As of late February, the Biden Administration’s Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program  has made $1.6 million  available to study the elimination of a 1.5-mile stretch of Highway 99 in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. The area under consideration starts at the highway’s intersection with State Route 509 and travels down to the cloverleaf interchange on the south end. 

Though some raise largely unfounded concerns about increasing traffic, this project is transformative, long overdue, and really good for a few reasons. 

The area under consideration. Seattle OPCD

First, Let Us Dispatch with the Haters

Part of the grant means that officials will conduct a study to determine the exact effect on traffic, but this stretch of SR 99 was never a very hard-working highway. It was originally built in 1959 as a federal highway, but after I-5 was completed in 1960, it was considered obsolete and decommissioned sometime between 1963 and 1969.

I-5 continues to handle most of the traffic through the area, together with SR 509, which runs parallel to SR 99 and is being extended and expanded as we speak.

In sum: We haven’t really needed this highway for the last 60 years, and we still don’t. 

The Highway Is a Problem

The government built the highway on a foundation of injustice, a decision that continues to reverberate in this culturally diverse neighborhood, where 54% of its residents speak a language other than English at home, and 74% are Black, indigenous, and people of color.

In the early 20th century, banks redlined the neighborhood, which, among other things, marked it as an area of higher-risk investment. That designation added a major barrier for people in those neighborhoods to secure home loans and thus build wealth. 

Of the approximately 35 miles of highways planned through Seattle in 1957, only .08 miles went through greenlined neighborhoods. And many of the parcels that were used to construct this stretch of highway were vacant due to the internment of South Park’s Japanese-American families who owned and farmed them. This highway was built with no regard for the humanity of the people who lived in this neighborhood and who continue to live there. Keeping the road in place degrades our collective moral and literal health. 

Oh weird, they mostly only built the highways where poor people live. Seattle OPCD

Ongoing Harm 

This highway was built without any regard for the urban plan, which is why 22 streets suddenly dead-end as a result of it. 

Meanwhile, there are no noise barriers, no off-ramps, and the only street-level crossing point along the entire highway is a dark underpass with a narrow sidewalk bordered by a constant stream of semi trucks.  Area kids walk to school along a passage they call “the scary trail;" a loud, narrow, quarter-mile-long trail separated from the highway only by a few yards and a chain-link fence. Local volunteers maintain the trail, but conditions are bad enough that children often choose to run across the highway rather than use the trail.

But kids playing frogger en route to school isn’t the only ongoing harm to the community. Studies show that people living within 500 meters of a highway are most likely to experience asthma and lung cancer, among other negative health outcomes. The 500-meter radius around this segment of SR 99 covers 83% of the South Park neighborhood. 

Kids are most vulnerable to the pollution, and kids constitute 30% of residents in South Park, amounting to one of the highest concentrations of youth in town (it’s twice the average youth population in Seattle).

Not great. Seattle OPCD

What Will They Do with 40 Acres? 

What the neighborhood will do with the land is up to the neighborhood. 

The Biden money kicks off studies to discover the area’s  potential, and the Reconnect South Park Coalition, a group of 20 designers, community organizers, and multimedia artists funded by the City of Seattle, is starting a community “visioning process.” That work will then translate into a City of Seattle Community Vision Plan to develop conceptual designs for a community-preferred alternative. 

It’s impossible to predict what the community and the City will go for, but some things seem more likely than others given the stuff the neighborhood lacks; namely, affordable housing, green space, and more room for small businesses. 

Because South Park borders the Duwamish River, the neighborhood could use some of the space to mitigate future climate change impacts. 

With the highway no longer bisecting the neighborhood, people could safely traverse the area, opening up potential for a reinvigorated core—museums, restaurants, and other things that make neighborhoods fun and beautiful and vibrant.  

Maria Guadalupe Ramirez of the Reconnect South Park Coalition noted, “This is a do-no-harm-to-the-community process that we will be undergoing for the next 12 months. This has to be a win for the people and the environment.”

Next Steps

The Reconnect South Park Coalition will begin the first community meeting in May, with more to follow in November and February of next year.

Liaisons representing key cultural communities in the area will share information and project updates with their communities and provide culturally informed, in-language support during events. Each event will also provide childcare and food to reduce barriers to participation. 

To get the word out even more, the Coalition will also put on 30 other outreach meetings of a wide variety, including pop-ups at festivals and cookouts. In addition, representatives say they’ll conduct door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing and distribute multilingual digital and printed media. 

Meanwhile, the City of Seattle is assembling a team of technical consultants to assess the project’s feasibility; the monies awarded by President Biden’s Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program will be used for planning-level traffic studies and analyzing potential impacts to safety, the environment, health, and overall community well-being. 

If you would like to get involved, write to the Reconnect South Park Coalition at connect@reconnectsouthpark.org.