In a wood-floored hall above and behind a South Park coffee shop, 10 or so residents discuss what it will take to tear out part of a major American highway.
Highway 99 to their west is just out of earshot, but its presence hangs over the room, as it does over the entire neighborhood — a rumbling beast that may shorten life expectancies of those who live near it and that cleaves this diverse pocket of Seattle in two.
Cote Soerens, a magnetic figure at the center of the Reconnect South Park effort, knows well how people initially receive their ambitions of tearing out 40 acres of highway. But be it naiveté or relentless optimism, Soerens has nevertheless pushed for much of the last year to mainstream what to many may seem like a fringe idea.
“The impact of doing this,” she said, “as far as benefit to the whole region and benefit to this part of Seattle, outweigh the nuisance.”
And through some combination of persistence, timing and luck, the decommissioning of a half-mile of highway has indeed emerged into the halls of power. The Washington Legislature last session budgeted $600,000 to study the feasibility of decommissioning the section of highway and placing the land into a community trust. The city of Seattle will soon open its bidding process to any organization interested in leading the effort — which is likely, but not guaranteed, to be Reconnect South Park.
The study in no way guarantees the section of highway will, in fact, be turned over to South Park residents. The process is years away from moving forward, if it ever gets to that point.
In the months and years ahead, the effort to stitch together the two halves of South Park will be a case study of what happens when a grassroots effort becomes something larger.
With real money on the table, nearby industry and even some residents of South Seattle have begun to turn their heads to question the scope and wisdom of such an idea. One attendee of the recent meeting questioned whether closing 99 could benefit their community but hurt their neighbors. A representative from Seattle’s city government urged organizers to imagine what mitigation might look like rather than removal.
Soerens understands the magnitude of what she and her fellow organizers are asking. It’s why she stresses caution with each step, as if walking on a recently frozen lake.
“We take every step very carefully,” she said.
Soerens credits a tweet, at least in part, for securing the $600,000 study.
“American highways were too often built through Black neighborhoods on purpose — dividing communities, adding pollution, and making pedestrians less safe,” wrote Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in April 2021.
“That tweet from Pete Buttigieg was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we should give this a shot,’ ” Soerens said.
The tweet signaled a recognition by the federal government of what community advocates have said for decades and it opened the door to conversations at the state level. The federal infrastructure bill included $1 billion to go toward reversing harms caused to communities by highway construction, a fraction of what was originally proposed, but a significant acknowledgment nonetheless. In cities across the U.S., highway skeptics are ascendant, if perhaps not yet the majority.
Soon, state legislators were hosting hearings on the ramifications of highway construction, considering in a serious way what their removal would look like. Soerens was suddenly hearing interest from multiple lawmakers in sponsoring a budget request to study South Park.
“The timing of this is just glorious, I think,” she said.
Before redistricting, Rep. David Hackney’s district included South Park. He was impressed by how organized the advocacy was around this project. While he’s not committed to decommissioning the highway, he saw enough that he felt it worth pushing his colleagues for the money.
“This is not guilty, but there’s probable cause,” he said of the case against Highway 99. “There’s enough there to make us curious to see.”
The $600,000 will be administered by Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development. In the coming months, the city will put out requests for proposals for two separate contracts, said Cayce James, a strategic adviser on public space and environmental justice with the city. One will be for a technical consultant to game out what decommissioning would look like, its impacts and possible alternatives. The second will be for a South Park- or Duwamish-valley based organization to conduct community outreach. Reconnect South Park will seek to be that group.
The timeline is long — a report is due back to the state in 2025. But James said that’s how it must be.
“We need to take the time to sort of move at the speed of trust,” James said, “and really bring all the interested parties along and make sure that all of their needs and values are being reflected in the work.”
For now, Seattle is acting only as an administrator and not taking a stand on decommissioning. James, who has worked closely with Reconnect South Park and other environmental justice efforts in South Seattle, said the technical analysis will unearth possible unintended consequences.
The Port of Seattle is aware of the environmental impacts of industry on communities in South Seattle, said Geri Poor, a regional transportation senior manager with the Port of Seattle. She pointed to times when the port has worked to lessen that harm, particularly around idling trucks and planes flying overhead into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
But decommissioning any part of Highway 99 is a tough pill to swallow. Around half of the freight trucks leaving the port head south and many prefer 99 to Highway 509 or Interstate 5. Losing that highway would eliminate redundancies in the system, possibly setting up a scenario where shipping halts during an emergency.
“It’s incredibly important to us to understand how this concept could move traffic patterns and change traffic patterns,” she said. “And once you close up one pipeline, where does the traffic go instead?”
“I think there are alternatives short of full removal,” she said. “We are approaching it with an open mind right now. We are not clear how it would work and we’re not clear what the effects would be.”
Although Soerens calls decommissioning “a no-brainer,” she refuses to shut out skeptics from the process.
“The project is called Reconnect South Park,” she said. “It’s not, ‘we have this ideology and we want to impose it on everybody.’ ”