Last week, construction crews began repaving Greenwood Avenue from NW 112th Street to NW 136th Street. Given that this is a busy, high speed arterial with frequent transit service and multi-family housing, one might assume the City would seize this opportunity to build much needed sidewalks. Currently, between NW 112th Street and NW 130th Street there are zero blocks with continuous sidewalks. Yet, despite the city’s oft-repeated commitment to safety, equity and livability, and on the heels of passing the Move Seattle Levy (which identifies this road as a long-term priority corridor), the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) opted to exclude sidewalks from the scope of this $2,820,000 paving project and acknowledges that currently no funding has been identified to complete them at a later date.

People wait for the bus on Greenwood Avenue N. and NW 117th St. To access this stop pedestrians run a gauntlet of parked cars, bushes in the public ROW and speeding cars. (photo by author)
People wait for the bus on Greenwood Avenue N and NW 117th Street. To access this stop pedestrians run a gauntlet of parked cars, bushes in the public ROW and speeding cars. (photo by author)

Given the recent questions about how much of the draft Pedestrian Master Plan will actually be implemented, it is disheartening to see that even one of the corridors specifically called out in the Move Seattle Levy isn’t on track for basic pedestrian safety. When pressed about the possibility of adding sidewalks in the future, SDOT said there are no plans to build sidewalks between NW 112th Street and NW 125th Street or NW 130th Street to NW 136th Street. SDOT added that there is a project in the works to add sidewalks north of 136th Street and SDOT will probably begin design work on five blocks between NW 125th Street and NW 130th Street within five years. Still, the lack of a plan to build continuous sidewalks on one of the busiest arterials in North Seattle, a street that is lined with multi-family housing, raises serious questions about how the city is prioritizing its transportation dollars and whether or not we truly support livable, affordable housing.

Pedestrians on Greenwood Avenue must contend with deadly fast and heavy traffic. In 2014, almost 28,000 cars a day pass through the north end of Greenwood, only 5,000 less than Aurora’s 33,000. And like Aurora, the road design encourages speeding. SDOT’s 2011 Traffic Report says the 85th percentile speed on Greenwood at NW 137th Street was 42 mph and around 1,500 cars a day drove through at more than 45 mph. Where one would expect to find sidewalks, gaping parking lots spill into the roadway, forcing pedestrians to remain constantly vigilant for cars abruptly pulling off the street.

Not surprisingly, you won’t see a lot of families out for a stroll on this portion of Greenwood Avenue. When possible, most people walk on side streets which also lack sidewalks but have much less traffic. Still, many people walk to Greenwood’s bus stops that have well used, frequent bus service on Route 5 and commuter service on Route 355 and one can only imagine how much ridership would grow if the city made it safer and more dignified to walk here. While the north end of Greenwood Avenue is poised for continuing growth, without sidewalks, there is little hope for vibrant street life.

 

A man walks between parked cars and oncoming traffic on Greenwood Avenue N. (photo by author)
A man walks between parked cars and oncoming traffic on Greenwood Avenue N. (photo by author)

If you look at Seattle’s myriad planning documents, you would assume Greenwood would be slated for sidewalks in the near future. Both the Seattle Transit Master Plan and the new draft Pedestrian Master Plan highlight this corridor as a priority for investment. While the new draft Pedestrian Master Plan reveals an enormous network of streets lacking in sidewalks and safe crossings, Greenwood scores particularly well for priority investment in terms of safety need, school access, transit access, and equity.

walk path
A makeshift pedestrian path designed to discourage parked cars from blocking access in front of a property on Greenwood Avenue N and NW 120th Street. (photo by author)

It is also important to note that Greenwood Avenue is absorbing most of the surrounding neighborhood’s new housing. While Seattle touts itself as a collection of urban villages where density meets livability, the north end of Greenwood Avenue represents a starkly different vision of multi-family housing. Rather than a neighborhood center, Greenwood Avenue is the dividing line between the predominantly single-family neighborhood of Bitter Lake to the east and the single-family neighborhood of Broadview to the west. Here, all multi-family housing is literally marginalized along a high speed roadway where pedestrians have scant protection from the heavy traffic, let alone a neighborhood center. You need only travel down the road to Greenwood, Phinney Ridge and Fremont to see how the same street serves both traffic and a vibrant core.

