Let’s Build a Park on This Reclaimed Freeway Crater squib

by Matt Baume
Wish you were here. Downtown Residents Alliance

There are hints of a nice new neighborhood stroll coming soon to Belltown, but first the state of Washington has to mess it all up.

The eagle eyes of Queen Anne Greenways spotted something strange at the corner of Bell St and Western Ave: a pretty new concrete curb, laid down with no ADA-accessible ramp. On its own, it doesn’t look like much; just another irritating failure to accommodate pedestrians.

But wait: It’s not the city’s fault, says Seattle traffic engineer Dongho Chang. “Old SR 99 connection to Battery St restored by our WSDOT partners,” he notes. “Believe we'll be extending Bell Street Park improvements here. It'll be nicer for people.”

Oh? Really? Will it indeed? Because it’s pretty lousy right now.

For that, you can thank the Washington Department of Transportation, who are the ones responsible for the recent construction at that corner.

“That’s the location where the tunnel on-ramp used to be,” says Laura Newborn at WSDOT. “WSDOT built up the corner, created a curb and added a crosswalk for safety, with the understanding this would be a temporary configuration only. Next, Waterfront Seattle takes over the location.”

That doesn’t explain why they couldn’t put a temporary ramp there, and I’m pretty sure the crosswalk on Bell was there already, but sure, okay. (Also, there’s still no crosswalk spanning Western!)

But anyway, the freeway ramp that once ruined that corner is now gone — certainly an improvement — and plans are underway to transform the entire block into a park. Exactly what will take the ramp’s place is a little vague; the Seattle Office of the Waterfront, which is overseeing the redesign, didn’t respond to emails. Neighborhood advocates are pushing for a big pedestrian overhaul of Battery Street (which, yes, the city should absolutely do). What we do know is that it’ll be part of a larger connection that extends up Bell Street, from the waterfront all the way to Denny Park, a route that includes some brand-new bike lanes.

The most exciting component of that work is an extension of the Bell Street Park, a tiny little demonstration of what nearly all Seattle streets ought to look like. Bell Street Park is short — about four blocks — and it’s a curbless paradise, with cars deprioritized to the point that drivers are generally like “eh, I’m not even going to bother.” You can walk, you can sit, you can see friends and enjoy yourself — it’s one of the best streets in the city, or at least it would be if it actually connected to anything.

Well, in about a year, it will connect to things. The plan is to bring it all the way down to the water, and all the way up to Denny Park, along the way passing that poor neglected patch of former-freeway that will be getting a facelift of its own. We’ll have to live with WSDOT’s unpleasant curb for only a year or so, but before you know it we’ll have something far better.

That’s not to say it’ll be perfect; the new Elliott Way, which will be far too wide, will route a ton of traffic through that area. Two lanes for cars in both directions! That’s four lanes too many. But it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully it’ll bring Seattle just a little closer to expanding the Bell Street Park model to more neighborhoods, and along the way banishing WSDOT — and all cars — for good.

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