Exploring Mountain Lion Urbanism in Boise

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A photo of the Idaho capitol, a classical style building with a dome. A bike lane is marked on the street in front of it.
The Idaho capitol building, and its signature bike lane, in Boise. (Photo by author)

Nicknamed the “city of trees,” Boise is an enigma in its approach to urbanism. A bike lane leads straight up to the steps of the state capital building, where a Republican majority legislature fills the benches and halls. Residents paddle kayaks and trout fish in the river running through heart of the city, not far from gritty Freak Alley with its provocative murals. Imposing stone churches and references to the city’s rich history of Basque culture juxtapose against western themed distilleries and restaurants serving up a multiplicity of dishes featuring Idaho’s famous potatoes.

Boise is also a city on the cusp of major change. While visible signs of growth may not be as evident as in other fast-growing western metros, the increase in population and influx of newcomers is beginning to make its stamp. Increases in density and challenges in housing affordability, as well as a desire to continue to attract new businesses and high income earning professionals, makes Boise an interesting urbanist case study.

Fast growth, rising housing prices

Recently, Boise was placed at the top of a list “mountain lion” cities, by Fullstack Economics, which theorizes that growth in these cities has been fueled by a spillover effect from coastal cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles. According to Fullstack, the appeal of these cities is rooted in their distinctive natural settings, access to universities, burgeoning tech sectors, and (relatively) affordable housing prices.

Credit: Fullstack Economics

However, the affordability edge appears to be on the way out for Boise, which was named as the nation’s most overvalued housing market in a recent study completed by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) using open source data. According to local media, Boise may have reached a tipping point in regards to its affordability in comparison to other other western cities. Boise, was also far from the only mountain lion city on the list, with Austin, Ogden, Provo, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Spokane all included in the FAU study’s top ten rankings.

Boise’s real estate industry, however, remains eager to market the city to outsiders. A realty storefront located in the baggage claim of Boise’s airport even makes it possible for new arrivals to begin their property search before even leaving the airport.

A photo showing a blue bungalow style house with a for sale sign in the front yard.
Boise has been losing its affordability edge over other western cities. This two bedroom, one bath house with studio accessory dwelling unit in the North End of Boise was listed at $750k in October 2021. (Photo by author)

The real estate spectacle, most obviously marketed to Californians, runs contrary to efforts by the City of Boise to engage in the development of affordable housing for low-income residents. The City is currently in the process of identifying surplus properties it owns for future affordable housing development, a common strategy in cities where land values have risen to a premium.

Boise officials have also set the goal of building 1,250 new homes and preserving another 1,000 homes affordable to residents earning less than 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) in the next five years. Unfortunately this amount may prove a drop in the bucket relative the Boise’s affordable housing needs; city projections cite 27,000 new housing units (affordable and market rate) as the amount necessary to insert into the market over the next ten years to manage the current housing affordability crisis.

Downtown density and placemaking

For a city most defined by its proximity wide open spaces, notably the nearby Boise Mountains, density has not always been valued in Boise. Yet a visible shift is present in the Downtown core where residential and mixed-use developments are on the rise. According to the Boise Development Tracker, more construction cranes will be dotting the city’s skyline in the near future. Examples of already permitted projects include a 19 story apartment building with retail on ground level, five story residential building with retail space and a public plaza, and a 35-unit condo development near the riverfront. All of these projects — as well as nearly a dozen more — are posed to significantly increase density in Downtown Boise.

A rendering of a copper color tower with the Boise mountains in the distance.
A rendering of a proposed 19-story condo development with retail on ground level in Downtown Boise. (Credit: Scot Ludwig, Project Developer)

Council Renames Single-Family Zoning, Decriminalizes Magic Mushrooms, and Clears Way for Storm Practice Facility in Interbay

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A photo of townhouses with lush shrubs and trees.
Rowhouses in Central Seattle. (Credit: Natalie Bicknell Argerious)

The Seattle City Council took the first step toward reforming single-family zoning on Monday by renaming it “Neighborhood Residential” in a unanimous vote. In an action-packed agenda, the Council decriminalized entheogens (also known as plant-based psychedelics or magic mushrooms), passed a land use change in Interbay that will clear the way for the Seattle Storm WNBA team to build a practice facility there, set the public hearing for a North Rainier alley vacation for Grand Street Commons development, and expanded a transfer of development rights program to include Snohomish and Pierce counties.

Neighborhood Residential: A skirmish before a rezoning battle?