One of several new developments under construction between NW 112th Street and NW 120th Street. (photo by author)
One of several new developments under construction between NW 112th Street and NW 120th Street. (photo by author)

The Greenwood Avenue paving project represents a major missed opportunity to demonstrate the City’s commitment to Vision Zero and building complete streets. If there is a silver lining, consider that Seattle is still relatively early into the Move Seattle era. The lack of pedestrian improvements in this paving project could be a mistake that City officials learn from and avoid repeating on similar corridors with dire needs. There is also nothing stopping the City from going back and adding sidewalks to this missed section as it did recently on the east side of Greenwood Avenue from NW 90th Street to NW 105th Street. With dozens of apartment buildings in place and more under construction, Seattle is past due to ensure the residents on Greenwood Avenue can walk safely in their neighborhood.

 

Drew Dresman is a Transportation Planner who works at Seattle Children’s and volunteers with Seattle Greenways. He loves the beautiful old home in South Bitter Lake where he lives with his wife and 6 month old daughter, though he also dreams of the day when his daughter can walk to her elementary school safely and the two closest coffee shops are not drive-through bikini barista shacks.  

22 COMMENTS

  1. Not too long ago, SDOT had a program called Complete Streets. The objective being to bring all transportation components of a street up to par when doing improvement projects like this. Too bad that program has gone away.

  2. We should have never annexed north of 85th. If you move the city out to the suburbs you inherit the externalization of infrastructure costs that the original subdividers, et al. were allowed to get away with.

    This should not be a public expense (something I rarely say). This should be a private expense of the servient easement landowners.

    The sidewalks south of 85th were overwhelmingly paid for by private developers, subdividers, and homeowners (when solvent) through a special assessment process developed for that purpose.

    So, why should the city take money away from other vital projects to provide a bailout to landowners north of 85th? Particularly, when the lack of sidewalks certainly LOWERED the current owner’s acquisition cost of those properties?!

    The city should grow a backbone and pass a law requiring owners to pay a special assessment for those sidewalks.

    • My hometown in WI not only requires urban homeowners to maintain the sidewalk on their property, but also the street. The city will levy a special assessment against the property owner when they need to repair the street. It sounds harsh, but it also means roads are in much better repair (despite harsh winters) than Seattle.

      Assuming they’re legal, the city absolutely should pursue special assessments for sidewalks (and even streets), or lower the speed limit on arterials like Greenwood to 15mph in areas without sidewalks, and actually enforce it.

  3. I don’t understand the point of the article. Yes, the area needs sidewalks, but what do you expect the re-paving company to do? that’s like calling you electrician to replace an outlet and then ask why he didn’t also fix your toilet. One would assume that re-paving (maintenance) is handled under a completely different budget/planning process from sidewalks.

    • It’s not a “repaving company”, though; it’s the City of Seattle. They had $2.8 million dollars to spend, and instead of saying something like “let’s spend only $1.4 million on repaving only the worst parts, and the other $1.4 million on sidewalks”, they opted to spend the entire thing on enhancing the roadway for cars. They had a choice. Repaving and sidewalks are handled within the Dept Of Transportation. Yes, they’re different sub-groups within the organization, but it’s still the same organization.

      • The re-paving is maintenance, and needed to be done regardless. New sidewalks would be budgeted under “new stuff.” I get it, the area needs sidewalks and I wholly support putting them in. But saying we should do one and not the other, or re-arrange the budget to make it work is silly.

        • This isn’t a rhetorical question. Could you explain why you think it’s silly to rearrange the budget to prioritize pedestrian improvements ahead of repaving?

          • Because the repaving needs to be done regardless of whether they build sidewalks. The article is pointless because it is silly to compare the two. A better argument might be “Why spend $150 million on a new police station when they could spend $140 million on the police station and $10 million on new sidewalks.” Or to compare it to a new school, or library funds. As others above have said, the roads are for more than cars, and maintenance on existing infrastructure is always cheaper than replacing said infrastructure when it fails.

