Montlake Lid: Reconnecting a divided neighborhood or RH Thomson revisited?

SR 520 Arboretum interchange and the R.H. Thomson ramps-to-nowhere. Image: Montlaker

For better or worse, Montlake’s name is tied to Seattle’s Freeway Revolt and the long, slow death of the R.H. Thomson Expressway. Motivated to stop a massive interchange in the Arboretum (and the demolition of 1000+ homes in Lake City, Wedgwood, Ravenna, the Central District, Rainier Valley — and Montlake), residents here organized with other community leaders to defeat the project. In no small part, their work set the precedent for future freeways to include landscaped lids through residential areas. After building lids for Mercer Island, Mount Baker and now Medina, WSDOT is giving Montlake the fruits of its own activism — a new lid over 520.

With the Seattle community design process well under way and a neighborhood design meeting next week, it’s worth having a look at the other freeway lids around the region: Mercer Island, Mount Baker and Medina.

I-90 Mercer Island Lid (~2800 feet). Image: Google Earth

I-90 Mount Baker Lid (~2200 feet). Image: Google Earth

S.R. 520 Evergreen Point Lid (~500 feet long), now under construction in Medina. Image: WSDOT

The 520 Evergreen Point Lid is one of three ~500-foot-long lids (also at 84th & 92nd NE) currently under construction on the Eastside. These new lids follow the precedent of those on I-90: they reconnect severed residential areas with open space and local roads, and they buffer noise and pollution from the freeway. Done right, lids can perform urban alchemy, turning a freeway liability into a neighborhood asset.

Can the same be said of WSDOT’s design for the Montlake Lid? Here are the two options currently under consideration, the “Baseline” plan and “Option A.”

Montlake Lid “Baseline” plan. Image: WSDOT

Montlake Lid “Option A” plan. Image: WSDOT

For comparison, the Montlake lid would be 1400 feet long — shorter than Mercer Island and Mount Baker but close to the combined length of the new Eastside lids (~1500 feet). However, the plan for Montlake is different because the lid (in both options) is surrounded with freeway ramps on its three accessible sides. While Mercer Island, Mount Baker and Medina are crossed by a few local streets, the Montlake Lid functions as a massive interchange.

There is concern in Seattle that WSDOT’s plan for Montlake creates an open space that is difficult to get to and isolated by a moat of heavy traffic – not unlike the UW Triangle between the hospital and Husky Stadium. As Jane Jacobs pointed out during the era of the Thomson Expressway, residential parks surrounded by out-of-scale roads will inevitably fail. People are not likely to cross all those lanes of freeway ramps to play between the traffic.

If the point of capping 520 is to reconnect severed neighborhoods, WSDOT’s design process has so far failed to produce a successful plan. Even if the goal is just to create a usable park – this lid still falls short. Lacking bold ideas and a willingness to think big, we will have returned to the 1960s vision of the Thomson interchange in the Arboretum – just with more expensive grass between the ramps:

Photomontage of the R.H. Thomson / S.R. 520 interchange in the Washington Park Arboretum (never built). Image: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW9161.

If all parties can look past their failures — WSDOT’s unusable lid design, Montlake’s fight against “extraordinary gigantism,” and the City’s blind eye to both — we might still find the energy needed for urban alchemy.