If Highway 99 can change, anywhere can change | KUOW News and Information

If Highway 99 can change, anywhere can change

May 30, 2018

Over the past few months, a team of KUOW reporters has explored the impact of growth along Highway 99 from North Seattle down to Tukwila. Reporter Joshua McNichols told Kim Malcolm why they followed this road and what they learned along the way.

In response to profound congestion, many cities and neighborhoods in our region are trying to find ways to add new people without adding more cars to the roads. Because there’s no room for more cars. Some strategies cities are trying out include new apartment buildings without parking spaces, prioritization of buses over cars and more space for pedestrians and bikes.

That makes old 99 a fascinating place to visit, because it’s most closely tied to the more established car-oriented patterns of organization. The neighborhoods along 99 have highways at their centers, rather than main streets. If this cultural shift away from cars can take root there, it can take place anywhere. It’s the same impulse that draws scientists to study life in extreme locations like a volcanic vent at the bottom of the ocean.

Angel Hackman leads Ruby Oswell (center left) and her friends across Aurora's new crosswalk at 92nd on their way to school.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Any surprises along the way?

It's surprising how different the source of the changes are in each place. On Aurora Avenue North, it’s bottom up. You have regular people saying, we’d love to have a different kind of neighborhood here.

In Tukwila, you have the full weight of city leadership adding momentum to that movement. And there, they’ve accomplished a lot more. I wasn’t aware of how much more until I spent a lot of time there.

Tukwila city councilmember De'Sean Quinn, on the site of an old motel torn down to make way for new development along the former Highway 99.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

For example in North Seattle, the state is resurfacing Aurora this summer and the city had a chance to take advantage of that work – to simultaneously improve the sidewalks at the same time. Carolyn Adolph did a story on this. And although the city’s adding a few tiny improvements, they largely passed up the opportunity to make big improvements – for at least another 10 years until the street gets resurfaced again.

Contrast this to Tukwila, where leaders have been pushing and pushing for changes since before they even had the power to do so. They took control of highway 99 from the state through legislative action, they raided and seized crime ridden motels and tore them down, and they sold the land to developers who would build catalyst projects that would change how people think about the road.

From left, 4th-grade students Nadiya Abdi, Nusaybah Jaranow and Yusra Ahmed laugh during class at the Abu Bakr Islamic Center. The center is housed in an old casino on Tukwila International Boulevard, which used to be part of Highway 99.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

If there’s a moral to this story about Highway 99, what is it?

I think the moral is, inclusive growth is really hard. And personally I’m still looking for what that would look like. In the Seattle Metro region that we’re building, as we reshape where people live and how they can move around, I’m wondering, are we building it so that everyone can live here? Or are we building it so that people with money can have the city that they want.

In Tukwila and Aurora, we saw two communities talking about growing inclusively, growing without pushing people further and further out. But there are these small decisions you can make, as a city official, as a neighborhood activist, along the way, on whether to include the voices of people who may have less time and resources to go to community meetings. And while all the talk of inclusion is good, it’s the weight of the development micro-aggressions that decides in the end whether minorities and low income communities can have a place in the new urbanist dreamland that we’re building.