Ozymandias, ramp of ramps
Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 12:00 am
A colossal wreck, boundless and bare sits just west of the UW campus. Situated on the north end of the arboretum, on land that is property of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and technically a part of the 520 freeway, are the ramps to nowhere. This concrete that progress forgot is anything but ignored; the space where land meets water and industry meets nature remains a place of interest and a destination for many.
During the summer, UW students can be seen using the space daily for general gallivanting, picnicking, and swimming. Canoes and kayaks are eagerly rented from the Waterfront Activities Center at the UW and brave souls double-dog dare themselves and their peers to jump from the concrete ramps into the swampy water below. Here, in such a small mess of space, a thousand different lives mesh together. But how did this scrappy place become such an important part of the city of Seattle?
A history of going nowhere
Perhaps some of the magic of the ramps comes from their rich history, their carefully considered existence. Rather than being a government mistake or a building project that simply ran out of funding, the ramps to nowhere represent a fight for the right priorities.
Back in 1968, when Anna Rudd was 28, she received a flier at her home calling her to arms. The fight? To protect the city of Seattle from the thundering of a third north-to-south freeway, known as the R. H. Thomson Expressway. The road would have run 15 miles, cutting through part of the arboretum and the entirety of the Central District. The road now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way would be nonexistent and the Montlake neighborhood would have been similarly dismantled.
Construction had begun when Rudd joined the fight to stop the R. H. Thomson. Some houses had already been bought and torn down by the state; the overall plan included evicting more than 4,000 residents and businesses. But Rudd, along with an extensive network of Seattleites, worked tirelessly in a good, old-fashioned campaign against the state.
Rudd was a member of a grassroots organization called Citizens Against the R. H. Thomson (CARHT), which was partially founded by UW math professor Maynard Arsove, who passed away in November 2010. CARHT, along with Citizens Against Freeways, used personal and professional resources to reach out to community members and politicians.
Rudd remembers participating in telephone trees, an effective outreach practice of the time. She would call 10 people, speak her piece, and ask each person to call five more, spreading the message of conservation through the Seattle community like a wildfire. CARHT lobbied, went to hearings, and got everyone it could involved. Rudd remembers working with a mailing list of 3,000, including members of the Seattle Garden Club, Allied Earth, and the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers.
“It kept growing and growing; the more we worked the more people came on board and said, ‘Yeah, we want to participate in this conversation about who does what for our city,’” Rudd said.
The campaign succeeded; in 1972, Seattle voted to cancel the R. H. Thomson Expressway and the city of Seattle was forever changed. Rudd, to this day, is amazed by how the absence of the R. H. Thomson has shaped the city, both in physicality and in the form of politicians who won office in part because of CARHT.
Only the “ramps to nowhere” remain today. Rising from the murky waters of Lake Washington, they remain as tokens of CARHT’s effectiveness.
However, now, in the name of progress, the ramps are destined to be removed. The new eight lanes of the 520 bridge will displace the ramps from their home and expand the jurisdiction of the arboretum north.
Some of the marsh will be destroyed but more wetland area will eventually be added. There is also talk of a pedestrian and bike path to connect Montlake with the arboretum.
While the plan for the land will be more environmentally sound, many Seattleites will miss the freedom they experience when visiting this unmonitored space. Rudd feels like the ramps, or at the very least some part of the ramps, should remain to represent the struggle her and CARHT went through to protect the city from concrete.
The fight has come full circle; now, rather than fighting for the R. H. Thomson to disappear, people are fighting for the ruins of the R. H. Thomson to be preserved.
The efforts, this time around, are a bit more exotic than telephone trees and letter-writing campaigns and they begin, quite cordially, at the UW Seattle campus.
Using art to protest
One ramp’s support arch is now covered in reflective acrylic. This mirrored surface is designed to gently speak out against the removal of the ramps and was engineered by a group of former UW students that goes by the name of Re-Collective. This art installation, the “Gate to Nowhere,” was engineered over the course of a year to draw attention to the beauty and importance of a place so greatly used, which now waits to be so casually destroyed.
The members of Re-Collective first worked together in a similar battle to salvage the UW’s nuclear reactor plant back in 2008, when they were all graduate students in the UW department of architecture. One of the members, Abby Inpanbutr, who now works at Art & Soul Photo in Ballard and does large-format film photography, did her thesis project on the historical importance of the plant. Together with her classmates and friends, Inpanbutr created an art installation to generate awareness of the plant’s fate. The team’s efforts worked: The nuclear reactor plant was added to the National Register of Historic Places and still stands on south campus today.
Rainer Metzger, another member of Re-Collective, said the experience taught him that art helped people see things, sometimes ordinary things, in a new way.
“That’s when architecture becomes a way of communicating with people,” he said.
Metzger did his own thesis project, back in 2008, on the ramps to nowhere. He studied the cultural landscape of the non-park and proposed a design for an outdoor museum that would educate Seattleites on the history of industry that the marsh represents.
