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.
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Ramps to snowhere

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

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."

That "nowhere" is a reference to where the ramps didn't go, not to the Arboretum itself. It is important to remember that the area's history includes far more than the battle of R.H. Thomson. The area being restored was integrated into the lifestyles of the region's tribes not only in terms of sustaining their lives, but also as a sacred place; parts were also reportedly used as a burial ground. There's an understanding that the changes at the Arboretum — new pathways, entries, restoration of wetlands — are a chance to tell the park's fuller and lesser-known history.

Iain Robertson, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and a member of the Botanical committee, spoke strongly in favor of preserving the ramps, citing the value of "ruins" being incorporated into the landscape. In European landscapes such old elements as grottos, walls, towers, old abbeys etc., are called "follies," he said. Preserving upright sections of the ramps to nowhere would be "the folly of follies," he joked, and would make the "Arboretum a richer place in terms of cultural experience."

Committee chair Jack Collins emphasized the importance of giving the ramps some kind of context. He also underscored the committee's support for the concept. "This is a big deal for us," he said. Reclaiming and reinforcing the Arboretum’s complicated cultural history — something more than the sum of its plants — would be fantastic, anything but folly. The ramp memorial would be one important piece of a landscape puzzle that makes up one of Seattle's most remarkable places.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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