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Othello Street redesign underway: Gentrification or traffic justice?

Othello Street/Myrtle Place redesign work starts today. The project, funded by the Neighborhood Street Fund, will include biking/walking safety improvements from Beacon Ave to Seward Park Ave. The redesign is also expected to bring motor vehicle speeds down closer to the speed limit and reduce car collisions.

The road currently has a dangerous four-lane highway design despite carrying only 8,000-11,000 vehicles per day and traveling through a residential neighborhood with lots of foot traffic, including many lower-income people living in NewHolly. That’s fewer than half the number of vehicles that can fit on the city’s redesigned road before encountering significant travel delays, according to the city’s standards.

The new road design will include safer crosswalks and new bike lanes connecting Othello Station, the NewHolly neighborhood, Othello Playfield, Seward Park Ave and the Chief Sealth Trail.

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The project was somewhat controversial, with some members of the neighborhood expressing concerns about how the changes would affect emergency response times. However, SPD’s South Precinct Captain signed off on the plans and said he does not expect it to be a problem.

The project also raised the question of how bike lanes and complete streets contribute to gentrification. While traffic engineering standards clearly show the project is sound from a traffic flow point of view, the outreach process was not very successful at garnering strong community support. While lower income people, people of color and the elderly are consistently injured and killed in traffic at disproportionately high rates, complete streets and bike lanes are still perceived by some as a wealthy white thing. Are bike lanes harbingers of gentrification or traffic justice projects? Are they both?

This is the subject of an upcoming project by Adonia Lugo, and I can’t wait to read her results (get a taste on the Seattle Bike Justice Project website. More on that soon…)

From SDOT:

The Seattle Department of Transportation will be re-striping S Othello Street between Beacon Avenue S and Seward Park Avenue S beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, August 21.  The re-striping is expected to take only a few days, and will create minor back-ups while being applied.  Drivers should exercise additional care when travelling on Othello.

The new lane configuration is expected to reduce speeding and the potential for accidents, as well as provide a better balance between motor vehicle, bus and freight traffic with pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

The new lane configuration will allow for one travel lane in each direction along the entire corridor.  In addition, there will be a two-way left turn lane in the center of the roadway for driveway, business, and side street access between 32nd Ave S. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

The project will also add a dedicated bike lane in each direction between Beacon Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, plus one in the westerly direction from Seward Park Avenue South to Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

This project is funded by the Bridging the Gap (BTG) transportation levy through the Neighborhood Street Fund (NSF), a city-administered program that works with communities to prioritize and build neighborhood projects.

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16 responses to “Othello Street redesign underway: Gentrification or traffic justice?”

  1. Wealthy white guy here. The paragraph about gentrification is full of “weasel journalism” and doesn’t contribute much to an otherwise informative article:

    “The project also raised the question…” How does a project raise a question? Do you mean people have raised the question regarding the project? If so, who?

    “…complete streets and bike lanes are still perceived by some as a wealthy white thing” Who perceives them as such?

    A visit to the Seattle Bike Justice website, while interesting, didn’t answer these questions.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      You caught me weasel-handed! Those statements are based on conversations I had with people who attended an open house about the project. I was not at the open house myself, and therefore do not have direct quotes from concerned residents. The issue absolutely needs more reporting, and I plan to do so in a future post (as noted above).

      1. Thank you! I’m very interested to read more, as cycling and social justice are two passions of mine.

  2. Othello was being gentrified before this project was taken. New townhomes and apartments have been appearing since the light rail project and aforementioned Chief Sealth trail were nearing completion; the Othello Safeway underwent an overhaul to account for anticipated need of higher capacity; and a new community center near the south precinct has an additional branch of the Seattle Library and is home to a chapter of the Catholic Community Service of Western Washington’s Youth Tutoring Program, which focuses on lower-income and ethnic communities in the newly expanded New Holly neighborhood. The biking lanes are simply more of the same and are emblematic of the sort of changes that should be aggressively pushed elsewhere in the city as its population continues to swell. Riding Othello from Rainier Ave to Beacon Ave has been harrowing due to the narrowness and steepness of the street, its several sharp turns, and the propensity of motorists to violate the speed limit. The article did well to point out that the street feels like a four-lane highway despite passing through a dense housing and business area. A perception that bike lanes are for rich white people and don’t belong in a South Seattle neighborhood like New Holly is a view unlikely to be held by the majority, especially the many children who will begin enjoying a much safer ride on bicycles.

