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caption: Mt. Rainier is seen from Seward Park on Monday, March 18, 2019, on Lake Washington in Seattle.
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Mt. Rainier is seen from Seward Park on Monday, March 18, 2019, on Lake Washington in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Lake Washington Boulevard has reopened to cars — but the city's weighing a permanent closure

T

he three-mile stretch of Lake Washington Boulevard from Seward Park to Mount Baker has a narrow asphalt path that’s bumpy with tree roots. It’s not good for biking, and it can be difficult to navigate by foot — even if people aren’t trying to stay six feet away from the nearest stranger.

That’s why the Seattle Department of Transportation, or SDOT, closed the whole street to cars for a five-day pilot in June. The agency wanted to create a place where people in south Seattle could run, walk, bike or roll while staying far away from each other.

People were into it. So, on July 5, SDOT closed the three-mile section to cars for three months, until October 5.

Since then, the city has opened up the street to cars again. But the closure was so popular that the city is considering making it permanent. SDOT says another temporary closure — say, for the duration of the pandemic, or while the agency makes a final decision — is not on the table.

Dawn Schellenberg, an SDOT spokesperson, said options the city is considering include closing the street to cars permanently, having a permanent summer closure or weekend closure going forward, or closing one lane of the street permanently.

She said the agency got a lot of feedback about the street closure. “Believe ... me: We got emails,” she said.

Schellenberg said that some of the feedback has been unfavorable. The street closure meant the parking lots along the lake were also closed. That prompted people to park in the neighborhoods, walk down to the lake for a picnic or other gathering, and then make noise as they came back to their cars, annoying the neighbors. Also, some people just missed driving along the street.

However, the vast majority of feedback has been positive, she said.

“A lot of times if you’re doing a project, if people do like it, then they’re just like, ‘Cool!’ and they just let it go, right?” Schellenberg said. “And the people you generally hear from are the people that find it frustrating.”

Not this project.

“This one, people just came out in throngs to tell us how much they enjoyed it,” she said.

Charlotte Gamble, who lives near Seward Park, said what she liked about the closure is that Lake Washington Boulevard doesn’t have intersections, so her kids, who are ages 13, five, and three, could ride their bikes pretty independently but still safely along it.

“Being able to have that wide road with no intersections just made riding really comfortable for them,” she said. “And, for my 5-year-old especially, this was the longest distance that he’d ever ridden.”

Gamble added that Lake Washington was the only option like it in south Seattle. In north Seattle, there’s Green Lake or the Burke-Gilman, but there just aren’t many long stretches of car-free space in south Seattle.

Gamble was one of about 1,000 people who signed a petition started by the non-profits Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Rainier Valley Greenways Safe Streets asking the city to keep Lake Washington Boulevard closed to cars on weekends through the rest of the pandemic.

Schellenberg said that’s not on the table: The cars are back on Lake Washington Boulevard, and they’re going to stay on it till SDOT gathers feedback formally about the best use of the space and then makes a final decision about the street.

That’s pretty different from SDOT’s policies elsewhere. Alki Point, for example, is going to be closed to cars till King County reaches Phase 3 of the state's pandemic reopening plan. And the sidewalk café permits that SDOT gave to restaurants are now in place through October 2021.

In terms of other streets Seattle closed during the pandemic, the neighborhood greenways that are currently closed to through traffic might stay that way permanently as well. But Lake Washington Boulevard is the longest stretch of road that the city completely closed to cars this year that could have permanent changes.