from Magnolia to Sand Point than one might think...

    Anyway, though, you're right — it's moot at this point.

    Posted Thu, Apr 10, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    "... battle for Seattle's soul..."

    Is this another Tedward Bowden joke?


    Posted Wed, Apr 16, 8:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    The R.H. Thompson would have decimated many of the neighborhoods and lead to even greater expansion of urban arterials like 99, cutting the city up into even more disconnected neighborhoods ... as much metaphorically as geographically.

    Seattle's neighborhoods didn't and haven't developed to their full potential. Modern activists concerned for the adverse impacts if 520 expansion haven't enjoyed the support or success of their predecessors for a variety of reasons. Arguably, fragmented neighborhood organization - the definition of the grassroots - can safely be dismissed at city hall; neighborhood activists can't deliver the votes, or more importantly effectively engage in agenda setting. Business rather than community sets the pace.

    It may well have been easier to get from A to B had R.H. Thompson been built. Yet would have it been worth it to live here? Will it be in the future?


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