After more than a year of contentious wrangling over proposed safety improvements to 35th Avenue NE, mediation between two local groups is now over and two alternatives have been sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan.
As previously reported, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had slated 35th Avenue NE for safety improvements that include adding bike lanes, enhancing sidewalks and crosswalks, and restriping the arterial based on community input and compromises to the Bicycle Master Plan. However, late last year, local businesses finally began paying attention and since the improvements include removing parking from one side of the road, they launched a campaign, melodramatically called “Save 35th,” to retain their parking and not allow the implementation of bike lanes.
In response, several neighbors formed Safe 35th–a local, community-based organization intent on seeing the safety improvements implemented as they were designed (I am a founding member).
Despite three parking studies indicating the neighborhood only uses 40% of its parking during peak times, the fact that every business (except one) has a parking lot, a lengthy history of community involvement, the sabotaging of measurement equipment for a fourth study and life-threatening vandalism of construction equipment, as well as a lack of any engineering or design to support any of their arguments, Mayor Durkan capitulated to the demands of the Save 35th group and scheduled mediation to try to bring the two sides into agreement.
This process was begun by John Howell of Cedar River Group in September 2018. Each side was scheduled two meetings with Mr. Howell, with the suggestion that if they could come together, a final meeting would include both sides. Earlier this month, the final one-on-one meetings were completed, and two alternatives have been sent to the Mayor.
The original design includes protected or striped bike lanes where feasible and sharrows in other places, and parking consolidated to the east side of 35th. This design is a modified version of the Bicycle Master Plan (after compromises with the community) and was prepared by SDOT and several design consultants.
The alternative design proposed by Save 35th removes bike lanes entirely, adds a center turn lane for the entirety of the street (except south of 65th St where the road is too narrow), and surprisingly, considering how hard they fought for parking, would consolidate parking to the west side of the street. This version ignores the Bicycle Master Plan, Vision Zero and Complete Streets ordinances, and was prepared by SDOT based on input from the businesses representing Save 35th (originally, this was an idea proposed by a member of the opposition group; however, it was rejected by Save 35th).
This also means that the Safe 35th group did not benefit from the mediation since now, a new alternative plan has been introduced that was not previously discussed. So, for their efforts, they get nothing they wanted at all and now a new design is on the table.
Some positive additions did come out of the mediation. Both groups agreed there were other safety measures they would like to include–lowering the speed limit to 25 mph, an additional crosswalk at NE 50th St, and a protected left turn at NE 85th St.
At this point, the Mayor’s decision will determine which design is implemented. Unfortunately, the process sets a horrendous precedence for future safety improvements throughout the city. It indicates that all anyone who opposes street design has to do is make a big enough commotion and the city will pay thousands of dollars to appease them–from multiple parking studies to continue to prove what has already been determined to expensive mediation (the mediator alone gets $14,000) that did not bring the community together but just introduced a new design at the eleventh hour with no studies to support it. This means the Bicycle Master Plan is in danger as are Complete Streets and Vision Zero pledges.
However, if Mayor Durkan finally takes a stand and approves the original design, it will mean there is still an opportunity for sensible, logical safety improvements in our city. With many safety improvements frozen across the city, this could be one of the first thawed out and saved. It will represent an acceptance of engineering and design best practices as the determining factor for street plans. This could potentially be the decision that allows other neighborhoods to experience truly safe streets and the start of a way forward towards inclusive, equitable street designs that consider ALL users.
The Mayor’s office has promised to decide by the year’s end. This could mark the end for substantive safety improvements under this administration or the end of parking taking precedence over safety and inclusiveness. It’s up to Mayor Durkan now.
Chris Priest is a writer and community advocate who lives in northeast Seattle. Chris is a founding member of Safe 35th--a community-based group focused on bringing planned and agreed upon safety improvements to 35th Avenue NE in the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods. He is a frequent cyclist, runner, transit rider, and walker who believes safe, inclusive modes of transportation are the way of the future.