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (Position 8, Citywide) led the charge on the Neighborhood Residential name change, and she stressed that accuracy was part of the motivation.

“The legislation passed today brings us one step closer to a more inclusive Seattle,” Mosqueda said in a statement. “Today, we recognize neighborhoods across our city are home to diverse housing built before increasingly restrictive zoning went into place. This includes small businesses, parks, schools, and services, as well as diverse households that expand beyond the ‘single-family’ designation – that was a misnomer. ‘Neighborhood Residential’ reflects that diversity more accurately.”

Councilmember Strauss, who chairs the Land Use Committee and co-sponsored the bill, agreed and underscored that this move doesn’t change zoning. “This name change more accurately identifies existing zoning, as some of the most vibrant places in ‘single family’ zones have legacy duplexes, triplexes, and corner-stores, all of which are not currently allowed,” he said in a statement. “This proposal is in response to the Seattle Planning Commission’s Neighborhoods for All report which recommended this name change. This legislation does not change zoning, it only changes the name that we call these areas.”

The Neighborhoods For All report came out in 2018. Seattle Planning Commission, echoing other housing advocates, urged the city to re-legalize duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and corner-stores that had previously been allowed throughout the city.

Jazmine Smith recapped this history of exclusion in a column in The Urbanist: “When Seattle first established zoning ordinances in 1923 through the Comprehensive Plan, people had previously been able to reside in multifamily housing anywhere housing was permitted. After the introduction of the Comprehensive Plan, influenced by racist planner Harland Bartholomew, Seattle began to be downzoned with the introduction of single-family zoning and with that name and zoning change, dense and diverse housing options were relics of the past in areas focused on building neighborhoods of wealthier, White homeowners. The 1947 Comprehensive Plan downzoned swaths of multifamily housing to duplexes.”

The Seattle City Council did liberalize rules for backyard cottages and basement flats in 2019, which allows many single-family lots to fit three homes, but two would have to be accessory and capped at 1,000 square feet. Many housing advocates want the city to go further.

Previously the maximum single-family house size in Portland was a 6,750 square feet. The infull project lowers the square footage cap for single-family homes to 2,500 square feet but allow duplexes up to 3,000 square feet and 3- and 4-plexes and cottage clusters up to 3,500 square feet. If developers meet the affordability requirement, the cap goes up to 6,000 square feet for up to six homes. Parking request are optional.
Portland’s Residential Infill Project, passed in 2020, allows a variety of “Missing Middle” housing types like fourplexes in any residential lot in the city. (Credit: Alfred Twu / Sightline Institute)

“A neighborhood is so much more than a single type of building — it’s a place people live and love and work and call home. This simple change reflects both the current reality of the way many Seattleites live and our vision of Seattle as a city rich with homes for all shapes and sizes of families,” said Brittney Bush Bollay, Chair, Sierra Club Seattle Group.

To move forward with even the renaming took extensive public outreach, as the Mosqueda press release summarized. “This legislation was accompanied by extensive public outreach, including two public hearings; four conversations in Council committees; a Community Housing Roundtable that included organizations working to reverse displacement and build affordable housing; meetings with myriad organizations focusing on housing, equity, the environment and community-driven development; a community letter that was sent to nearly 400 individuals and organizations who are connected with the 17 neighborhoods whose neighborhood plans currently reference the term single-family; as well as an open call to community organizations that were interested in a briefing on the proposal.”

Mosqueda said the feedback was predominantly positive. While some public commenters at the start of the Council meeting worried about the loss of “neighborhood character” and moving too fast, Mosquda opined “the true character of Seattle neighborhoods” was “diverse housing, small businesses, and many different types of households.”

In her piece, Smith explained why the name change is important — not merely a symbolic gesture: “[By renaming] areas that are deemed ‘Single Family’ as ‘Neighborhood Residential,’ we stop erasing our neighbors who are renters, we stop erasing the big and beautiful non-detached housing that was once the norm, and we normalize the missing middle housing models for lovely, walkable neighborhoods,” she wrote. “We also start to turn our back on the tools that were used for racist, exclusionary zoning that continue to impact today’s housing market. People like me used to be redlined out of Queen Anne, and now I will never be able to afford to buy a detached house in the neighborhood on an educator’s paycheck (or in the city in general). The language of zoning matters because it reiterates that the whole neighborhood is for me to reside, not just a node, or a hub, or a village.”

The name change legislation goes into effect on November 13th.

Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan is due for a Major Update in 2024 and housing advocates are looking to queue up further changes. In her comments before the vote, Council President Lorena González said she hoped the Council would follow up with zoning changes. González is running for Seattle Mayor on a platform that emphasizes ending exclusionary zoning, which helped earn her The Urbanist Elections Committee’s endorsement.

“It’s my hope that our zoning will also move forward in the near future to reflect the reality of our city’s rapid growth in the last decade,” González said. “I look forward to supporting the Council’s work in allowing more neighbors and the density that will be necessary to invite those families into all of our neighborhoods.”

Subscriber Drive Testimonial: Anna Zivarts

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Anna smiles taking a selfie sitting next to her son at a bus stop shelter.
Anna Zivarts is director of Disability Mobility Initiative. (Photo by Anna Zivarts)

As part of our subscriber drive, we include testimonials from our supporters. Here’s one from Anna Zivarts, Director of Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. (Zivarts has contributed a few guest pieces with us, too.)


I am a proud supporter of the Urbanist. Here’s why. 

Many years ago, reading the New York City version of The Urbanist — StreetsBlog — was the beginning of my education into transportation policy and politics. This was before Twitter, before Facebook was mainstream, and it was the first time I was able to see that there was a whole wonderful world of people out there who like me, didn’t believe driving and car-dependent communities were the answer. It took another 15 years before I was able to make mobility justice my full-time paid work, but it was reading that blog that made me start to try. 

We need The Urbanist (and housing/land use/transit/enviro-justice blogs like it) in every community. We need them because this is how we include more people. This is how we create space for in-depth policy and political conversations that too often happen behind closed doors, with only the experts and credentialed planners. It’s time to start recognizing the lived experience of people who day in and day out move and breathe in our communities, and know how to create security, joy, freedom, and health. The Urbanist allows us to share in creating the communities we need.

Fall 2021 Subscriber Drive Testimonial

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Redistricting Maps Show Aggressive Republican Gerrymandering as Deadline Approaches

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The State Capitol in Olympia. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Washington State’s redistricting process is off to the most contentious start in 40 years as Republicans propose aggressive gerrymanders of Seattle and the state as a whole.

A major battle is unfolding over redistricting in Washington State, one that could wind up in the courts for the first time in 40 years. With a deadline of November 15 to draw new maps, the coming weeks may be decisive for the future of Seattle and the state as a whole.

Republican commissioners, fueled by the same no-holds-barred radicalism witnessed by their fellow party members in other states and in Congress, have proposed extreme gerrymanders of the legislative and Congressional districts. Their maps are designed to favor their party at the expense of racial justice and voter choice, as well as to undermine Seattle and our ability to have our urban needs met.

Because Republicans have equal representation on the redistricting commission, they have leverage that could force Democrats to cut a bad deal in order to get maps approved – unless Democrats are willing to throw it to the Washington State Supreme Court.

How the process works

After court battles in the 1970s and 1980s, state legislators created a temporary bipartisan commission to draw legislative and Congressional maps. They then proposed a constitutional amendment (SJR 103) that voters approved in the 1983 election to make the process permanent. A minor revision in 2016 created the current language in the state constitution. Each legislative caucus — House and Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans — appoints a commissioner, leading to four members of the commission, along with a nonvoting chair chosen by the other four commissioners.

Both parties are guaranteed equal representation on the commission, even if one party has not actually earned it at the ballot box. At least three members of the commission must vote to approve a final map, which means that Republicans hold veto power over redistricting in our state. If no map can win three votes, the state supreme court will draw the maps. The legislature can make changes to the commission’s approved maps but only by a 2/3 vote.

Like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the rules governing the commission have the potential to cause enormous problems if one of the parties chooses to pursue an extremist political strategy that eschews cooperation, as the Republican Party has done across America. In recent years we have seen Republicans upend traditional norms and refuse to make reasonable deals, preferring to instead demand Democrats accept unreasonable demands in order for government to operate.

In 2011, Republicans demanded and won a favorable legislative district map in exchange for agreeing to draw Washington’s new 10th Congressional district favorably for Democrats. Republicans used that map to erode Democratic numbers between 2012 and 2016, before the state’s electorate grew bluer again.

This time around, the Democratic commissioners are April Sims, Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council and appointed by the House Democrats, and Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, a former state representative from the 43rd LD and appointed by the Senate Democrats.

The Republican commissioners are Paul Graves and Joe Fain, who both lost their seats in the state legislature in 2018 in King County districts that had been drawn in 2011 to favor Republicans. Fain was accused of rape in 2018, and has refused to resign from the commission even after an outpouring of community demands that he not serve.

