by Will Sweger
An uninitiated pedestrian will find more than a few Seattle intersections daunting. The confluence of Columbian Way, Oregon Avenue, and 15th Avenue on Beacon Hill is one of those places. The arterial passage of Columbian Way, bearing heavy traffic heading to and from I-5, passes uncomfortably close to the traditional grid intersection of 15th and Oregon, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to navigate a network of crosswalks on the way to their destination.
In the middle of the busy roadways is a curbed concrete island, no larger than the size of a couple parking spaces. The pedestrian sanctuary is complete with plastic guard pylons, some of them sheared off from hits by passing motorists. Complicating matters, Mercer International Middle Schools sits along Columbian, a short distance away. As school lets out every afternoon, students run through the intersection to catch buses from the stops located on 15th.
While the peculiarity of the intersection hardly makes it unique in the city, the controversy over attempts to fix it does. Neighborhood meetings on the intersection have turned hostile and have even heard shouts of “War on cars!” Efforts by neighbors and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to improve the safety of the intersection have stalled, leaving residents at odds about which direction to take forward.
In 2015, a driver hit a Mercer student in the intersection, prompting the Parent Teacher Student Association to apply for a Neighborhood Street Fund project with SDOT to improve the safety of the crossings. The plan attached to the PTSA application suggested running Columbian Way into Oregon Avenue creating a four-way intersection and removing the pedestrian island. The plan also featured a protected bike lane and a small public plaza where Columbian used to travel.
Residents like Kennedy Leavens welcomed the possibility of an update to the intersection. Leavens, a resident of 15th Avenue just south of the intersection, told me about the night she and her husband woke to a crash to find a drunk driver had driven through the wooden fence in their front yard. She said it’s the second time since she moved in that her neighbor’s car, parked on 15th in front of his house, had been totaled after a driver hit it. She’s only lived there two and a half years.
As her son played with toy trucks on the living room floor, she explained her family car had already been “smashed up” from being parked in front of her home. She even explained some friends of hers left their beater parked in front while leaving town for a week in hopes the vehicle would be totaled. The vehicle made it through without any additional scratches though.
“[Drivers] are treating this like a highway because it feels like a highway right now, it doesn’t feel like a neighborhood,” she said. “You just have to spend so much time in the street to get across this really busy intersection. The more time you spend in the street…the more dangerous it is, especially for these middle schoolers, but for everybody.”
In 2016 SDOT selected the application from Mercer Middle School’s PTSA to receive funding and soon after things began to go awry. SDOT planners realized S. Columbian Way is a major arterial and bears truck traffic on a daily basis. Adding a 90-degree turn from Columbian onto 15th would create a situation where 18 wheelers would be clogging the intersection or driving over curbs.
To fix the problem, planners moved the plaza across the street, creating a three-way intersection and minimizing the outlet of S. Oregon Street. Adonis Ducksworth, SDOT Outreach Lead for the Project, explained the effort saying, “Essentially, it’s to make improvements at the 15th and Columbian intersection to improve safety for people walking and biking around the intersection. This project was designed to simplify the intersection making it safer and more predictable for people using it.”
At this point, most community members had not heard of the project. Public meetings revealed SDOT’s plan for creating the plaza and removing the left turn from Oregon Street, a maneuver many residents living in the area use. Complicating matters, the new plaza would be at the foot of Harlow Heights, the new apartment complex recently erected on the Northwest corner of 15th and Oregon. In a neighborhood undergoing change from an increased population and the displacement of long-time residents, a new park at the foot of an unfilled four story 39-unit building seemed sinister.
Public meetings over the project quickly became episodes of neighborhood outcry against SDOT facilitators. The situation worsened as SDOT representatives, in true government bureaucratic fashion, did not have answers about specific elements of the design when asked in public. They continued to take down comments from the community without any form of voting measure available to form a consensus.
A group calling itself “15th and Columbian Neighbors” formed in opposition to the project mostly over the loss of the left turn signal from Oregon. They began a petition against the SDOT plan which gathered more than 300 signatures and circulated their own proposal for preserving the left turn signal on Oregon that allows motorists living west of 15th to access I-5. Their alternative also preserves the infamous island.
Austin-Monique Subelbia and Eci Ameh, organizers with 15th and Columbian Neighbors met me at a local coffee shop. They sported “Win Win” campaign pins. Though they described working with SDOT as a struggle, they admitted they would not have met if it hadn’t been for this movement. Ameh explained, “They’ve successfully formulated a neighborhood group that’s going to be immediately responsive to the things they bring to the community.”