            Beyond that, if they didn’t repave the road, there would eventually be no road for the sidewalk to be next to. It would be a rutted out crumbly mess.

          • If you consider roads more important than sidewalks, then yes – repaving NEEDS to be done. If you consider sidewalks more important, than that’s a nonsensical argument. In an urban area, *I* consider sidewalks more important than roadways. Otherwise, you don’t have a city. Maybe you disagree with me, but turning Seattle into Detroit doesn’t seem like much of a winning strategy.

          • But again, maintenance has to be done or the roads eventually fall apart. Buses and bikes use the roads, as do the trucks that take products to stores so they can sell them. Emergency vehicles use the roads, and so does the post office. We can’t just not repair the roads. They’re not just there for cars.

            Look, I’m with you. I ride my bike everywhere I can, and we’re a one car family. I specifically looked in areas of the city with sidewalks because they are important to me. But we can’t just not repair things that need repair. What happens if we don’t repair that road? All the people that live/work on it can’t get where they need to go!

            I get it, we need sidewalks throughout the whole city, and especially in this specific corridor. But criticizing the city for repairing existing roads is a stupid argument. It is a minimal cost compared to other things the city spends money on. Beyond that, as others have pointed out, the city doesn’t build sidewalks, the property owners do. The better argument would be “these shady property owners won’t build sidewalks to protect their tenants when they want to walk down the street.” OR (as I said earlier) why spend $150million on a police station when we need sidewalks?

          • Hi Ben. I understand your point and I think there is some more background and nuance I didn’t include in the article that would help explain the nexus. While repaving sounds very straightforward, if you look at the budget for this project there was actually more than $200,000 that went into the project design and planning. That is not the phone bill for calling a repaving company, but the budget for the extensive engineering and planning that went into this project.

            Because “repaving” projects like this are such big projects, they are very important opportunities for the city to address other priorities for the street. By not including sidewalks, the city was essentially admitting that sidewalks are not on the horizon here. For contrast, the Roosevelt “repaving” project that is nearing completion has some excellent additions for bicyclists and pedestrians, though truth be told, that was in part because community members got involved early and demanded them.

            When I asked directly if the lack of sidewalks in this paving project means there is no plan to add sidewalks at a future date, SDOT confirmed there is no plan to build sidewalks on most of this stretch. That is the point of the article and I thought it was worth raising because clearly SDOT made a big decision that sidewalks are not in the game plan here despite this corridor appearing to feature prominently in the Move Seattle Levy and the obvious need that is remarkable, even by North Seattle standards.

          • I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. If we don’t repair the road, people can still get where they need to go. There are plenty of roads that we don’t maintain already in Seattle. I also think the whole “homeowners maintain sidewalks” is a cop-out. Dept Of *Transportation* should include walking, which is a form of transportation. The city should maintain sidewalks.

            As far as the police station – I wrote this to our councilmembers: http://spindle.queued.net/~dilinger/northprecinct.txt

      • Caveat here please. Repaving city streets is more than “enhancing the roadway for cars.” Buses and bicycles also ride on that pavement, and the failed pavement on too many city streets hurts those travel modes. Our buses get shaken to pieces, and bicyclists devote too much attention to dodging potholes. “Complete Streets” benefits all modes, not just cars and pedestrians.

        • Certainly, there’s a benefit to bikes and buses. But it’s clear where the priority is. I see repaving projects where there’s a bike lane, and the roadway is smooth as glass while the bike lane has grass growing through it. I see numerous places where SDOT refuses to create bus-only lanes despite an obvious need. We’re repaving our roads for cars, not for buses and bikes. Take a road that lacks cars (bridge over Ravenna Park, for example) and it is falling apart with no plans to fix it.

          • Interesting. On Beacon Hill, we had the opposite problem. On the Beacon Ave. slope down to the Holgate overpass, a few years ago SDOT built a brand new sidewalk, new curbs, paved two new bike lanes, and some landscaping. Everything except repave the rutted asphalt travel lanes. There’s no transit on this street and bikes got their own pavement, so it was just cars (and trucks) that got left out.

