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Bulldozing Seattle’s tradition of protest

Seattle's 'Ramps to Nowhere,' a legacy of the unbuilt R.H. Thomson Expressway. Credit: Allynfolksjr/Wikimedia Commons

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."

Landscape architect Richard Haag, an R.H. Thomson opponent back in the day, favors the idea of keeping the ramps and nominated their destruction for a Heritage Turkey of the Year award. His opinion is worth listening to as Haag is a master at turning ruins into civic wonders, as shown by his ground-breaking and internationally recognized Gas Works Park.

Haag thinks that a professional consultant or designer should be brought in to advise on a fitting memorial, but he throws out one free idea that would blend history and nature: Save some of the columns spanned with partial roadway sections (they make great habitat for swallows, he says). On top, erect platforms that could attract nesting eagles or ospreys, and below place nesting boxes to encourage the return of colorful wood ducks. A sign across the end section would say in big stainless steel lettering: "Memorial to Activists Who Killed the R.H. Thomson Expressway. May it Rest in Peace."

Even if keeping a ramp or an arch isn't feasible, a monument to the anti-freeway effort and what it symbolized certainly is, and Seattle is certainly full of creative minds that could take a cut on creating something fitting. The R.H. Thomson was a classic David vs. Goliath battle (add to that the fight against the Bay Freeway that would have walled South Lake Union fom its lake). No sculpture could tell that story quite so well as the old ramps themselves. But second best would be to repurpose parts of the ramps to memorialize the effort, much like has been done with sections of the Berlin Wall.

No Arboretum without the protesters: Seattle Municipal Archives label this 1962 aerial shot "Proposed Route Thru Arboretum Area." It's one of several dozen showing the path through the arboretum that engineers had in mind.  

That the Arboretum exists today in its present form is due in part to the folks who fought the good fight back in the 1960s and '70s to keep the freeway out. The R.H. Thomson battlers — and the voters who backed them— reflect a classic example of Seattle process working heroically.

The monument needs to be on the battle ground where that important victory was won, and it should be one that reminds us of the power of civic activism, of the importance of thinking about a future where people are more important than pavement. The R. H. Thomson battle also unified the city in the understanding the civic knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, meaning that all parts of the city, rich and poor, are connected. What happens in an affluent neighborhood has impacts on poorer ones, and vice versa; by working together we can make change, even at the last minute when all seems set in concrete.

It's not too late to have a say in this. The Arboretum's Botanical Garden Committee will be meeting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Graham Visitors Center, 2300 Arboretum Drive E.

A version of plans for a freeway through the Arboretum. Early on, the proposed highway was called the Empire Expressway. (Source: Seattle Municipal Archives.)

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