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Workers demolishing the ramps in late winter, 2024. (Photo courtesy WSDOT)

From February to mid-April 2024, construction crews on the SR 520 Bridge Replacement Project used enormous excavators to demolish the final remnants of the so-called “ramps to nowhere” on the WSDOT Peninsula at the north end of Washington Park Arboretum. WSDOT is currently using the peninsula as a staging area for the bridge replacement project.

The ramps were constructed in the early 1960s to connect the SR 520 to the R.H. Thomson Expressway, a planned north-south highway that would have cut through the east side of the Arboretum—as well as Rainier Valley, the Central District, Madison Park, Montlake, and other neighborhoods. The City of Seattle abandoned the highway plans in 1967, after years of strong opposition from environmental and neighborhood groups. In a 1972 referendum, Seattle voters killed the project once and for all.

Remnant “ramps to nowhere” (right) and the old SR 520 on-ramp (left). (Photo by Niall Dunne)

Over the following decades, the hulking, partially-completed-but-never-connected ramps haunted the Arboretum wetlands, becoming popular with sunbathers and swimmers. Writer Knute Berger described them as “garden follies” and “very expensive diving boards” but also celebrated them as symbols of grassroots citizen activism.

Most of the “ramps to nowhere”—and the adjacent 520 on-ramps and off-ramps connecting to Lake Washington Boulevard—were removed in 2017 at the beginning of the 520 Bridge Replacement Project. A portion of the ramps, just west of the intersection of Lake Washington Boulevard and Foster Island Road, was retained and used for parking by crew workers from Graham, the project construction contractor.

Visitors using one of the “ramps to nowhere” in 2013. (Photo by Niall Dunne)

But now these have been removed, and WSDOT is preparing to turn the two acres of land that lay underneath over to the Arboretum (officially to Seattle Parks and Recreation). WSDOT will give back the rest of the 28-acre peninsula—condemned by the State in 1959 for the purpose of building the original SR 520 Bridge, or Evergreen Point Floating Bridge—to the Arboretum at the completion of the 520 project at the end of this decade.

I asked UW Botanic Gardens Associate Director Ray Larson if the Arboretum has any immediate plans for the returning two acres—and if visitors will be able to access them.

Swimmers diving off the ramps in 2014. (Photo by Niall Dunne)

“The last remaining portion of the ramps that comprise much of the first two acres to be returned were described as ‘temporary onramps’ to 520 when built in 1962,” said Ray. “They were actually never intended to be permanent, and would have been removed as part of the R.H. Thomson when that interchange was built. As such, they were constructed with fill that included large pieces of rubble and concrete, and we are not sure how stable this earthen mound will be in the short term once the concrete is removed. In the long term, this artificial mound will be removed when the rest of the peninsula is turned over to the Arboretum, so the landscape can return to a less artificial state.”

“Before we receive the two acres, soil will be placed above the remaining mound, and seeded with grass to limit erosion,” continued Ray. “For that reason—as well as the potential instability of the earlier fill—most of the area won’t be open to the public, at least at first. The Arboretum partners are exploring how this portion might be used in the next few years as we look at ways to daylight the northern portion of Arboretum Creek in advance of the rest of the land being turned over.

“Since there are no trees and other plantings on what used to be concrete, the area may be used to stage materials for the creek restoration. Looking at the long term, the area will eventually be shaped to merge seamlessly with the rest of the peninsula and to provide better ecological function, as well as new plantings.”

The two-acre plot soon returning to the Arboretum, with ramps freshly removed. (Photo by Niall Dunne) 

Ray also said that WSDOT and Graham have left one of the former bridge supports—4 columns and a support called a “bent”—in the landscape that will be reused as a commemoration of the former freeway route and the activism that led to stopping freeway construction through the surrounding neighborhoods. (The bent is visible in the background of the photo above.)

In other 520 news, construction crews are scheduled to complete the three-acre Montlake Lid portion of the project by late summer this year. This will include a new bike and pedestrian bridge—with expansive landscaping—over the 520, connecting Lake Washington Boulevard to East Montlake Park. When the WSDOT Peninsula is completely returned, the new bike and pedestrian bridge will be hooked up to the Arboretum Loop Trail, improving accessibility to the plant collections and Arboretum shoreline from the UW District to the north.

See WSDOT’s “State Route 520 Program: 2023 Year in Review” video on YouTube for an update on recent progress, as well as look at what’s in store for 2024.

Rendering of the completed Montake Lid Project, showing the new multi-use trail. (Courtesy WSDOT)