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Farewell to Nowhere

The Ramps to Nowhere, photographed by Omar Willey, July 2014
The Ramps to Nowhere, photographed by Omar Willey, July 2014.
Licensed CC-BY-SA.

The Ramps to Nowhere are finally going away.

This past weekend, serious demolition work finally began on the remnants of the erstwhile R. H. Thomson Expressway, the so-called Ramps to Nowhere near the western end of the State Route 520 bridge in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. Sanctioned by a special exemption from the city’s noise ordinance, crews worked on the demolition project continuously day-and-night through the weekend, much to the chagrin of many Montlake residents.

The long-planned demolition will make way for the expansion of SR 520, which is already in progress, and will also likely appease the caretakers of the Washington Park Arboretum, upon which the ramps have long been considered a concrete blight. The Arboretum will soon be a much more beautiful place — aesthetically, at least. Nevertheless, Seattle will soon lose a longtime monument to an important episode in the history of local citizen activism — namely, the campaign to stop the construction of the R. H. Thomson Expressway.

The Thomson Expressway, if completed, would have followed the Lake Washington shoreline throughout Seattle, running north from Interstate 90 through the Central District, Montlake, and the Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-erstwhile Bothell Freeway. A grassroots citizen activist campaign to stop the Thomson Expressway began in 1966, gathered steam in 1969, and led to a successful ballot initiative in 1972. That campaign led directly to the cancellation of the project — although not before construction had already begun. Whence the Ramps to Nowhere, long one of Seattle’s most curious landmarks.

For many native and/or longtime Seattleites, diving from the ramps into the water below has been a legendary local summertime rite of passage ever since the Thomson project’s cancellation. Stories abound of this clandestine youth activity, officially illegal according to Washington state law. The irony is rich, indeed, of how beloved the ramps have become in local lore, considering how vilified the Thomson project was among the engaged citizens of Seattle circa 1969.

Thus, many of the same longtime Seattle citizens who once fought against the Thompson Expressway project, along with many who were not even born when the project was canceled, are now sad to see its remnants disappear. This past summer, a guerrilla arts group named Re-Collective adorned one of the ramps with a temporary installation, wrapping two structural columns in a silvery casing that made the remnants appear otherworldly. Additionally, another citizens’ group petitioned the city to preserve at least one of the ramps as a monument to the citizens’ group that stopped the original project. Although the ramps will now be completely demolished, a public memorial to the successful campaign against the Thomson Expressway is currently being planned, but has apparently not yet been located.

Meanwhile, the demolition of the Ramps to Nowhere is expected to be completed sometime in summer 2015, and the expansion of SR 520 is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2017. Stay tuned.