By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
What sounded like an impossible dream a few years ago is rolling down the road toward potential reality.
A planning effort, with state money and city assistance, is looking at whether 1.4 miles of Highway 99 that divide and pollute South Park neighborhoods could be removed, buried, boulevardized, or at least mitigated.
An event Saturday afternoon at Concord International Elementary School – barely a block west of 99 – was the onramp to the next phase of that work, under the Reconnect South Park banner: Developing a “community vision plan.” The open-house-style gathering in the school’s lunchroom offered information on possibilities as well as opportunities for feedback.
Maria Ramirez, project director, explained in brief remarks, “We know we have options; we don’t know where we’re going to end up. We have a year to come up with a vision.”
When put into numbers, what the highway did to South Park is stark – 22 of the neighborhood’s streets are dead ends because of it, Ramirez noted, and only two places to cross over it.
The storymap on the Reconnect South Park website tells the story of how this stretch of highway, built in the late 1950s, was intended to be part of converting all of the South Park area to industrial use; the community stopped the total rezoning, but the highway bisecting the neighborhood remained.
Can that be fixed? That’s what Reconnect South Park is all about. Some early concepts have been sketched out for starters.
The most dramatic of the “potential futures for Highway 99” shown on Saturday would remove it entirely, sending the traffic elsewhere – 509, for example, runs in parallel a relatively short distance west. 44 acres of land now used as a highway could be redirected to “community-supportive uses, such as affordable housing, businesses, and green space,” and the street grid could be reconnected, remedying most if not all of those 22 dead ends. Some of that also would be possible under two other “potential futures” – undergrounding this stretch of 99 as a tunnel (perhaps with a “lid park” over it) or converting it to a boulevard/arterial through South Park, narrower than the current highway. The other possibility – and the least dramatic of the four – would be “mitigation,” such as more sound walls and vegetation as buffers, and “new or improved bridges across the highway.”
At this point, they’re doing everything they can to find out what community members think of those possibilities – or whether they have other ideas. That goes for community members of all ages – particularly youth who are most likely to see something come to fruition, as it’s seen as a “generational” project – something that likely will take many years to plan, fund, and built. But South Park is not alone in pursuing an idea like this – as also shown during Saturday’s event, there’s a nationwide trend toward removing highways that split or otherwise disrupted communities in this way.
So why do it at all? Several reasons, as Ramirez explained “To reverse the socioeconomic harm of planning mistakes (long ago) …” That would include “reparations” for the displacement caused by building the highway through South Park. And the potential health benefits almost go without saying, as there’s been so many revelations in recent years about air pollution in the Duwamish Valley and its effects on the life expectancy of the people who live there.
People who attended on Saturday were invited to point out their homes on a tabletop model of the neighborhood, placing little markers:
There was also information about synergizing with other efforts – the Duwamish Valley Resilience District, for one, as the riverside neighborhoods plan ahead for possible effects of climate change. The city Office of Planning and Community Development is working with Reconnect South Park, administering the grant that’s funding these early efforts, but those involved are trying to keep it as community-led as they can.
WHAT’S NEXT: They’ll be collecting more ideas and feedback through a survey linked on the reconnectsouthpark.org website. Another gathering like the one on Saturday will be scheduled in a few months, too. And the “potential futures” will be analyzed in the meantime. Beyond that – still a long road, as there’d be a lot of governmental involvement, search for funding, etc. But as Ramirez reminded those on hand, “Think deeply about the future – this is going to take a generation to realize. We’re doing this so people can live in an area where they can thrive and be healthy.”