A brand new pedestrian bridge linking Northgate Station to North Seattle College and points beyond made the opening of the Northgate Link light rail extension on Saturday even sweeter. The John Lewis Memorial Bridge, as it’s been christened, spans the gash Interstate 5 tore down the middle of Seattle and greatly expands the walkshed of Northgate Station.
People walking, rolling, and biking across the bridge will still hear the roar of a freeway that carries about 175,000 cars per day through this section and breath in the fumes, but it certainly beats a lengthy detour around the I-5 trench. The bridge is about 1900 feet long due to the width of I-5 here and the need to span the wetland in Barton Woods, which does make for nice scenery at the western end of the bridge. A bench here provides a lovely spot to enjoy Barton Woods’ campus pond, just far enough away for the din of I-5 not to be too obnoxious.
Officials marked the opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday morning. Our Senior Editor Ryan Packer was on hand to livetweet the event, which included a press-and-dignitaries light rail ride to the event from U District Station. Besides a dull pair of scissors drawing out the moment, the ribbon-cutting went off without a hitch.
At a press event the previous night, workers could still be seen putting final touches on the pedestrian bridge. It looked like they were applying some sealant to the bridge surface and smoothing some rough edges. Planned emergency call boxes are also still to be installed, but the construction crew offered a tongue-in-cheek replacement with an art installation in place with old-fashioned telephone on pedestal with spooky recorded messages playing when activated. Construction came down to the wire but still made its opening curtain.
Honoring Civil Rights Icon John Lewis
District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez (who represents the Northgate area) led the effort to name the pedestrian bridge after civil rights icon John Lewis and helped fight to make the project a reality along with multimodal advocates.
“This bridge was built on a foundation with one goal in mind: bringing people together. This new infrastructure will transform much more than commutes — it will transform the lives of North Seattle College students heading to class, families visiting the Kraken Iceplex, and seniors who cannot drive but still want to move about the city,” Juarez said in a statement. “Today we welcome a new era of prosperity for the North End with a commitment to livability, equity, and vitality.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), in a blog post, explained Councilmember Juarez aimed to increase Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representation in North Seattle place names. “Across Seattle, BIPOC community members and leaders are underrepresented in the names of significant city infrastructure such as streets, bridges, and community centers,” the agency noted.
“Representative Lewis led civil rights activists in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, when they were attacked by state troopers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” SDOT said. “The violent attacks were recorded and disseminated throughout the country, and the images proved too powerful to ignore. “Bloody Sunday,” as the day was labeled, sped up the passage of the 1965’s Voting Rights Act.” Once elected, colleagues and commentators nicknamed Lewis the “conscience of the congress.”
The progress Representative Lewis fought for with the Civil Rights Act is very much in jeopardy now facing a new wave of conservative rollbacks and voter suppression efforts targeting BIPOC folks, as SDOT alluded to in its release: “The opening of the John Lewis Memorial Bridge is timely as the U.S. Congress considers the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and in light of attacks across the nation to limit the ability for some groups of people to express their constitutional right to vote.”
Juarez pointed to US Representative Lewis’s bridgebuilding reputation as inspiration for the naming decision and hoped the bridge would instill those values in future generations.
“The John Lewis Memorial bridge is a celebration of his life. Representative Lewis spent three decades building bridges, working across the aisle with folks with whom he shared fundamentally different beliefs while never losing sight of his life’s mission — civil rights for all,” she said. “When we name something, we are showing the truth of our history. Lewis represented the greatest of our city’s values, and with this bridge, we instill those values in the next generation of those walking, biking, and rolling across. Lewis taught a nation that when we fight for our democracy with joy, determination, and unity, we are limitless.”
Stitching together a neighborhood
In addition to offer light rail connections, the bridge is likely to be well used by North Seattle College student and staff and also by people seeking to access Northgate Mall. The mall recently added a publicly accessible skating arena in the practice facility for the Kraken, Seattle’s brand new National Hockey League franchise.
“Classes started on Monday, just days before the bridge opening. We’re excited for our students and employees to have an easier commute to campus this fall. We hope our location and the resources North Seattle College offers, like our bachelor’s degrees, new Fire Science program, and certificate programs, will be more visible and accessible to the community,” added North Seattle College Prsident Chemene Crawford, Ed.D.
“The John Lewis Memorial Bridge is one part of a comprehensive plan to build a community network that meets the diverse needs of our growing communities,“ Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “Through the bridge and the new Northgate Link light rail station, we are making it easier to access the thriving hub of educational opportunities at North Seattle College, new housing, medical and social services, and the newly opened Seattle Kraken Community Iceplex.”
SDOT’s station access plan for Northgate included new bike lanes that connect with the bridge and a bus restructure that will add new routes to the area — and nix others. West of the bridge, Aurora-Licton Springs has a fairly robust network of “Stay Healthy” open streets, which tie in with the pedestrian bridge. Northgate’s Stay Healthy open street network is much more sparse, but a new multi-use trail on the south side of NE 103rd Street does provide connect to the east, linking with the Stay Healthy street on 8th Avenue NE and a neighborhood greenway of 12th Avenue NE that stretches to Maple Leaf Reservoir Park.
The agency said it planted over 450 new trees, five times as many as were removed to make room for bridge construction. The staging area north of the bridge in Barton Woods does remain a pile of gravel for now, but will be replanted in time.
The pedestrian bridge was designed to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. “There are curb ramps along 1st Ave NE and NE 100th St, where the part of the bridge that leads down to the ground level lands,” SDOT’s Katie Olsen wrote. “There are also accessible pedestrian signals at the intersection of 1st Ave NE and NE 100th St, which will offer push-button activation, audible signals, and vibrations to let people with limited vision or hearing know when it is safe to cross the street.”
Erica Clausson, a wheelchair user who lives in the Licton Springs neighborhood near the west end of the John Lewis Memorial Bridge said she was enthusiastic about the newfound mobility the light rail expansion would bring into her life, Natalie Bicknell Agerious reported in her opening day coverage. “Clausson may have been the first light rail rider to use the pedestrian and cyclist bridge to safely access the Northgate Station, arriving at the station before the departure of the first train,” she wrote.
“My doctors are all located at the UW Medical Center, so I’ll be using light rail a lot to get to my medical appointments,” Clausson said. The John Lewis Memorial Bridge will make her commute much easier.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.