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50 years ago, the Seattle Freeway Revolt kept the Central District from being ripped apart

Seattle ARCH (Activists Remembered, Celebrated, and Honored) has plans for a “Ramps to Nowhere” memorial (Image: Seattle ARCH)

(Image: Seattle ARCH)

Priscilla Arsove remembers sitting in her family’s living room as her father called hundreds of volunteers and city officials throughout the evening on their house’s single landline telephone to stop freeway projects that he saw as troubling throughout Seattle. Now, she’s working to maintain that legacy as the work of her father and hundreds of others celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

On Sunday September 23, a 50th anniversary celebration of their work will be held at the Central Area Senior Center.

Maynard Arsove was pushed to action by the construction of I-5 which effectively separated Capitol Hill and First Hill from downtown.

The “Freeway Revolt” began in 1960 when voters approved the Bay Freeway, which was set to be a link between I-5 and Seattle Center, and bonds to fund the R.H. Thomson Expressway, a 15-mile roadway that would have stretched from Duwamish to Bothell, thus setting in motion the creation of a transportation system that would have a greater freeway density than Los Angeles.

The R.H. Thomson Expressway would have destroyed up to 3,000 homes and displaced as many as 8,000 people. The Bay Freeway would have walled off South Lake Union from the rest of the city. These possibilities fostered a public outcry that resulted in a public outcry from affected residents which saw the citizens suing the city two years later. Widely-attended public hearings on the future of transportation in Seattle ensued before Citizens Against the RH Thomson (CARHT) and Citizens Against Freeways (CAF) formed in 1968.

“An arrogant disregard for the needs and the interests of the people that lived in the area,” Anna Rudd, a former anti-freeway activist, said of the city’s plan.

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CARHT was founded by Maynard Arsove, while CAF was established by Margaret Cary Tunks. The groups were broad coalitions of citizens, ranging in background from professors and writers, such as Frank Herbert who wrote the “Dune” series, to Saul Alinsky-inspired activists and Black Panthers like Aaron Dixon who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Citizens spent the following four years disputing the funding of the R.H. Thomson, including a Save the Arboretum rally attended by 3,000 people and a Save Mount Baker Ridge rally.

The city proposed a 14-lane Mercer Island bridge which would be connected by the R.H. Thomson by an interchange, but residents said it would cut an open trench through Mount Baker Ridge and demolish much of the nearby community. Hearings on the project were so widely attended that they had to be held over the course of four nights.

Meanwhile, the R.H. Thomson highway would have roughly followed the route of Empire Way — renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 1983 — cutting a trench through the middle of the Central District. It would have occupied the block between 27th Ave and Empire Way along its entire length, destroying thousands of homes. And with freeway crossings only at the intersections with major arterials such as Cherry, Union, Yesler, and Jackson, it would have created a wall of traffic and concrete between the neighborhood and Lake Washington.

Plans provided for six highway lanes and additional collector streets along each side, with an estimated traffic volume of 70,000 vehicles per day by 1985. It gave neighborhood residents access to the freeway via on and off-ramps at Madison, Cherry, and Jackson streets.

“What’s the point of having a neighborhood beautification program if you’re not going to have a neighborhood,” said Rudd, who moved to Seattle in 1968 after growing up in Detroit, an area that, in the 1950s and 1960s, saw freeway construction cut through the most densely populated African-American neighborhoods.

Activists spent years educating the citizenry on the negative effects of the roadway. In one case, Maynard Arsove and nine others were forcibly ejected from the Seattle Center Coliseum for canvassing voters before a Seattle Supersonics game. Their work finally paid off in 1972, when a majority of Seattle residents voted “NO” on the building of the Bay Freeway and “YES” to revoking bond authorization for the R.H. Thomson Expressway in a special election.

Meanwhile, citizens led legal challenges against the Mercer Island bridge expansion, which resulted in the 8-lane configuration that the roadway has now.

Anna Rudd and Priscilla Arsove are now working to ensure that these achievements are remembered.

“It was a really remarkable example of grassroots civic activism of citizens coming together,” Arsove said. “It was a very diverse movement and just involved a huge effort by a lot of people and it accomplished a tremendous amount for the city. It would be a very different city today.”