Five years later, knowing that the construction would soon eliminate the ramps, Metzger hoped to create an art installation with an effect similar to Inpanbutr’s. So he sent out the bat signal to his comrades and the gang geared up for a new project.
Once assembled, the group had to decide what exactly they wanted to build in order to properly display their message to the public eye. Re-Collective pitched a series of design ideas to a public art specialty services team, which consisted of a handful of WSDOT employees from different disciplines.
It didn’t take long for Re-Collective to realize that their options were rather limited. They went through four designs before they decided upon the Gate, each previous pitch helping Re-Collective explore the limitations of what WSDOT would allow on their property. WSDOT specifically wanted art that adhered directly to the structure and did not overhang. So Re-Collective looked to other successful art installations on other freeway ramps, such as the one in Green Lake, and decided to “paint” the support arch with mirrored acrylic.
“[We thought] the mirrors would be really appropriate because it’s kind of about reflection, things disappearing,” Inpanbutr said. “[It] reacts so well to the environment — the water, the sky — that we kind of just went for it.”
Re-Collective pitched the idea for the “Gate to Nowhere” and got approval by February of 2014, but the project was less than half completed. Re-Collective now had to prove to WSDOT that the installation would not be a distraction to passing 520 drivers.
They did a visibility study to help them decide on which support arch to decorate, an environmental plan, and a sun study to test how reflective the mirror would be. All of this information got thrown in to a 40-page document and presented to WSDOT for further approval.
In the meantime, Re-Collective had to find funding. They used Shunpike, a site to help artists in the state of Washington generate funds for materials and supplies. However, even though the installation is complete, Inpanbutr explains that the donations still fell short of costs.
“If anyone wants to donate to us they can go to our website and figure out how to help,” she said.
Having jumped and cleared most hurdles, the team began the physical completion of the “Gate” in April. The construction, which was only supposed to take a few weeks, ended up lasting months and necessitated many more pairs of hands than the Re-Collective group started with.
There were rigging systems of ropes and climbers that descended from the ceiling of the ramp, floating docks and rafts that needed to be crafted in order to carry supplies and to hold the workers on the water, and the cutting, gluing, and connecting of each piece of mirrored acrylic.
The project team quickly grew to include seven people and then 15; there were plenty of collaborators who showed up and decided to pitch in, even if only for a single afternoon.
But all the time, effort, and hard work paid off. The “Gate to Nowhere” now stands regally among the lily pads.
“I just hope people like it, that they like looking at it,” Metzger gushed, a proud father. Because of its short life expectancy, Metzger is hoping for at least one foggy morning so he can see Re-Collective’s work reflecting in the silky mist.
“Seeing it in the rain is actually pretty cool too,” he said.
Above the clamor
Re-Collective’s Gate to Nowhere was successful in more ways than one. As intended, the art helped band together a community and inspire individuals to brandish their voices for a fight to save the ramps. The ruckus that trailed the construction of the Gate helped alert ears and eyes to the ramps and their imminent execution. The web of Re-Collective’s impact spread in diverse directions, much like CARHT’s telephone tree 40 years before.
One of the groups that heard Re-Collective’s message was another group of UW grad students, now second-year students in the architecture program who, not-so-coincidentally, spent spring quarter doing series of projects that analyzed the ramps to nowhere.
These projects steadily increased in complication until, in groups of three or four, students worked, as Metzger did, to create theoretical designs for the ramps’ reuse within certain assigned parameters.
One of the most important aspects of the design project was to incorporate an educational center into the site. Each group had to demonstrate how the space could be best used to enlighten and inspire. Students also needed to consider ecological aspects and include a parking lot, for practicality.
Rebecca Christy, a UCLA graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history and urban planning who recently moved to Seattle, worked with a team of two other students on re-imagining the peninsula space where the “Gate to Nowhere” stands. Her project design removed the ramps from the water and re-situated them on land, forming a walkway reminiscent of Grecian columns.
Her teammate added a bioswale, a ditch of plants which slow down water and filter out sediments and pollutants. Christy also had the hope of turning the new 520 pillars into a green wall, which would help mute the sound of the freeway and give commuters and kayakers a unique experience.
While Christy and her group’s main concern was making the site more approachable for families, Rhys van Bemmel, a graduate of Western Washington University who recently decided to return to school, took a slightly different approach and decided to be relatively hands-off about the entire design. He wanted to avoid prescribing specific usages to the space since he sees a lot of its current appeal stemming from its waywardness.
The student groups worked with review panels that consisted of important figures in the actual redesign of the ramps to nowhere space, such as staff from the arboretum and Berger Partnership, one of the architecture firms currently working with WSDOT on the new 520 plan.
No official plans for the space were presented to his class as concrete, van Bemmel explained. He hopes that when the time comes to start making some decisions the class projects will be used as a tool for preliminary brainstorming.
