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Ramps to Nowhere: A word on behalf of ‘Seattle process’

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

Thank goodness for good old Seattle Process. Although often damned as anti-progressive, Seattle Process also has  more than once  saved the city from major disasters.

One of the most dastardly of the threatened disasters was a 1960s plan by the State Highway Department (predecessor of the Washington State Department of Transportation) to impose a griddle of freeways across Seattle to accommodate hordes of ex-urbanites whom planners believed would choose to settle in the suburbs. Their plan was a Mid-20th Century nightmare, involving a new North-South freeway, an additional Lake Washington bridge or even two and an elevated viaduct walling off South Lake Union.

The backbone of the system was the R. H. Thomson Expressway, a six-lane freeway designed to stretch from the Duwamish to Bothell, destroying the Washington Park Arboretum, bisecting a dozen family neighborhoods and paving a major portion of the city. The Thomson was nothing less than a tsunami of cement, blessed by state and city engineers. That the horror never happened was thanks to some feisty citizens, who organized into two citizen groups, took advantage of process and, quite improbably, ended up winning.

What we are left with, the only tangible tombstone, is a pair of ramps to nowhere, reminders of the never-built R. H. Thomson. The ramps stand at the North end of the Arboretum and have been popular for decades with adventurous youth who have used them as diving and sunbathing platforms.

With the projected rebuilding of SR 520, the plan now is to tear those ramps down. However, there are some — Crosscut columnist Knute Berger among them — who believe the ramps or some portion of them, ought to be saved as a memorial to grassroots democracy. A group called ARCH  Activists Remembered, Celebrated and Honored  wants to keep two pillars and a cross piece of the old freeway, an archway, standing as a monument.

Those certainly are my sentiments. In my pre-newspaper days, I was one of that small rowdy group of citizens who opposed the Thomson and even named one of the opposition groups CAF (short for Citizens Against Freeways).

However, I have traveled to the Arboretum and talked with members of the Seattle Parks Board and the Arboretum Botanical Garden Committee, some of whom voted in 2011 to remove the ramps, citing environmental and safety issues. The Arboretum activists have declined to reconsider, although they have said that they would be willing to consider a monument, perhaps one containing a piece of one of the ramps.

As a veteran of that war, I am personally pleased to hear that the Arboretum officials are amenable to working on something significant. It would be tragic to think that there would not be some way to commemorate the decades long struggle, a classic David and Goliath encounter.

The scenes from that clash of wills still haunt and comfort me. I recall one long afternoon in Seattle City Council chambers when activists joined hands with forces from the Central Area. CAF volunteers were seated in back rows and joined hands with Black Panthers who yelled out that, if freeway builders dared pave parts of their city, they would fire the place. They yelled, “Burn, baby burn.”

I cheered then and still cheer in memory of indomitable activists like University professors Maynard Arsove and Bill Frantilla of CARHT (Citizens Against R. H. Thomson) and CAF founders Margaret Tunks, Dave and Joan LeFebvre, Laurie and Gary Ness and Lois and Jack Brooks.

Credit also goes to some right-thinking local officials like former mayors Wes Uhlman and Charlie Royer and former councilmembers Tim Hill and Phyllis Lamphere. When I look at those ramps to nowhere I think of all those citizens, all the twists and turns and I thank goodness we had Seattle process to use to defend our city.

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