Engineering megaprojects often seem unstoppable. With the notable exception of the current attempt to dig a tunnel under the Seattle waterfront, these things usually progress in a pretty visible and inexorable way. Turns out this is not always the case.
In 1972, voters backed the City Council’s plan to cancel the R.H. Thompson expressway, which was to be a third north-south freeway link cutting through the heart of Seattle. Planning for this freeway started in the 1950s and by the time of the vote, concrete had already been laid in places. With the cancelation, all work stopped but some elements of the freeway that never was were never removed.
Three ramps still dot the Washington Park Arboretum, mixing with the trees and the edge of Lake Washington as a sort of monument to what was. For years they’ve been there, hiding in plain sight of the active bits of Highway 520 that pass nearby, but as I found out from The Stranger, the upcoming Highway 520 replacement project will finally see these ramps removed.
I’ve always known these things were here – in the summer, people dive off them into the lake. Driving by, you can often see their barricaded lanes and abrupt endings, but I’d never taken the time or figured out how exactly one gets atop these fantom spans. It turns out it’s not so hard. Parking at the edge of the Arboretum, you hike down a foot-warn path and into the shade of some overhanging trees and brambles. The edge of the construction is abrupt – you’re scrambling up five feet of solid concrete, to stand atop several lanes of proto-freeway.
Once atop, only a few barricades and an overhanging tree block you way. The part that surprised me most was that I always assumed that these things were forbidden – I mean – they’re bits of freeway, not hiking trails, but the upside of the fact that nobody ever planned to just *leave a piece of freeway in a park* is that nobody ever planned to leave a piece of freeway in a park. There are no signs and no fences. You just do, or don’t do, what you want. Clearly people have been doing what they want for a long time.
Beer bottles and cans lay thick. Without any sort of cleaning, the smashed glass in the gutter almost looks like beach sand. People have been drinking here for a real long time.
As you hike up the hill, the road bends and you’ve got a view across the Montlake Cut toward the back of Husky Stadium and the University District. Something feels very wrong about being up here, but at the same time, the view is great. Looking down toward the lake, it’s all peace and tranquility. Probably the best part of the ramps is that at the end of the day, they’re surrounded by the Arboretum. I’m glad they never built the thing - that they would have cut a swath freeway-wide through these parts of Seattle seems completely ridiculous in retrospect.
Turning around, it’s back down into the darkness. I’m glad I saw it – they won’t be there much longer.