Aurora Avenue: Can a Lost Opportunity Be Regained?

Two teens walk along the edge of Aurora with no sidewalk and streams of cars going by.
Pedestrians walking on Aurora Avenue where sidewalks do not exist. (Photo by Lee Bruch)

Most of us have an attic, or a storage locker, or a closet, or a drawer that is neglected, full of things that we don’t pay attention to. Out of sight, out of mind.

Cities have those too, areas where needs, infrastructure, and services are neglected, areas that exist outside of the city’s focus. Neglected areas attract less city and private investment. Property values are lower and rents are cheaper. Those who can’t afford property or rents in other locations migrate there: blue collar hard-working families, young new families, immigrant communities and people of color, and transient communities. All are affected by the neglected infrastructure and its lack of safety, but none are affected more than the most vulnerable. Out of sight, out of mind.

The northern end of Seattle’s Aurora Avenue N. is one of those neglected areas. Follow Aurora out past South Lake Union, Queen Anne, Fremont, and Wallingford to an oftenoverlooked stretch of Aurora that extends from the north edge of Woodland Park at N. 59th Street to Seattle’s city limits at N. 145th Street.

This stretch of Aurora slices through the heart of two urban villages, the Aurora-Licton Springs Residential Urban Village and the Bitter Lake Hub Urban Village. In EACH average year 197 people are injured and one killed along its length. These aren’t just dry statistics. They are people with faces like those of your family, faces who live, work, shop, and go to school along its length. Aurora and many of the faces you’d meet along it are profiled in a series “Along the Mother Road” that KUOW radio is producing.

Take a look at the toll of crashes, injuries, and deaths along that 4.3 miles long stretch of Aurora in the last 10 years. In those same 10 years Seattle lost three opportunities to make things better and safer.

Aurora from N. 145th St. to N. 59th St. from January 2008 thru March 2018:

    • 3,516 crashes (343 per year)
    • 11 people killed (1 per year)
    • 2,020 injuries (197 per year)
    • 183 pedestrians hit (18 per year)
  • 51 bicycles hit (5 per year)
  • Average 80 crashes per mile each year. (Statistics from SDOT collision database as compiled here.)

In 2008 the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) partnered and secured funds for a makeover of Seattle’s Aurora. At the same time the city of Shoreline partnered with WSDOT and others to do the same in Shoreline. Some of the less far-sighted auto-oriented businesses in both cities objected and appealed. The City of Seattle relented … the funds that had been earmarked for Aurora were spent elsewhere. The city of Shoreline persevered and today in Shoreline you can see the safer, more humane, and more thriving results.

In 2015 as part of the advertising for the Move Seattle levy the Aurora Corridor was listed as one of the needs to be addressed by the levy. In spite of Move Seattle’s success at the polls, nothing ever came of Aurora … its promised improvements vanished. Out of sight, out of mind.

In the summer of 2018 WSDOT plans to repave Aurora from Roy Street near the tunnel to the city limits at N. 145th Street. WSDOT is responsible for the paved part of the roadway between the curbs, SDOT is responsible for everything within the right-of-way outside of the curbs, including the sidewalks and the median. WSDOT asked SDOT whether they would like to partner with them and include more extensive safety and livability improvements during the repaving. SDOT said no.

People at Risk: Bitter Lake Hub Urban Village

Aurora is a road serving much of the wealth in Seattle at its south end in South Lake Union. But the other end of Aurora, the north end, is the opposite. It’s the forgotten end. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan’s Growth and Equity section contains the following map of vulnerability indicators. The people along the Aurora corridor (Aurora is superimposed in blue) are progressively more vulnerable towards its northern end.

Seattle OPCD conducted an Equity Analysis that included vulnerability indicator like displacement risk. (OPCD)

The demographics underlying 2035 Seattle and the preceding map are in large part drawn from the 2010 census. Much has changed since 2010. Many young families and economically challenged people in Seattle have been forced to the north and to the south from the more costly and more central parts of the city. Large multi-story affordable housing complexes for families and for the elderly have been built, and are continuing to be built, within one block of northern Aurora.

78% of its students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches

Seattle Public School’s school reports provide a glimpse of the socio-economic, ethnic, and immigration characteristics of each school’s neighborhoods. The elementary school serving the east side of Aurora In the Bitter Lake Urban Village is Northgate Elementary. As of October 2016 78% of its students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches. 81% were children of color. 42% were English language learners.

