A five-block boulevard, designed like no other in the state, functions like three parallel streets, separating faster traffic from slow parking lanes intended to preserve the walkable vibe of Bothell’s old downtown.

Share story

Bothell just built a downtown boulevard unlike any other in Washington state.

The city took over the lower five blocks of state Highway 527, put up new signs saying Bothell Way Northeast and created a “multiway” that’s like three parallel streets, totaling as many as 11 lanes — a five-lane main roadway, sandwiched by a slow zone on each side where drivers can park or drop off passengers.

To make this expanse human-scale, the design features four rows of trees, drainage gardens and 14-foot sidewalks.

Drivers can veer or U-turn from the mainline into the two-hour parallel-parking zones, to visit the burger joint or the credit union, without fear of being slammed from behind. Through traffic won’t be delayed by parkers.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab »

The $13 million boulevard, officially opened last week with a mini-parade, is accompanied by other work: the realignment of Highway 522, new utilities and road decks on Main Street, and ongoing apartment construction that includes a project interrupted by last fall’s huge downtown fire.

“This roadway is designed to knit together the old historic part of downtown with the new downtown. Previously, the highway was a sort of barrier,” said Steven Morikawa, city capital division manager.

Like the South Lake Union district of Seattle, you get a sense that Bothell was nuked and its core enlarged from ground zero.

Five blocks of open land, including a former Safeway store and former school-district properties, provided ideal conditions, says urban designer Gregory Tung, whose firm Freedman Tung + Sasaki of San Francisco won Bothell’s urban-design contract in 2005.

Bothell residents said in community meetings they wanted to keep the walkable vibe of old downtown, Tung recalled.

“How would we extend that character, and adapt to the fact we would still have automobiles?” the architects wondered.

The slow parking zones are built on concrete blocks that resemble giant cobblestones, with sand in the gaps to drain rainwater. The zones are cordoned by dividing curbs, trees and rain gardens where people walking can pause and look for cars. This effectively reduces the most strenuous of the pedestrian crossings to only five lanes.

For one block, the multiway offers a dramatic passenger-dropoff lane to the front steps to McMenamin’s Anderson School resort.

Tung likens the system to a stream. “In a river,” he said, “you have fast water in the middle; on either side you have eddies and pools,and life takes place on the sides.”

Bothell’s design emulates Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, which replaced a quake-damaged elevated freeway.

A multiway concept was briefly considered for the post-viaduct Alaskan Way in downtown Seattle. The state and city instead chose a bypass highway tunnel, plus an ordinary boulevard varying between nine and four lanes, a bike trail, promenade and less space devoted to curbside parking.

This summer, Bothell residents snack at tables outside the Social Grounds cafe, beneath new apartments. People stand on another sidewalk to order from the Ranch Drive-In, half a century old, whose manager says new curbside parking makes getting takeout food easy.

“All of this is really beautiful,” said Debbie Johannessen, a Ranch customer who walked over from a nearby clinic. “I really like the fact they have benches in front of the Ranch here. They did a good job.”

Across the road, a silver-colored SUV swung a U-turn from northbound Bothell Way into the southbound parking lane. The driver slowed, wondering if a pedestrian at the corner would dart out, and then she found a curb space alongside BECU.

“I do not like how it’s turning out,” she said. “You literally have to go around the block to leave. Some of the old-timers like us don’t like it so much.”

Drivers sometimes must wait in the single lane, only 10 feet wide to control speeds, until others ahead park. Left turns from the parking zone back to the mainline are banned, so exiting requires multiple right turns.

A key to safety is respecting the “Keep Clear” rectangles at each intersection, where stop lines are farther back than usual. That space lets drivers either continue between parking blocks or smoothly exit the mainline toward the parking. Drivers leaving a parking zone must obey a stop sign, look in all directions, and yield to others, as if exiting a driveway.

“You can’t do what traffic designs tend to do, which is let your brain turn off. You have to exercise some judgment,” said Tung. “You have to watch, you have to see what is going on.”

Currently, drivers going to old downtown from the north need to turn left at Northeast 185th Street, until Main is rebuilt, spokeswoman Barbara Ramey said.

Since the grand opening, there’s been only one slight fender bender on the boulevard, the city says.

But just beyond the project, motorists leaving the boulevard’s two northbound lanes are forced to merge into one lane leaving downtown, on a slight slope. Traffic was unusually heavy on a recent Friday morning as harried drivers cut through downtown to miss a blocking collision on Interstate 405. They revved and honked continually.

Bothell intends someday to widen the thoroughfare, to four lanes all the way from downtown to Canyon Park, but it’s expensive to build road decks between wetlands on the west side and steep slope on the east.

Larry Ormbrek, owner of SIGN UP sign company, says it’s nice to have the boulevard done, after orange barrels and lane shifts discouraged up to 30 percent of his customers during construction. To its credit, the city responded quickly to anyone who needed help or asked questions, he said.

“More cars, everybody complains about traffic,” he said. “Always have, always will.”