1923 Frelard use plan.
1923 Frelard use plan.

The Seattle City Clerk’s website keeps an expansive online repository of historic zoning maps. I seem to always find myself perusing the 1923 maps in particular. The 1923 zoning ordinance was essentially a snapshot of how Seattle had been developed up to that point. There seems to have been little, if any, planning at the time. And despite this document being nearly one hundred years old (and rather poorly thought out for a city ), it’s actually more progressive in some ways than present zoning. Or at least, it was less restrictive than now.

My wife and I have lived in Fremont since moving here, and now that we have kids, we spend a lot of time at our local parks. We’re aware of which roads are quite inhospitable to cyclists and pedestrians, and tend to avoid walking on arterials because, well, mostly because we don’t live in the Freiburg fussgaengerzone anymore. Drivers speed excessively on the roads around us.

Market Street added to the grid.
Market Street added to the grid.

So it was with delight, and also a lot of disgust, in looking over the ‘Frelard’ map that I noticed that this whole area once had a beautiful, continuous grid. Sure, the topography on some streets isn’t the easiest to hike with kids, and there’s criminally little commercial, but holy cow, over the course of time, the City laid down quite a few scars.

The first one that stands out is the stretch of Market that angles down from NW Market Street at 4th Ave NW to N 46th St and Greenwood Ave N (map). The speed limit on this stretch of road might as well be 50mph. This ‘improvement’ divided through at least 10 blocks, and cut off several more from even accessing it, either due to slope conflicts or to prevent accidents. Some of these cut off sections would have made great woonerven (they’re actually in residential districts).

Green Lake Way in Wallingford.
Green Lake Way in Wallingford.

Green Lake Way stands out as essentially a mirror Market Street on the east side of Aurora Ave. It slices through the grid from the northbound offramp at N. Allen Place to Green Lake Way & N 50th Street (map). It’s pretty much the same effect–8 blocks were hacked up and several more restricted access. An inhospitable speedway dividing the southern half of the road from the north. Good luck trying to cross, I’ve seen several accidents and near-fatalities with pedestrians attempting to ‘frogger‘ across. Some of the lots here could actually have set the stage for interesting buildings, but the zoning has overwhelmingly prevented that.

Separation of Woodland Park by Aurora Ave N.
Separation of Woodland Park by Aurora Ave N.

The third scar in the North Fremont area that really stands out, and also has always irked me, was the bisection of the Olmsted-planned Woodland Park into two separate parcels. Sure, there are some (horrendous) overpasses that link them. Hurrah! The total area of the park is approximately 250 acres per the GIS–if you include the Aurora Ave N right-of-way, parts of the park that stretch north, and the off-ramp at Green Lake. Unfortunately, the 1923 use map for this section was zoned ‘First Residence District’. Given the size of a contiguous Woodland Park, roughly a third of Central Park, this could have been something really amazing had the park been preserved. Painful, no?

1923 use map centered on Woodland Park.
1923 use map centered on Woodland Park.

The last scar that stands out to me is likely the most heinous. However, at this point, it’s also the easiest to rectify (ahem, Seattle City Council). At the time of the 1923 zoning ordinance, the overwhelmingly majority of blocks between 3rd Ave NW and 14th Ave NW, from N 65th St clear on down to Leary Way, was zoned for the following uses: multifamily, business, or commercial. Those diagonal-hatched blocks were zoned for ‘Second Residence District’–also knows as multifamily. Anyone want to take a guess what the present zoning of nearly every one of those blocks is today?

Generalized Frelard zoning of 2015.
Generalized Frelard zoning of 2015.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Wow.

    Who invented the insane single-use single-family zoning which was applied sometime after 1923?

    The 1923 zoning seems very reasonable.

  2. Rainier Ave S and MLK Way S form a wedge in the Rainier Valley that is isolated on 2 sides. 2 massive, 4 lane monstrosities cross the neighborhood, never more than 6 blocks apart, separating the poors in the center from the nicer view properties in Lakewood (East) and Beacon Hill (West). It’s horrible. Rainier road diet now, speed controls, better enforcement, and implement the bow tie at MLK and Rainier.

  3. I recall seeing a blog post somewhere a while back that made the case for removing this diagonal portion of Green Lake Way, and restoring the street grid between 45th and 50th east of 99. A big piece of the argument for it was that restoring the grid would fix the problem intersection at 50th/Stone/Green Lake. Searching now, I can’t find the post anymore. I would love to see The Urbanist explore that idea, and how that road removal might improve bike/ped accessibility in the neighborhood while actually *improving* automobile travel times in the vicinity (i.e. enable a two-cycle or three-cycle intersection at 50th/Stone rather than the current 5-cycle intersection)

    • I would love to see that happen. I have had to frogger across Green Lake Way all the time and the lack of even crosswalks leads many motorists to ignore pedestrians and avoid easing off the throttle to allow an opening for a person scampering across. It’s incredibly stupid land use considering how pleasant the neighborhood would otherwise be and how the congested 5 way intersection basically erases any time savings the route provides anyway.

      • Cool article. You should drop by one of our meetups sometime. We also do a series called “Spot Fix” that highlights a problem and suggests a fix for it. I think your proposal would fit nicely into this if you want to write on it.

  4. Market Street provides an east-west route up and down the ridge that’s usable by wheeled transportation without cutting through Woodland Park. It cuts up some blocks, many of which are ludicrously steep; this is no great loss compared to the connections it creates. And it actually results in a reasonable spacing of arterial streets, with a reasonable layout considering the topology.

    The onramp to Aurora from 46th is signed “Phinney Way”. Why would that be? Probably because at some point there was a plan to run a real mirror to Green Lake Way west of Aurora, running diagonally to 50th/Phinney. It’s unclear how far this idea went, but of course the intersections at either end, and the one at Fremont Ave, would have been pretty bad. The Green Lake Way that was built really cut up its neighborhood in a way that it wasn’t cut up before, isolating one triangle of houses from an actual nearby commercial area, cutting off the rest of the area from Woodland Park, and creating two monster intersections at 46th and 50th. Along with the particular layout of the “Midvale Place” curve from 45th to 46th, and the similarly off-grid Bridge Way to the south, it broke Woodland Park Avenue. Woodland Park Avenue used to be a streetcar route; today there is no straightforward north-south local transit route anywhere near there; that’s not entirely the fault of street changes, but they played a big role.

    Green Lake Way, Bridge Way, and Fremont Way, all basically extended ramps to Aurora, managed to mess up pedestrian and transit movement this much (Fremont to a lesser extent I think) while simultaneously failing to provide general access to Aurora, and therefore failing the decentralized auto-age city. If you start almost anywhere in Fremont or Phinney Ridge it’s absurdly difficult to head north on Aurora, because these roads were all designed to funnel a bunch of cars exclusively downtown where they don’t fit anyway. Market Street has actually improved general mobility, including on transit, as it’s home to one of Seattle’s few popular cross-town bus routes.

    Market’s intersection at 3rd Ave NW could use some improvements, and the street overall could use more transit reliability improvements. Green Lake Way’s problems (especially the horrible intersections at 46th and 50th) are unfixable without its removal, because it was apparently conceived without considering basic geometry. These things are not remotely similar.

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