Proposed Democratic legislative district maps

The Urbanist’s Doug Trumm provided a good overview of the legislative maps proposed by the two Democratic commissioners. Redistricting Justice for Washington and the Washington Community Alliance have also shared their analysis, including their priorities for the Yakima Valley and Snohomish County Legislative Districts (LDs). This article will focus on the impact to Seattle, and look more broadly at how the overall process may unfold.

Former Battery Tunnel Site Gets Green Light for Downtown School

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A photo of a green field with a chainlink fence and brick building with a white mural in the background.
A view of the Battery Tunnel Site in Belltown that has been approved for a future Downtown public elementary school. (Photo by author)

Neighborhood advocates, however, want the Belltown site to be more than a vacant lot during the interim period.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Public School (SPS) Interim Superintendent Brent Jones have signed a letter of intent (LOI) opening up the opportunity for SPS to build an elementary school and park on the 1.6 acre former Battery Street Tunnel Site located between 1st and Western Avenue in Belltown. The letter acknowledges the “historic” growth of Seattle’s population, including Downtown, and cites that “planning for downtown schools is important to the educational future of Seattle.” It also calls for replacing Memorial Stadium, a 74-year-old SPS facility located at Seattle Center. The $66.5 million cost of the stadium replacement must first be approved by voters in a capital levy next February.

For the new elementary school to move ahead, the capital levy will also need to be approved by voters. If that happens, SPS would enter into long-term lease on the Battery Tunnel Site, and SPS and the City of Seattle will create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will last until 2031, providing SPS time to finalize its decision making. In the interim, the City will be responsible for making sure the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) contractor completes site improvements “consistent with plans and specifications that SPS has reviewed.” The City must also “maintain the site during the period of option at its own expense.”

However, by granting SPS ten years — with an option of an extension — to make its final decision on the Battery Tunnel Site, neighborhood advocates like Belltown United, a volunteer-run organization including representatives from the Belltown Business District and Community Council, are faced with watching land they would like to be used by the community enter into an extended limbo.

Currently, the vacant lot is covered with fragrant grass and clover, providing a compelling preview of what a future park might look like, but it is also separated from the neighborhood by a chainlink fence. Belltown United has called on the City to make a plan for how it will activate and maintain the site while SPS completes its decision making.

A photo of a chainlink fence surrounding a green field with tall buildings in the background.
Chainlink fence surrounds the former south portal site of the Battery Street Tunnel. (Photo by author)

Belltown neighborhood groups have been rallying around the cause of creating a park at the Battery Tunnel Site for years. Recharge the Battery even went as far as to create renderings of concepts for the future park and engage in community outreach. During the same period, Mayor Durkan agreed to allocate funding for planning and development of the site in 2019, but according to Belltown United those funds were frozen in January 2020.

How to Reduce SPD’s Budget, Improve Public Safety

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A photo shows a police officer in riot gear standing next to a patrol car.
If done right, reducing the number of sworn officers could decrease the Seattle Police Department's budget while improving public safety outcomes. (Credit: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons)

I admit to having mixed feelings about the phrase “defund the police.” When I was working on community policing in the 1990s, police budgets paid my salary.

But as our candidates for elected office in Seattle debate the future of how we invest in public safety here, the right answer is crystal clear. 

The way the Seattle Police Department (SPD) operates guarantees a “doom loop” of  doing “less with more” at handling, solving, and preventing serious crime. The only way to break the cycle is to catch the department up with police science and, in the process, reallocate substantial funds from sworn officer positions to other roles. 

This will have the dual benefit of getting us more bang for our buck for overall public safety service while getting a lot more value from the officers we do need when being equipped with the power of arrest and a firearm is strictly necessary.

To understand how much upside there is, we first have to understand how bad things are. 

SPD and serious crime: doing less with more

Police departments report crime data to the FBI through the Uniform Crime Reporting (“UCR”) program. Seven crimes are considered serious crimes (“Part One”) in its rubric: murder and nonnegligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft, and arson.

In 1990, with a budgeted strength of 1,271 sworn officers, SPD handled 65,053 serious crimes (“sworn officer” in common parlance means police officers who carry a gun and have the power of arrest). In 2019, with a budgeted strength of 1,371, SPD handled 39,055.

This data is consistent with a big decline in crime in the United States that we know about because the Census Bureau runs an annual survey tracking overall victimization whether or not it was reported to the police. But for whatever reason — an actual decline or more underreporting (which we can come back to later), the simple fact is that serious crimes handled per officer dropped from 51.1 to 28.5.

