by Jack Russillo
Over the holiday weekend, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will close a one-mile section of Lake Washington Boulevard — from Mount Baker Park to Genesee Park — to cars and open it up for pedestrians to recreate freely. The closure will begin “around noon” on Friday, May 28, when SDOT crews put up barriers on the roadway. The road will be open to cars again on the morning of Tuesday, June 1.
“We hear from a lot of people who love it and that it just feels like freedom for them to have this space to walk, bike, walk with strollers, roller skate, scoot on scooters, and just be with the open space of Lake Washington,” said Sara Colling, a senior outreach lead at SDOT. “It just opens up a lot of opportunities. With that, there are tradeoffs, which is why the decision-making process is complicated.”
According to SDOT, until the final plan is established, the same one-mile stretch of Lake Washington Boulevard will be closed each weekend of the summer, from Fridays at noon until Monday mornings.
Numerous pedestrian organizations, including Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, Cascade Bicycle Club, and Seattle Bike Blog have advocated that the three-mile stretch of Lake Washington Boulevard from Mount Baker to Seward Park should remain closed to motor vehicles year-round.
“There has been so much overwhelming, positive support for this project, but there’s also been some concerns as well,” said Gordon Padelford, the executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “The City really needs to engage with community members about what’s working, what’s not working, what could be improved, and how the space could be made more welcoming. The potential is there to have this be the space that the community’s able to use well after the pandemic ends, because southeast Seattle is in desperate need for more open space to walk and bike and run and roll, especially for families. So there’s a potential to make a permanent place along Lake Washington Boulevard for people, but that needs to be done through an equitable community engagement process.”
The delayed announcement of the closures, coupled with the lack of a consistent plan or proactive outreach effort, have become points of contention for residents of the Rainier Valley area who utilize the roadway. Owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) but managed by SDOT, Lake Washington Boulevard has previously been closed regularly for “Bicycle Sundays,” but the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in the regularly scheduled program.
Since last spring, Lake Washington Boulevard has been closed to vehicles for many weekends but on an unstable timetable. As a park space, the boulevard could provide extra room for people in southeast Seattle to get outside, but it is also one of four main north/south arterial roadways in Seattle’s South End. Many families use it for picnics, gatherings, and getting exercise, but others use it for commuting more efficiently. Some people who live nearby fear that shutting down the roadway to cars is another example of the City ignoring South Seattle residents’ input and adding to the displacement of public space for Seattle’s BIPOC communities that live in the area, not just those who live directly on the boulevard.
“Part of what really frustrated me when I learned about the closure of Lake Washington Boulevard was that I’m now seeing another example of this gentrification that’s been going on for decades,” said Gilbert Petitt, a third-generation Seattleite who is currently a Beacon Hill resident. “I’m really getting more frustrated with the overall City leadership and it just does not seem like gentrification is really a concern with our publicly elected leaders. It seems to me that what they’ve done with Lake Washington Boulevard is it’s almost become a private space for the people that live there.”
Another balancing act related to closing the roadways is how to manage the parking lots, which were closed by the City last summer to reduce overcrowding during the height of the pandemic.
“I think it was really difficult last summer because the Parks Department closed all the parking lots at the same time that they closed the streets to cars, so then you lost access for all the people who don’t live an easy walk or roll from the lake,” said Anna Zivarts, director of the disability/mobility initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “The 50 bus was hardly running and it all just shut down a lot of access. It was unfortunate, you know, because there were a lot of folks who, for them, those two things were connected: the parking lots being closed and the streets being open to people walking and rolling. I think in an ideal world, we’d see the parking lots open and the more space on the street for people to enjoy it.”
“There are definitely swaths where it’s not accessible and it doesn’t feel comfortable,” said Padelford. “It doesn’t feel safe travelling right next to really fast-moving traffic. Biking on the boulevard does not feel family-friendly when there are cars on it, even though there are signs that say that people biking have the right of way. That’s not how it feels when you’re out there. The difference is stark when it’s open to cars and who you see out there. When it’s open to cars, you mainly see, to be quite frank, a lot of white guys going really fast on road bikes. They’re getting some exercise, which is great, but you don’t see the families and women and People of Color that you see biking in the space when it’s a safer environment. I think it’s really important to think of access at those levels as well.”
When the one-mile section of the boulevard is closed during weekends this summer, SDOT will not close off access to the parking lots at either side of the closure because, according to SDOT, there are no residences or parking lots within the stretch of road that would be impacted.
“When things are constantly changing or shifting, especially if you have sensory disabilities, it’s really confusing to then always try and figure out where you can walk today,” said Zivarts. “I think there should be more stability and then we can see the folks [usage] increase because they know they can do it. They know they can get through there and they know it’s accessible. It’s how they can get to the lake and feel comfortable and safe. Not having it be rearranged every weekend or have different barriers — I know the City likes to experiment, but that kind of experimentation then adds to confusion and makes people less inclined to want to use the space because then they might not understand how to navigate it.”
Until a finalized schedule is set, however, the improvised plan will dictate how much pedestrian access there is along the boulevard this summer. SDOT released a survey that ended earlier in May that allowed people to vote for which closure option they preferred — but with no option to vote for no closure at all — and it will wait to release the results once a final decision has been made for the boulevard.
“It’s intentional. They’ve already made their decision and now they’re just collecting data to support it.” said Pettit. “I think that with Lake Washington Boulevard, there’s got to be a focused effort to really get feedback from those communities that are potentially affected by the closure and with the hope of finding something else that’s more balanced. Closing off that street for five months does not serve the interests of most of the community, and that doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Pettit suggests that there should be advisory groups that represent residents from around the city, whether it’s a neighborhood committee contacted by the City to speak on neighborhood priorities or a commuting group that acts similarly to established bicycle advocacy groups. He feels the City should regularly consult with commuting drivers when it’s considering such pedestrian-only projects.
“It’s always hard for the City to do big community engagement projects,” said Padelford. “Some projects, I feel like it works really well and other projects, not so much. I’ve also seen a lot of community engagement efforts by the City that are really in good faith but the community doesn’t care enough to respond. There are some projects that resonate more and this one seems to be resonating really strongly, both in terms of garnering a ton of public support and also some concern. That’s why I think that the City needs to make it a priority to invest more resources into engagement for it because it’s clearly a hot topic, no matter how you feel about it.”
SDOT has said that it is using the survey results as well as five criteria — safety and health, access, implementation, equity, and community and stakeholder input — to arrive at its final decision.
“I haven’t seen the survey and I am sure that many of my neighbors have not seen the survey, so I’m not sure what’s being done, but I know there is an incredible opportunity to do a lot more,” said Megan Francis, a Mount Baker resident and a volunteer with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “I also think that agencies like SDOT need to contend with and own up to their institutional history of not being a place that has always been welcoming to certain communities. Over the last year, a lot of institutions have taken up wake-up calls or have professed wanting to do better, but I think we’d like to see them do better.
“I wanted to provide my voice as somebody who is Black and Asian, that kind of perspective, and I think that more voices, especially in community processes, are really important,” said Francis. “Something that is always concerning to me is that some voices, whether positive or negative, are just not even heard. So how can we increase community input into a process? I think that there are a lot of different ways to do that. It is spending much, much more time on outreach and it is doing the hard work of reaching out to leaders in a community, whether that’s organizations or schools or nonprofits and then letting them know and giving them a chance to speak up. That takes more work and I think that’s work that some people don’t want to do, especially when there’s a pandemic. But in order to do it in an equitable way, it’s necessary to put in the hard work.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
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