The project will maintain two lanes for vehicle traffic but restrict parking to the east side for most of the street and add bike lanes, including some stretches protected by a 3-foot buffer.

Share story

The ever-increasing competition over street space in Seattle has found a new battleground.

This time it’s a 2.3-mile strip of 35th Avenue Northeast, a major arterial that runs through the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is set to begin construction in the spring to repave and reconfigure the avenue between Northeast 89th Street and Northeast 47th Street.

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., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, 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 » | Follow us on Twitter »

The project will maintain two lanes for vehicle traffic but restrict parking to the east side for most of the street and add bike lanes, including some stretches protected by a 3-foot buffer.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Funded by the $930 million Move Seattle levy that voters approved in November 2015, the work is part of SDOT’s ongoing effort to improve street safety citywide and make roads accessible to different kinds of users. The project will cost up to $7.9 million and should be completed this coming fall or winter.

Pushback has been swift and fierce.

Critics see the plan as an ill-conceived and inconvenient attempt to prioritize cyclists over drivers and pedestrians. They object to any concession of parking space and say designers blindsided and ignored them in the planning process.

Supporters say the changes are a worthy price to pay to make the street work better for all users, not just drivers, and are needed to keep up with Seattle’s growth.

“Whenever cars have to cede pavement to other uses, it looks like other users are being prioritized,” said Robert Elleman, who lives in Ravenna and supports the project. “But we’ve prioritized cars in our city for many decades, so it can be an adjustment to some people when they start to see other users on the road.”

Other changes planned for the roadway include updated curb ramps to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and sidewalk repairs.

Left-turn pockets will be added to northbound and southbound lanes at the Northeast 75th and Northeast 85th street intersections, and bus lines, particularly Metro Route 65, will consolidate stops.

Division over the project has even driven a wedge between longtime customers and business owners.

Maygan Wurzer, owner of All That Dance at Northeast 85th Street, said one dancer’s parent sent a “scathing” email informing her of the family’s decision to withdraw from the studio over Wurzer’s opposition to the project.

Wurzer worries the new bicycle lanes could pose a danger to pedestrians at what she views as already vulnerable crosswalks, as well as people getting out of their cars.

“I usually will stay away from most things that have any sort of political intent behind them, but this one I care too much to be quiet about it,” she said. “And I probably will continue to lose some customers because of it.”

Bikes lanes, parking flashpoints

The bike lanes and parking are the main sources of contention.

“Our whole culture is changing because of a backward approach of forcing people out of their cars by having bike lanes,” said Rebecca Johnson, who helped organize the “Save 35th Ave” group that opposes the changes.

Opponents point to 39th Avenue Northeast, a less-traveled street four blocks east with already designated bicycle markings, as a better place for cyclists to ride.

Rachel McCaffrey, SDOT’s community outreach lead for the project, said the new bike lanes won’t come at the expense of drivers. The plan narrows the width of car lanes in some sections, but maintains one car lane in each direction.

About 12,500 cars travel the section of the street north of Northeast 65th Street each day, and about 8,500 drivers daily use the street south of 55th Street, according to SDOT estimates.

Critics also argue that few cyclists use the road now, but Kelsey Mesher, the Puget Sound policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club, said that would change with dedicated bike lanes.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario,” said Mesher. “There aren’t a lot of bikes on the road because people don’t feel safe riding around right now.”

Parking will be consolidated to the east side of the street to make room for the bike lanes. To compensate, peak-hour parking restrictions now in place will be removed.

But business owners are worried about any potential loss of parking space.

“It’s important for businesses to have an easy flow of traffic so that patients and customers can easily access our place,” said Larry Adatto, who owns a dental practice along 35th near Northeast 75th Street.

Both supporters and opponents agree safety improvements are needed.

“The question in most people’s minds is: What does that safety improvement look like?” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, who previously worked at the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices.

There were 24 crashes between June 2016 and June 2017 along 35th Avenue Northeast that caused an injury or property damage, according to data on the city of Seattle’s website. Three of those involved pedestrians.

Outreach questioned

SDOT began outreach during the summer of 2016 to collect data and understand how the street is used. Efforts continued through 2017 and included knocking on doors, sending direct mailers and holding open-house meetings.

Still, not everyone in the community understood the scope of the redesign.

“When reality hit that this is what they were going to do, it was too late to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We never said it was OK to do that,’ ” said Kevin Boyd, who lives in Wedgwood. “We don’t like this. Sorry it’s taken us so long to figure that out.”

Tension came to a head at a community meeting in October. By that point, most of the design had been completed, and the meeting was held for information sharing.

“It was just lip service,” Wurzer said. “It was not communicated with us with the intent of sharing and having conversation to arrive at the best plan.”

Zoë True, a Bryant resident who supports the changes, said she received a flyer on her door, but no invitation to a community event ever crossed her path.

“I’ve heard similar feedback from people that they didn’t feel they were reached, and I think that’s an ongoing challenge that we have,” SDOT’s McCaffrey said.

Public response to this project has led the agency to re-evaluate its outreach tactics.

“We’re currently looking at ways to figure out how to engage folks where they are,” said Mafara Hobson, communications director for SDOT. “Like doing pop-up events where we go to a grocery store or a coffee shop.”

The project will be monitored throughout construction and once it is complete to make sure it’s working as intended.

“If we got it wrong, and it is truly the hellscape that opponents think it may be from a traffic perspective, we can always go back and fix it at not a huge cost,” Councilmember Johnson said.

“Change is really hard, especially in outlying neighborhoods that haven’t seen the kind of development that other neighborhoods have,” Elleman said. “Our neighborhood has been protected by that.”