Slaying concrete dragons

In the battle over the downtown tunnel, there are echoes of Seattle's defining highway battle of the '60s, the fight over the R.H. Thomson Expressway.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's 'Ramps to Nowhere,' a legacy of the unbuilt R.H. Thomson Expressway.

In the battle over the downtown tunnel, there are echoes of Seattle's defining highway battle of the '60s, the fight over the R.H. Thomson Expressway.

"Seattle will become a smog-covered traffic jam. The destructive cycle of freeways already has turned 70 percent of Los Angeles into space devoted to automobiles. We need a comprehensive plan for rapid transit before considering another freeway."
— Maynard Arsove, president of Citizens Against R. H. Thomson (CARHT), 1968.

Eco-activists vs. highway engineers, lawsuits, multiple votes, endless studies and options, a sea-change City Council election, a pro-highway mayor replaced by a more skeptical one, tunnels vs. elevated options, arguments for rapid transit over freeways: The fight over the proposed R.H. Thomson Expressway in the 1960s and '70s had many of the familiar elements of a Seattle knock-down, drag-out fight for the future.

It's not exactly parallel to the downtown-tunnel controversy of today. The post-Alaskan Way Viaduct deep-bore tunnel is planned to replace a decrepit elevated highway with an expensive underground bypass, while the R.H Thomson was a surface expressway that would have been one link in a new series of highways, viaducts, and bridges sweeping through and surrounding Seattle with new ribbons of concrete touching on many neighborhoods. 

But what began as NIMBY opposition in Montlake grew, over time, to a citywide grassroots movement fueled by new urban and environmental sensibilities. The movement pointed to a better way to build modern cities, one based more on mass transit than the automobile. And it also became a rallying point for those looking for a socially just city.

The operating principle of opponents such as the grassroots Citizens Against R. H. Thomson was that a highway that didn't work for one neighborhood didn't work for any. Transportation solutions had to work for all.

The R.H. Thomson, like so many projects, started somewhat small, as an extension of Empire Way, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which comes to an abrupt end at Madison Street just south of the Arboretum. Extending it as a north-south boulevard along the edge of the Arboretum was one idea.

Voters passed a bond issue in 1960 that would raise significant funds for improvements to arterials, including Empire Way, and this eventually inflated to a full-fledged highway that would run north, then duck under Union Bay in a tunnel, and eventually hook up other new and expanded roadways (like the proposed Bay Freeway and viaduct through South Lake Union), essentially encircling the city. At the time, this was city-building 101.

A massive interchange was planned for the Arboretum, which had already had to give up acreage for the planned new SR-520 toll bridge. Arguments developed over the Expressway's route: Would it go through the Arboretum itself, or through the eastern edge of the Montlake neighborhood, taking out middle-class housing? Why not move it east through the Broadmoor Golf Club, asked architect/activist Victor Steinbrueck, who neatly put his finger on one of R.H. Thomson's troubles.

Such urban expressways rarely inconvenienced or displaced the rich and privileged. Indeed, as plans advanced, an interchange was planned for Thomson's link-up with I-90, which would have ripped a large hole in the fabric of the Central District just at a time when Seattle's black community was pushing back in a white-dominated, segregated Seattle.

The fight against R.H. Thomson had many chapters: NIMBY lawsuits that delayed the project; a City Council election that swept skeptics into office (Tim Hill, Sam Smith, Phyllis Lamphere); a new mass transit-booster mayor (Dorm Braman) who was more willing to scale the project down (from an expressway to a parkway); disagreements between the city and state over design and process; the rise of grassroots opposition citywide as neighborhoods became aware of the major impact the roadways would have on their quality of life. Their new name for the R.H. Thomson: the Jack the Ripper Expressway.

But what it came down to in the end was two competing visions for the city.

The establishment wanted progress, which meant more and bigger roads. New-generation urbanists wanted better urban planning, fairer cities, and mass transit. It was a time when ideas for shaping cities that were greener and more people-friendly were coming into vogue. People had been willing to vote for millions of dollars in street improvements. A new floating bridge had just been built, and I-5 had (controversially) cut a concrete "trench" through the middle of Seattle, leaving an open wound (attempts to lid it had been defeated).

Freeway skepticism was on the rise, and the promise, at least, of mass transit was within reach. Rapid transit had been part of a Forward Thrust improvement package, and won over 50 percent of the vote, but not the 60 percent required for passage. Still, anti-freeway advocates had an alternative to promote: rail and buses over cars and sprawl.

At the end of the day, the R.H. Thomson project died in the early '70s due to a thousand cuts of Seattle process — but also because there was a growing awareness that the city's strength was not in copying New York or Los Angeles, whose errors were becoming evident, but by innovating a new way. The R.H. Thomson Expressway was a long, long way down the road before it was stopped: It had been in the city's Comprehensive Plan, it had the state behind it, voter-approved bond money, studies, condemned land (many homes in Montlake), other freeways it could tie in to (520, I-90, and its third floating bridge). From the standpoint of the establishment, it was a no-brainer.