Freeway Revolt 50th Anniversary Open House

Rudd and Arsove are co-founders of Seattle ARCH (Activists Remembered Celebrated and Honored), an organization that aims to preserve the history of the revolt. It is fiscally sponsored by Shunpike, a non-profit that provides Washington arts groups with resources.

With the help of the Seattle Public Library and King County’s cultural agency, 4Culture, Seattle ARCH has put together an online resource dedicated to compiling documents from the city’s history of freeway activism that can be viewed by everyone.

Ramps to Nowhere,” a documentary on the revolt, will be played at the Northwest Film Forum’s “Local Sightings” film festival at 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday, September 26. The movie is directed by filmmaker and University of Washington professor Minda Martin. The title refers to 1960’s-era ramps which were meant to connect the Highway 520 floating bridge with the R.H. Thomson Expressway.

Seattle ARCH successfully persuaded the Seattle City Council to approve the preservation of a section of the “Ramps to Nowhere” as a monument to the activists who worked to ensure that it was never connected to the expressway. The monument, made up of four columns and a crossbeam, will be complete when reconstruction of SR 520 is finished in 2028.

The work of CARHT CAF, and now Seattle ARCH provide an example for future activists.

“There is great power in citizens working together, you know, and developing coalitions across the city, and keeping a unified voice, and making their opinions known,” Arsove said.

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9 thoughts on “50 years ago, the Seattle Freeway Revolt kept the Central District from being ripped apart

  1. Meanwhile 520 continues its slow traffic chocked expansion across montlake.

    – no lid in montlake
    – no idea what happens to montlake bridge to cope with traffic
    – no plan for portage bay bridge

    Seems like a telephone and some handouts did a better job in making wsdot accountable than we are doing now…

  2. This is awesome! It gives me hope for all kinds of activism. It works.

    I grew up with this topic central to our dinner conversation as my father, Arthur Grey, as urban planning professor at the UW fought this with his
    colleagues. It was a great victory when it was stopped.

    I personally loved jumping off the bridge to nowhere. I’m proud that all my children had the chance to enjoy it too. We thought it would have made a nice Highline style park. But did I fight for it? No.

  3. Glad to this was a success. I wonder how things would have played out if this these highway plans happened (including bigger I-90 bridge and highway to Seattle Center.)

    1. Obviously all of the eastern Seattle neighborhoods would have been decimated, so no Central District to Mount Baker gentrification. Although Eastlake still has been developed, so maybe it would look more like that (apartments/townhomes next to highway.)

    2. SLU would have been walled off from downtown. Maybe that would have led Vulcan/Amazon to develop instead in SODO or more directly downtown?

    3. The highway connection to Seattle Center may have led to increased density in Queen Anne.

    4. These highways would have supported more suburban sprawl, but that happened anyway.

    5. The downtown core would have been more walled off (already split from Cap Hill and 1st Hill, now split from SLU and LQA.)
    Do you think this would have led to a taller/denser downtown, more expansion south and east towards the ID and SODO… or would it have effectively stymied the downtown’s grown- taking into account that downtowns everywhere have seen a resurgence over the past 20 years.

  4. The city with all these freeways and connectors built I can only imagine as a nightmare to live in. You would have had some rich people at the edges and along the lakefronts, and some poor people crammed in between concrete canyons, and everybody else would have fled. We can all be thankful for the work of these activists, and they should never be forgotten.

  5. This was conservative activism, not to be confused with the “progressive” activism that Seattle politicians are currently using to rip this city apart. “Lesser Seattle” was a real movement in the 60s. We need it back.

    • I agree. I am a charter member of “Lesser Seattle” (the term was coined by Seattle PI columnist Emmett Watson). Unfortunately, these days it’s a lost cause. Rampant development, upzoning, and almighty “density” are now things which many Seattleites (and the City Council) think are wonderful….I don’t.

  6. Hurrah! I worked hard with Maynard isince 1997 to keep 520 from becoming a monster, especially in Montlake area. Still wish New PB viaduct was going to be 4 lanes with ped/bike not 6. No room on 1-5 to absorb more vehicles than presents try to feed in.

  7. Disagreement time. Highway 520 should flow through the I-5 corridor and connect to Highway 99 and thus eliminate the Mercer Mess. These shortsighted ‘activists’ bear all the earmarks of today’s autophobia merchants. Real uprising and more positive results are the 2 citizen rejection votes in 1995 and 1996 of the Seattle Commons pipedream.