The elementary school serving the west side of Aurora in the same area is Broadview-Thomson K-8. 58% of its elementary students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches. 68% were children of color. 29% were English language learners.

Aurora near 125th St lacks sidewalks. (Photo by Douglas MacDonald)

Those students, predominantly disadvantaged, must risk their way across and along one of the most dangerous streets in Seattle to and from school, shopping, activities, and home – a major arterial that for the most part has no sidewalks.

Do you need to walk or bike between the Bitter Lake and Licton Springs Urban Villages?

Many middle school students who live in Bitter Lake or Haller Lake do need to walk bike, or bus to and from Robert Eagle Staff Middle School on N. 90th Street in the Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village. Aurora is the only connection the three quarters of a mile between Meridian and Fremont Avenues.

They have a choice: Walk or bike in the mud along the west side of Aurora.

Or walk or bike along the east side of Aurora and squeeze between the overgrown hedge, the power poles, the curb, and busses scurrying by at 30 miles per hour in the bus lane an elbow-width away.

Main Street in the Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village

Aurora is a repellent gash through what should be the heart of the Aurora Licton Springs Residential Urban Village. It is a barrier separating adjacent neighborhoods. The city’s neglect forces people away from what could be a vibrant Main Street. Like many neglected back alleys, Aurora breeds deterioration and attracts crime. Out of sight, out of mind.

This bus stop in Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village is narrow and not ADA-friendly. (Photo by Douglas MacDonald)

Compare with Lake City Way, near N 125th Street. Like Aurora, Lake City Way is a state highway. It carries more traffic than Aurora carries through the Aurora-Licton Springs Urban Village. It was retrofitted to better serve the people who live, work, and shop along it with some of the money transferred from the Aurora Corridor project that was cancelled in 2008. This area of Seattle’s Lake City is now thriving with a mix of new residential and pre-existing and new neighborhood retail.

Or compare Aurora in north Seattle with Aurora in Shoreline. In 2008, when Seattle cancelled its Aurora project, Shoreline proceeded with theirs. Shoreline’s Aurora is now a thriving and successful mix of residential, retail, and pre-existing auto-oriented commercial along a much safer and more pleasant Main Street.

Shoreline’s Aurora Avenue section at least looks nicer.

Importantly, Seattle’s neglect of Aurora is not merely a transportation issue.

It is too important to be left solely to transportation planners. It is a safety issue for all who use Aurora. It is an equity issue for those underserved who must risk walking on its shoulders. And it is a city planning issue affecting all who live, work, go to school, or pass through Aurora’s neighborhoods. Out of sight, out of mind.

The neglect of Aurora deteriorates surrounding neighborhoods and makes them less livable. With vision Aurora could be a key opportunity in developing additional affordable housing along the busiest RapidRide bus route in the City.

The city’s neglect of Aurora is fundamentally a city planning and city vision issue. It will take vision and imagination to tackle it.

Image of cancelled plan from CH2M Hill 2008 Report. (Graphic by Ryan DiRaimo)

An abdication of fundamental city planning.

Seattle’s repeated neglect of civic investment in Aurora is an abdication of fundamental city planning. And it is an abysmal failure of transportation and safety planning. The past 10 years of lost opportunities are a denial of Seattle 2035 growth strategy, equity, and the city’s comprehensive plan.

Improvement won’t happen unless we decide to make it happen.

It will take a coordinated investment by citizens, businesses, the City, and the State requiring:

    • Proactive city planning and Design Guidelines
    • Economic development planning
  • Transportation and road planning

It’s time for Seattle to stop its willful neglect of Aurora. It’s time for Seattle to regain the opportunities that north Seattle’s Main Street presents.

Lee Bruch is a retired architect and project manager. In the mid 1970’s he was an architect involved in the City of Vancouver, BC’s Phase 1 False Creek Development, which demonstrated how a few people’s visions can turn a neglected area into one of the prides of the city. Since moving to Seattle’s Green Lake area 30 years ago he has watched much of Aurora languish unchanged amidst its lost opportunities.

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Lee Bruch (Guest Contributor)
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Selena C.