  4. Greenwood Ave N north of 85th is a high-speed corridor through a low-income area dense with multifamily housing. Many elderly people, families with children, and other-abled folks dependent on transit live here.

    While in theory adjacent property owners – not the City – are responsible for building and maintaining sidewalks in Seattle, it is highly unlikely landlords along the corridor can ever be coaxed, cajoled, or sued to provide much-needed Greenwood Ave N sidewalks.

    Seattle’s Complete Streets Ordinance (http://bit.ly/2c9zQcS), has as a “guiding principle is to design, operate and maintain Seattle’s streets to promote safe and convenient access and travel for all users — pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and people of all abilities”.

    It’s true that the SDOT budget for a simple paving project cannot begin to afford sidewalks – but even some small nod to the people who must walk on Greenwood Ave N while cars whiz by would be in order. There is money being invested in street repaving so that vehicles can go faster. How about adding a painted buffer, a rumble strip, a narrowed roadway with jersey barriers to make life easier for people who must walk? There are low cost alternatives that would make peoples’ lives better and meet at least some of the intent of Complete Streets.

    The official Complete Streets Ordinance says that “transportation improvements will include an array of facilities and amenities that are recognized as contributing to Complete Streets, including: street and sidewalk lighting; pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements; access improvements for freight; access improvements, including compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; public transit facilities accommodation including, but not limited, to pedestrian access improvement to transit stops and stations”.

    Isn’t it time we focused on building a walkable city?

    • Well put, Cathy. This is a maddening situation that is doomed to be repeated until the city and SDOT reform their approach to capital budgeting. Years after adopting the Complete Streets Ordinance SDOT’s dollars still maintain separate pots for each element of a “complete” street, so “simple paving projects” get done in isolation and perpetuate unsafe and uncomfortable conditions that everyone recognizes as inadequate. It takes Herculean effort on the part of SDOT employees and outside agitators to make something different happen, as is the case with Roosevelt (proof that it CAN happen). One wonders if the constituency for this section of Greenwood lacks the political heft to force the city to deliver on its aspirations in the Race and Social Justice Initiative, Vision Zero, Complete Streets, Move Seattle, etc.

      • North Greenwood is probably beyond the vision of most urbanists, both those inside City Hall and outside. If it was between Ballard and Capitol Hill, this project might have had a better outcome.

        I am glad to know that Complete Streets still exists, at least on paper. Let’s hope it’s not becoming one of those Dead Letter ordinances.

        • I wish that were the case, but we’re already getting word that the 2017 repaving project of Nickerson (N Queen Anne) will also not be putting in sidewalks on the portions of the street that lack them. This is a systemic problem with SDOT, where it appears they will only take our Complete Streets ordinance seriously when there’s public pressure.

  5. Looking at Google streetview, I see sidewalks mostly continuous up until 97th. After that it’s spotty, and seems to only exist in front of new developments.

    What I do notice above 97th is all of the angle-parking where there should be sidewalks. Are these legal? If so, a sidewalk would be pretty pointless – it would be one huge curb-cut. If not, then maybe the first step is to enforce that.

    The stretches of sidewalk near new developments are another great benefit of new housing – they bring sidewalks with them.

  6. Thanks so much for the post. Our family lives on Greenwood between 110th and 112th, and while we are “lucky” to have a sidewalk in front of our house, we can’t actually use it to get anywhere since there’s not any continuous sidewalks. We can’t walk anywhere safely on our street- even with the sidewalk in front the cars travel way too fast and accidents occur regularly. My eldest daughter is 7, and her best friend lives on the corner across Greenwood from us. I’m terrified to let her walk there alone, even though there’s a sidewalk plus crosswalk and it’s less than a block away. We don’t walk anywhere in our neighborhood, even though there’s a library, park, and more within walking distance.

  7. Thank you for your informative post. This describes such a disgusting disregard for Seattle voters, families and citizens that live in this area. When I saw the paving project begin, I foolishly had a fleeting thought that perhaps we’d finally get some sidewalks on Greenwood in this area. Silly me! What was I thinking! Seattle politics strikes again! No excuse….

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