Since they were working with a space so close by, both students often went to visit the site. Christy noticed a visible difference in the popularity of the site as the quarter dragged on.
“Ever since the sun started popping up, just having to go there every week [spring] quarter, I just saw a lot more activity over there,” she said. “All different types of visitors.”
Some of this activity was the diligent work of the Re-Collective team. The two students first saw the installation on a class canoeing field trip, when it was still only partially completed.
One Sunday while Christy was perusing the site yet again, she decided to approach the crew who were installing another acrylic panel. Meanwhile, van Bemmel said it was a serendipitous decision to contact Metzger.
What started as modest curiosity soon transformed; the students caught whiff of Re-Collective’s intensity and were infected with a craving to see the ramps, or some part of them, remain.
“I just think it would be really sad if there wasn’t something to save,” van Bemmel said. “I don’t think it would be that hard to save a couple of pillars.”
Balancing progress and nature
As the cars rush or slug by on the 520 bridge, completely unaware, a great blue heron, nicknamed “Dragon Master” by Seattle resident Larry Hubbell, slays dragonflies left and right. A woodpecker hunts for its young, who remain safely in the nest. Nearby, young ducklings waddle about under the watchful eyes of their parents. All of these birds share one thing in common: They are all the subject of Hubbell’s nature photography.
Hubbell runs a photo blog named “Union Bay Watch” that focuses on the wildlife that can be found on the peninsula and the ramps to nowhere. He names the animals he photographs to help him keep track; he’s named two pileated woodpeckers Lisa and Marie and walks around the Union Bay non-park with a fancy camera equipped with a powerful lens.
Hubbell has been a Seattle resident since 1979. He and his wife have three children, one of whom will start as a freshman at the UW in the fall. He has been taking photographs of the bay for three years, and when he retires from the business intelligence department at Starbucks, this hobby of his will transform into his retirement plan.
Hubbell and Metzger spot each other from afar and exchange warm words; the two have shared the same “office” for so long they have forged a friendship. Metzger even helped Hubbell put his blog “on the map.”
For Hubbell, the eventual replacement of ramps with wetlands would be a goldmine for subjects of his photography. But Hubbell still hopes that some token, symbol, or piece of the ramps will remain to represent the history of the city and the priorities it holds dear.
“This, to me, says a whole lot about Seattle in terms of we find things of value beyond just progress,” he said. “It’s not just all about progress it’s about how we do the progress, right?”
Wish upon a ramp
When Priscilla Asrove was a teenager she remembers never being able to use her family’s only landline to call her friends; her father, Maynard Asrove, founder of CARHT, was always tying up the phone line with strategic calls for his mission to stop the R. H. Thomson.
Although it impeded her social life a tad, Priscilla says growing up in the household of an activist gave her an intense appreciation for the “unsung heroes” of Seattle, the ones who helped shape the city we know today.
“Everyone knows the ramps to nowhere,” she said. “Everyone is sort of familiar with them, but no one really knows what it took.”
So Asrove has taken on a new mission and has helped form a group of concerned citizens, just like her father did 45 years ago.
The group, of which Rudd is also a member, began calling themselves ARCH, or Activists Remembered, Celebrated and Honored, in January of this past year.
Their tactics for enacting change have mostly consisted of getting people to speak on behalf of the ramps and their history. The group had one meeting with the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee that was particularly effective. In April, ARCH was able to secure a commitment from the arboretum for a significant memorial.
Unlike many of the others who hope to save the ramps themselves, Asrove is more interested in preserving the history behind what the ramps represent.
Asrove believes that the memorial the arboretum has promised will be a real testimony to the power of ordinary citizen action.
“Hopefully it will make it really a destination point for people to come and reflect on,” she said.
Asrove is also currently working diligently to document the campaign against the R. H. Thomson for posterity. Asrove wants to record first-person accounts of the activists who worked so hard for the city and the arboretum. She is working with HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of Washington state history, and has been assembling personal papers and mementos of her father and other activists to be archived.
While ARCH’s efforts may not prove to save the physical ramps, the work it is doing will save the history behind them and hopefully carry enough weight for future generations who visit the arboretum.
As for our generation, now is the time to enjoy these remains of the concrete giant that prove nothing is useless nor forgotten. The fate of the ramps is still up in the air; this might be the last summer to enjoy the legacy of the ramps in person.
Don’t miss the chance to canoe up to these ruins or jump from the ramps, an exhilarating rite of passage that can be dangerous if done haphazardly.
But as most of us say goodbye to these giants, some, like Metzger, remain impassioned to fight for their survival. He believes that the culture these ramps bring the city of Seattle is irreplaceable. After all, “Rome isn’t Rome because they erased everything,” Metzger offered.
Reach reporter Danielle Palmer-Friedman at email@example.com. Twitter: @DanyellPF