I loved this expose on Aurora. Living in North Seattle for 26 years I’ve been driving along this stretch of Aurora since I got my driver’s license (22 years ago). Two months ago I moved into multi-family complex on the renowned Linden Ave North bike path and have attempted to navigate (on foot) teeny tiny stretches of Aurora to reach Albertsons, the Asian Grocery Store, Petsmart and the E-line. What I encountered was: someone crushed by a bus when they fell into the street at 130th, no sidewalks along both sides of Aurora where the 130th St pedestrian overpass dumps people, bags in hand, motorized wheelchairs waiting in the turn lanes to get into retail complexes on either side and shocking numbers of school kids (11 years+) walking four abreast along SR99 (Aurora). Perhaps the most eye-opening is how the lack of sidewalks, and rampant prostitution, frames innocent high school girls (who tend to wear tight clothes because that’s the fashion nowadays) as up for grabs because they are walking along the shoulder, just like the prostitutes. Sidewalks along the entire stretch of Aurora should be non-negotiable and are needed-NOW.

Mandy Ginsberg

Don’t forget to mention all the prostitutes.. They are so concentrated between 90th and Aurora and 105th and Aurora .. right by the brand new schools and children are expected to walk amongst them and their lurking pimps… I saw a transaction happening and the police were nearby, visible, and did nothing. What can be done to enact a no prostitute zone by the schools?? There are no drug zones by the schools. I wrote an email to the mayor and got one in return saying they are going to let the Seattle Police know, and if I don’t hear from anyone in two weeks to contact the mayor’s office again. We all know how seemingly overwhelmed and understaffed the Seattle Police are.

Shay Moore

I would hardly call the Shoreline improved areas “thriving and walkable”. Yes it looks better, and some new businesses did come in, but it is sprawling, noisy, and not particularly inviting. It’s still mostly sad looking strip malls, dive bars and diner-type restaurants, punctuated by a few specialty stores. It does feel SAFER, and I’m curious what the safety statistics are in that region to the north of 145th (taking into account shifts in traffic patterns outside the city limits) comparatively.

I do wish the city had done something more with the region around Oaktree long ago. I used to live in that area and would walk to Larry’s Market, the theater, and restaurants in there. With Lichton Springs park not far behind it, I imagined it just getting better, but instead it continues to go downhill, and the region becoming less hospitable with prostitution and drug trade thriving.


Great article, but, where do the auto sales companies go? In other cities? Are they scattered? If not, isn’t the auto sales area usually undesirable as residential?


Cities will continue to have car-oriented commercial roads and auto sales lots for a while.

And cities can choose to add density and develop + retrofit these roads for the good of people who live, walk, bike, and use transit — see Aurora just past 145th in Shoreline for a good example.

Or cities can choose to repave the same old dinosaur-era, car-only, sidewalk-free monstrosities which is the choice Seattle made for its side of Aurora.

I think that’s the point of Lee Bruch’s article.


The city has tried to force the dusty and out-dated 90’s ‘urban village designation they came up with two decades ago down the Aurora corridor’s throats in order to satisfy the whims of currently developers who want to build cheap apodments, and build with no parking available for their tenants.

Seattle annexed the corridor in the 1950’s. Many thought seventy years ago when this happened, they would actually improve the area and add amenities, they did not. Go through our neighborhoods, Greenwood for example, and you will see hardly any sidewalks on any residential streets. Go walk or drive down Aurora. It is full of auto-oriented, adult businesses, or seedy motels and corner fast-food restaurants, even a large homeless camp near Jack in the Box. Hardly amenities that people and pedestrians in the neighborhood can consider local ‘amenities’ to use.

If the City of Seattle, The Clowncil and Mayor Jerkin’ Durkin want to better Aurora, they need to start with actually caring about the entire corridor and putting money into the infrastructure to make getting around easier for locals, and to update and beautify Aurora by incentivizing affordable housing and amenities locals can use over auto shops, porn shops, and fast-food chains that blight the area and encourage crime and seedy individuals.

Claudia Atwell Canouse

An excellent look at North Aurora and its recent history. The deterioration of the area seems to include an excessive amount of drug use followed by the users spilling over into nearby neighborhoods to commit burglaries to support their drug habits. I have lived in the Haller Lake neighborhood for 80 years. It saddens me to hear people say they are going to move because they have had it with having their cars and houses broken into and their property taken or destroyed. Perhaps a follow up article with burglary, robbery and other property crime statistics would be in order.

Mike Carr

1st step is to get the Mayor, City Council, SDOT to expand their focus to more than Downtown and Capitol Hill. Seattle is much more than those two neighborhoods.


I agree, yet the article was about Aurora, and its neglect, so lets roll with it. If you want to discuss downtown and Cap Hill then write an article about it.

Shay Moore

Mike was agreeing with you. He is saying they spend too much of their focus on Downtown and Capitol Hill and we need them to shift their focus to other neighborhoods, as this article is suggesting.