To its credit, SDOT does not seem resistant to setting up public meetings. However, Ameh and Subelbia said the process leaves activists responsible for ensuring interested parties attend the meetings.
The two explained that the proposed SDOT plan would eliminate street parking in the area in favor of the small public park and protected bike lanes. They also pointed out the need for other street repairs a short distance from the intersection in question. In particular, 16th Avenue South, a primary access route for the nearby Mercer International Middle School, is crumbling in many places.
Ameh said she found out about the project from a petition circling at the nearby MacPherson’s produce stand. “We got involved at different stages along the way because of the really poor community outreach on SDOT’s part,” she said. “We didn’t find out about this way at the outset, we found out later, in hindsight, how far back this project really started and I actually feel really lucky that I just happened to be at a produce stand to find out about this.”
Ameh explained, “What we’ve been asking from the councilmembers, from the mayor’s office, and from members of the community is to witness the process and ensure that it’s authentic. What we’ve been told is that this project has been put on pause to get community input, but we know that developing that [feedback], especially if it’s going to actually influence a design, takes more than three public meetings.”
Subelbia summed up her position saying, “I personally am not against any improvement, but what I am against is leaving out the folks who will be directly affected by change. Our voice should also be heard and not dismissed as ‘NIMBY’ or ‘shady’… I am simply the voice for many residents who are older, less experienced with the internet and have been here for twenty-plus years. We all know that Beacon Hill is changing, and it would be easier to accept if it didn’t feel like an ‘Out with the old, in with the new’ situation. We’ve held down for all these years and want to be a part of the growth. I refuse to be left out of the conversation.”
Ameh put it simply, “I wonder how many different designs and plans there are for our neighborhood that we don’t even know about.”
15th and Columbian Neighbors have advanced their own plan for the intersection, which includes painting an extra wide mural crosswalk leading to the middle school, enlarging the pedestrian island, and repainting some of the stop lines to allow cars in the intersection more room to maneuver. Bicyclists are left to fend for themselves in unprotected lanes between moving traffic and parked cars.
Chris Carter, the Principal of Mercer International Middle School and the alternate contact on the 2016 Neighborhood Street Fund project application met me after taking a picture with his staff of teachers in their Black Lives Matter at School t-shirts, “I wasn’t really focused in on that intersection so much as the Principal here at the school. My concern is mostly 16th Avenue and Columbian.”
Speaking of the proposed idea for a plaza, Carter said, “I wouldn’t want my kids, our students here, hanging out in the morning or afterschool at the plaza potentially causing problems at MacPherson’s or the businesses there. You know teenagers get together and they’re hanging out at a place that’s intended to be a social hangout. That could be problematic so I wasn’t real supportive of the plaza.”
“We’re a high-traffic area without resources dedicated to doing traffic work. My teachers are hired to teach; my instructional assistants are hired to assist here on campus. Administrators and principals are not hired to do traffic,” he said. “We have 1,200 kids here and we were at 800 when I first got here as a principal six years ago…yet our physical footprint and our proximity [to the road] haven’t changed at all.”
He said he has personally stood in Columbian to block traffic so families could get out of the parking lot from the school. “We’ve had parent volunteers who are willing to do it. We’ve asked, and they go out for a day or two and do it and they’re like, ‘This is insane,’ because parents are rude to them.”
The intersection of 15th and Columbian bring together two very Seattle things—funky intersections and talking it out in lots and lots of meetings. Yet for the people living in the neighborhood, the outcome affects their everyday and is about more than motorists giving up their dominance to pedestrians and cyclists.
It is no coincidence that this struggle is taking place over an intersection lying in the shadow of a new, unfilled apartment building that towers over the homes and businesses around it. Though debate over the intersection hinges on sharing the available commuting space, there is real fear that neighborhood changes will leave people out in the future.
Neighbors, particularly people of color, have traditionally lost out in the growth cycle in Seattle and “change” and “growth” have become synonymous with “gentrification” and “displacement.” Until the issue of displacement is resolved, attempts to reform transportation away from a car-based model will be met with suspicion by many long-time residents.
Adonis Ducksworth explained SDOT is planning additional outreach meetings to refine the design. “Even people who are somewhat intimidated or feel like they can’t speak up, we want to hear from them too,” he said.
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald and a resident of Beacon Hill. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle, The Urbanist, and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger