On March 23, 2020, West Seattle became an island, or so it seemed to the more than 80,000 people west of the neighborhood’s namesake bridge.
Cracks had spread on the massive span over the Duwamish River, and what followed was a crack in Seattle’s map, severing the densely populated peninsula from its neighbors downtown, on Beacon Hill, in Rainier Valley.
The bridge has been restored, juiced with new concrete, epoxy and tension cables so it may deliver on its original promise from the 1980s and more. The roadway opened to traffic Saturday night, restoring a path to the rest of the city that few will take for granted from now on. There is no party to mark the occasion, just a revival 2.5 years in the making.
For the weary masses, disbelief still lingers that the time has actually come, and may do so until each individual has personally traveled the resurrected bridge. The crossing was supposed to open in July, but the concrete workers’ strike pushed back the timeline.
“The one thing that’s been a theme among most people we’ve spoken with is extreme skepticism,” said Laina Vereschagin, who does marketing for some West Seattle businesses.
But this is no illusion and no drill. There are no more surprises. The tests are complete, the cables are tight, the concrete is wrapped: The West Seattle Bridge is back.
Asked what Saturday’s opening means to West Seattle and the city, Greg Spotts, SDOT’s new director, replied, “Everything.”
There’s always been a pride in West Seattle that it’s a community within a community, separate from the rest of the city. But even that pride has its limits, tested over the past 2½ years.
“People have birthday parties and they want to do something on Alki and their friends say, ‘Well I can’t get over there,'” said Vereschagin.
With the link restored, Vereschagin and a gaggle of other “accidental islanders” want to remind people that West Seattle is still here. On Wednesday, they toured some of the neighborhood’s most recognizable hubs — the Alki Beach Statue of Liberty, Easy Street Records, the Admiral Theatre — shooting small videos to be shared with the public in the coming weeks.
The message? “Come back over, see how wonderful we are,” said Vereschagin. “We missed you.”
There are few social interactions in which the bridge’s reopening does not come up — a sense of new possibilities after acclimating to the bridge’s absence. “Welcome back,” says the YMCA’s online ads. A Dungeons & Dragons Facebook group suggests maybe they could meet up in West Seattle next time. West Seattle breweries made a “Reunite IPA.”
“I now know how Gilligan felt when he was rescued,” remarked one resident online.
Curt Kiepprien, a realtor with Compass, made sure to include the fact of the bridge’s return in a recent listing. The housing market in West Seattle never slowed as much as some thought it might when the bridge closed, he said. But the house he was advertising sold in just one day, even as interest rates climbed, and he suspected the reopening had something to do with that.
“The proximity of the listing to the bridge definitely helped the listing sell quicker,” he said.
New traffic patterns
Each person made their own adjustments since 2020. Some were small — a change of route, a new e-bike to cross the lower bridge, more days working from home. Transit continued to run on the lower bridge past Harbor Island.
Some changes were bigger. Kiepprien’s partner, Alonzo Fernandez, used to bring his flower business — Our Secret Garden — as far north as Shoreline. But when the bridge shuttered, he cut off deliveries that direction, instead focusing on attracting local customers.
“When the bridge shut down it doubled his commute time,” said Kiepprien.
With the bridge reopening, the two of them hope those deliveries might return, and with them more business.
At the Alki Beach Cafe, general manager Tony Ortiz said the number of customers dropped, although the closure correlated with COVID lockdowns. Diners have returned slowly, but he’s hopeful to see a bigger bounce now that the bridge is open again. Tourists, in particular, may be more willing to trek west.
“Everybody’s excited,” said Ortiz.
But John Bennett, owner of Luna Park Cafe, strikes a more ambivalent note. For him, the blocked bridge meant a “captive audience” of customers who turned to local standby eateries rather than venture to other parts of the city.
He’s excited for the bridge to reopen, but is skeptical it will mean “all your troubles will be gone and it will be sunshine every day.”
“Instead of sitting in traffic on West Marginal Way, we’ll be sitting in traffic on Fauntleroy Way,” he said.
The most unambiguous joy is from those who absorbed the detoured traffic to the south, toward the First Avenue South Bridge. Even during COVID lockdowns, when traffic elsewhere evaporated, lines formed in neighborhoods not used to such congestion.
Kay Kirkpatrick, an artist and board member on the Highland Park Improvement Club, helped place sandwich boards on Southwest Holden Street with renderings of bridges and snippets of poetry (“Life is a Bridge”). The signs greeted those taking an alternate route from West Seattle toward the Duwamish Valley.
It was hard to deal with so many cars, but Kirkpatrick believed showing a bit of compassion and levity was the only reasonable response. It was supposed to be “Zen and entertaining,” she said. Still, she’s excited for a bit of quiet.
The brunt of the detour landed on neighborhoods to the south, where pollutants from highways and flight paths already are a part of life.
Greg Ramirez, chair of the Georgetown Community Council, said Southwest Michigan Street was perpetually clogged. Drivers in search of a quicker route would then veer into neighborhoods at high speeds.
“You’ve got residents walking dogs and pushing strollers with cars flying down the street,” he said. The ordeal just highlighted how poorly served the area is by transit, and Ramirez hopes it can spur improvements. More than that, he hopes the bridge repairs can last.
Not so long ago, 120,000 drivers and transit riders used to traverse the West Seattle Bridge every day. It’s a different world now than when the bridge was last open, and many have reordered their lives to be closer to home.
The bridge should last another 40 years, engineers concluded, at which point a West Seattle-Ballard light rail line should be complete. The city has already spent nearly $6 million to examine what a replacement might look like.
For residents glad to have their exit restored, today is not the day to think that far into the future. They’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.