South Lake Union neighborhood organizers have renamed a few blocks of Aurora to keep up the downtown crowd. It's fine, but was it really necessary?
We see what you’re doing there, South Lake Union, and really, we get it. It’s fine.
You just don’t want to be associated with Aurora anymore. The drug trade. The sex workers. The unseemliness of a highway that you find distasteful, but that started as a wagon road through the forest, and for decades has brought people in and out of Seattle.
This week, the South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce and the South Lake Union Community Council successfully petitioned the Seattle City Council to rename a four-block stretch of Aurora Avenue North between Harrison and Battery Streets. One three-block stretch will be renamed Seventh Avenue North; and a one-block section from Denny Way south will be renamed Borealis Avenue. The change is still waiting for a full-council vote and Mayor Durkan’s signature.
It’s just a single block, this Borealis. The only business on it is the Elephant Car Wash. And the other four blocks have businesses that would rather be aligned with the booming downtown than the workaday street that raised them.
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Mike McQuaid, the transportation chair of the South Lake Union Community Council told my colleague Heidi Groover that some property owners in the area believed that there are “negative connotations associated with Aurora Avenue.”
They picked a fine time to do it. The Battery Street Tunnel is just about to be closed off, and the rest of the city is either working at home; preparing to walk the new Highway 99 tunnel before it opens or run the Viaduct before it’s demolished; or living for Feb. 4, when they can drive the new tunnel. We’re not really paying attention to a little name change.
“This is about being smart and getting ahead of the evolution of downtown,” McQuaid told me, adding that the change took six years and was screened with first responders and the U.S. Postal Service. “This is a classic and a healthy example of a community council working with the community, the City Council and the Department of Transportation.”
Again, I get it. But it still feels like when someone you’ve been driving with for miles in your Subaru wagon decides, during a pit stop, to hop into a Tesla with the new kids.
Meanwhile, up the storied Highway 99, and across the namesake bridge, there’s plenty of pride in being aligned with a name like Aurora.
The Aurora Avenue Merchants Association (AAMA) website is loaded with years of accomplishments, such as donating funds to the Bagley Elementary PTA for playground equipment; letting residents know about job opportunities; and helping remove segments of the median, allowing left turns into businesses and side streets. And yes, the AAMA started a “prostitution watch network” that included putting signs on telephone poles and taking down the license plates of johns. It’s just facing reality.
But why change the name of the avenue when you could make change instead?
“It’s a stupid idea,” AAMA executive director Fay Garneau said, adding that business owners will have to change their letterheads, business cards, signage and websites.
“It’s a very expensive proposition for the people on the street,” Garneau said. “Somebody, somewhere in some office came up with some idea that he thinks is wonderful.
“But it’s not my idea,” she said. “They’re entitled to do whatever they want.”
Feliks Banel, a local historian and host on KIRO radio, doesn’t think the name change will make much difference.
“I’m not opposed to a name being changed,” he said. “But I don’t think it will change anything about the character. It’s window dressing.”
Maybe, Banel suggested, the signage for the new Borealis Avenue could include below it one of those brown signs noting what it was called historically. Something to honor Aurora, named after the Roman goddess of the dawn; an arterial which, during the 1920s and 1930s, served as an economic engine, a way in. That is, before some broad named Bertha came to town and took her sweet time boring a hole through it.
“I’m glad that some parts of Seattle are changing,” Banel said. “But I like the aspects of grittiness. That’s the reality of a modern community. It’s the texture. I love that.
“You can’t just pretend they’re not there.”