One would hope that with a smaller serious crime workload, our police would solve more of them (since — obviously — they aren’t doing any work on crimes they never even hear about). 

Police respond to a shooting in Pioneer Square. (Credit: Seattle Police Department)

Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. In 1990, SPD cleared — a proxy measure for solved — 13,425 of them, or 20.5%. In 2019, it was 3,447, or 8.8%. Crimes solved per officer dropped even more than crimes handled — from 10.6 to 3.1.

Even worse, SPD’s budget has increased faster than the rate of inflation. So if we take the cost per serious crime handled and the cost per serious crime solved as fundamental measures of our return on investment into policing, we can quantify the magnitude of “just how much” less with more we’re talking about.

Publication Update: Fall 2021 Subscriber Drive Edition

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A photo of a light rail train on an elevated rail line.
A Northgate Link light rail train arriving. (Credit: Ryan Packer)

There’s no doubt that fall has arrived. The days are shorter (and wetter), budget squabbling is enfolding over at City Hall, the campaign season for various city seats is in full swing, and the Northgate Link light rail extension is finally open for business. These last three items have been keeping us busy at The Urbanist and we’ll continue to provide coverage in the coming weeks on these evolving stories, as well as many others.

While the Delta variant and resistance to vaccination have slowed down the return to normal we’d hoped for earlier during the spring, life in the “new” normal has taken on a certain rhythm. For The Urbanist, it has meant a steady drum beat of stories to cover, and we are lucky to have a talented team of volunteer reporters able to cover and share insights on diverse subjects. In the last couple months, we have achieved our highest readership numbers ever, and it has been in no small part due to the quality of our writers’ work.

We are supremely grateful for donations from readers like you who allow us to keep advancing the cause of sustainable and equitable urbanism. This success in readership also means we have a great many wonderful articles to draw attention to from the last six months. Chip in this subscriber drive to ensure the next six months is even more packed with insightful coverage.

Dreams of blanketing our city — and region — with rail

A rundown of the last six month’s greatest hits reveals how excited readers are about the growth of Link light rail in our region. Senior Reporter Stephen Fesler’s coverage of Northgate Link resulted in some big hits, notably A Transit Riders’ Guide to the Northgate Link Light Rail Extension, which offers up in Stephen’s classic style a super comprehensive, yet still accessible, overview of the nitty gritty details, from service frequency, trains, stations, wayfinding, rider outreach, changes to corresponding bus service, and more. Speaking of route restructuring, Stephen was also vigilant about sharing maps representing the Metro bus structures occurring in North Seattle in concert with the opening of the Link light rail extension, and additional Metro bus route restructures proposed for when the East Link light rail opens in 2023.

Map shows a high speed rail mainline from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, Oregon. Also shows secondary lines serving Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Yakima in Easter Washington.
Cascadia Rail’s high speed rail vision map. (Oran Viriyincy)

Link light rail expansion has gotten people dreaming, and an article by our Executive Director Doug Trumm on Seattle Subway’s 2021 updated map shows in full force a vision for bringing a world-class mass transit system to our region, and beyond, through connections with Cascadia Rail’s dreams of a high speed rail corridor spanning the Pacific Northwest. An article by Charles Bond on All Aboard Washington’s vision of expanding rail service across the state also proved to be very popular, demonstrating reader’s interest expanding rail across the state.

Pushing the urbanist envelope in other areas

But as exciting as mass transit can be to write about, other top articles of the last six months took on very different causes, such as Junior Editor Shaun Kuo’s call to bring regular night markets to Seattle, an article that caught fire and reached people in my life who are only vaguely aware of urbanism spoke to me about with great enthusiasm. Kuo was also a stalwart in writing about both new development coming to the new Link light rail stations, but also how to enjoy each one as a destination in its own right. Always keen to remind us of the importance of covering the Eastside, Kuo’s deep dive, Fast Growing Issaquah Plans for Density — and Sprawl, proved how this coverage captures readers’ attention. We definitely want to expand our reporting on the Eastside, South King County, Tacoma, and Everett, and we welcome story tips and pitches centered on these growing areas of our region.

John Lewis Memorial Pedestrian Bridge Partially Mends Freeway Gash in Northgate

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A photo of people walking on a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5.
A community walk was held after the opening ceremony for the John Lewis Memorial pedestrian and bicycle bridge. (Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation)

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.

While it provides a safe connection, pedestrians and bicyclists still have to hear the roar — and breathe in the fumes — of Interstate 5 below. (Photo by author)

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.