Yet it collided with a new urbanism, community activism, and a young generation's sense that progress and technology carried negative consequences as well as promise. In a story about the history of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on KUOW, reporter Dominic Black said it this way: "The science that everyone was so giddy about — you know, that brought the cars and fridges and the Boeing Spacearium at the World's Fair in 1962 — it's also the science of Silent Spring, of pollution, nuclear testing, pesticides. Anxiety."

The option, of course, wasn't to stop progress, but reshape it to be more people- and eco-friendly. But first, the momentum for the status quo had to be faced.

As the late anti-Expressway activist Maynard Arsove described it in Puget Soundings, it was a battle against "concrete dragons." He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Somebody has to fight the freeways. There are powerful lobbies representing the highway construction industry, the automobile, truck, tire and cement and construction equipment companies and some labor unions who push for freeways. There is no one to point out the disadvantages to our way of living."

For activists, being "stakeholders" for disadvantages of progress puts them in the Cassandra role, as spoilers or wagers of a "war on cars." But emphasizing the negative is often imperative to get people's focus on changing course. The R.H. Thomson project was slowed from a juggernaut, burdened with re-thinking, stalled until a friendlier political context could be created, and it effectively died with a whimper when a tied vote of the City Council failed to keep it going. For Seattle greens, it was the best sister-kiss in history.

The legacy left a different, more process-oriented, more citizen-involved form of city planning, which itself sometimes feel like a burden. It helped kill off some other ill-conceived projects, such as the Bay Freeway, which, along with R.H Thomson, had nails put in its coffin by a public vote in 1972. Left over were those famous "ramps to nowhere" in the Arboretum, which have stood for decades as a point of civic pride. They are monuments to standing up to the status quo, to the capacity of an open society to change course when it gets it wrong.

Tunnel advocates and opponents both invoke St. Jane Jacobs, the scholarly freeway warrior of New York, in touting their respective positions. The pro-tunnel members of the city council are less back-room, and certainly more green than the pro-Expressway City Council majority of the R.H. Thomson era. All would agree that transit and buses and bikes and walkability are good.

But the heirs to the anti-Thomson mantle are people like Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition, Mayor Mike McGinn, and City Councilman Mike O'Brien, to the extent that they represent taking urbanism beyond the first green revolution of the '60s and '70s. Back then, the radical urban goal was to stop new freeways. The leap now is to roll back highways and the dominance of the car.

The issue is not just opposing an increase in car capacity, nor even keeping it the same, but redirecting spending (to transit, rail, etc.) and fixing the mistakes of the past.

R.H. Thomson is a mistake that was never made; the Viaduct is one, tunnel opponents believe, that can be rectified. Both sides agree that removal of the surface highway will be a boon for the waterfront. And in the end, whether the surface or tunnel option wins out, there will still be traffic moving through the Highway 99 corridor.

One element that has changed over the decades is the regional commitment to rail. If greater Seattle couldn't pass rapid transit before, it has now committed to and invested heavily in Sound Transit. So the question becomes whether road diets can work by getting more people to use other options. It's a conservation ethic that assumes, as with oil or any other commodity, that the supply is now limited and we have to live within our means, even as we grow. The ideal city is one that prospers but doesn't despoil as it goes.

Seattle was willing to take half the risk 40 years ago by stopping a freeway or two. But it happened only because opponents bought time to change minds, and to reshape the political landscape. If building highways in Seattle was unquestioned in 1960, it was problematic by 1968. If demolishing "blighted" neighborhoods for "urban renewal" was no big deal in 1960, by 1968 it was becoming unthinkable in the Central District, or at the Pike Place Market. If presenting people with a fait accomplis from the back rooms was business as usual in 1960, it was a "Seattle Way" staggering under body blows by 1970.

History suggests that today's tunnel opponents are right not to be daunted by the "consensus," "pragmatism," or "inevitability" arguments of the tunnel option. Time might turn the tide.

But neither should proponents of the tunnel fear making their case to a wider public: Seattle also has a long history of completing projects that have had strong, vocal and litigious oppositions (I-5, I-90 expansion, World's Fair, Kingdome, Safeco Field). Winning a public vote is a good way to seal the deal, but strong-arm tactics can work too. R.H. Thomson might be a precedent and a potent symbol for citizen activists, but it is also, generally, an exception.

In Dominic Black's KUOW Viaduct history, Museum of History and Industry historian Lorraine McConaghy weighed in on the ramps to nowhere that are her neighbors in Montlake:

I think the ghostly highways and the ramps that go to them are fascinating. But they're kind of metaphorical, aren't they? They represent an urban vision that no longer was usable in its community. They represent ideas on paper and maybe in the newspapers, and maybe in public meetings, and maybe in the meeting rooms of people who smoke cigars and eat steaks and drink martinis. But they didn't make it onto the grid of the real world. They're left behind.

The question now is what the tunnel, built or unbuilt, represents. Is it the kind of urbanism that gets us somewhere, or the kind that "is no longer usable in its community," a way of doing things we should leave behind? 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.