    1. Orv

      Gentrification was, in fact, the whole *point* of the siting choices for light rail stations. They didn’t put it that way — they called it “increasing density” — but it amounts to the same thing.

      1. Daniel

        Light rail does not inherently cause gentrification. Having light rail next door allows you to eliminate most of your driving, and put the savings towards living in a nicer location. Poor zoning decisions, especially not allowing enough density, do.

        Light rail is highly desirable, which causes property values near light rail to rise as service begins. Without an increase in the supply of housing, in the form of increased density, the price of homes in that area will rise. Increasing density helps offset the rise in prices due to the construction of light rail.

        If you want to push the cost of homes in a given area down, you can either implement rent control (which lowers prices directly), make the area less desirable (which lowers demand), or increase density (which increases supply). This is economics 101.

      2. Daniel, it isn’t quite that simple. New market-rate housing is usually pretty expensive even if a lot of it is built; developers have high initial costs and loans to pay off, and they cover those costs by charging high initial rents. If they can’t do that, why build? A new development likely replaces a small amount of relatively affordable housing with a large amount of relatively expensive housing. If you build a major, desirable amenity like a light-rail station (light-rail, in particular, is unique in Seattle) and don’t expect considerable gentrification and displacement, even with an up-zone, you’re kidding yourself.

        That doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing to do in the long-run. Much of today’s affordable housing was built as luxury housing, and likewise much of today’s luxury housing will become affordable in the future. If you allow a few really big new projects, you may manage to hold rents down in existing buildings, even. But gentrification is nearly inevitable, and displacement never far when that happens. Even if you believe the project is still a good one, you have to acknowledge that.

  3. Interesting – things that make a street nicer for those that live along it are “a wealthy white thing.” Perhaps the neighborhood would prefer the street be double decked like I-5 with barriers all along?

  4. Nikki

    Here’s an idea that will cut gentrification… make bike culture affordable. Remind folks that you don’t need a $1700 bike, spandex, and waterproof panniers to ride to work. Get bikes to community organizations. Teach the “lower-income” Othello-ites (ites? I don’t know.) that bike riding is fun and has so many benefits. Un-gentrify (I am making up words now…) bike riding!!

    1. I think bike riding could use a whole lot less elitism, including financial elitism. But I don’t think any change in this regard would affect the way gentrification works. I’m not an expert on the economics of gentrification, so anyone that is should feel free to correct my errors, but I think the primary economic mechanism of gentrification is that rich people have more money than poor people and can price them out of housing. When the tastes of the rich align with the assets of a poor neighborhood the tastes of the poor don’t matter. Rich people will outbid them for rent and they’ll have to go live in some other place.

      This is why responses to gentrification are so difficult. Top-down economic responses like California’s Proposition 8 and rent control schemes have some limited effect but are fraught with unintended consequences and encourage people to game the system and reap benefits not really targeted at them; they also become political third-rails that no politician dare touch even to make necessary adjustments (need-based housing subsidies might be better… but that’s really far from what I know about). Community responses often simply target developers, which can counter-productively limit housing supplies and drive rent even higher.

      What works? Making your neighborhood unappealing to the rich. One way is to do what one guy in San Francisco’s Mission District did: encourage the community to vandalize the cars and businesses they associated with yuppie gentrifiers. If you can’t stomach that, unfortunately most of what’s unappealing to the rich is unappealing to the poor, too (some businesses break the mold, but they tend not to be very profitable ones). So you could oppose improvements and investments in your neighborhood, like bike lanes. If that sounds like a desperate and hopeless thing to do, well… that’s gentrification. I don’t exactly think opposing neighborhood improvements is a positive solution to gentrification but I understand why people do it.

  5. Mark B

    They have been working on the block between Rainier Ave. and Seward Park Ave. for about a month now.

    That’s job security.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      It’s a pretty big project, building curbs and sidewalks. The rest of the section is mostly just paint.

      1. Mark B

        It’s not that big of a project. I have been watching during all of the road work going on and I have never seen so much milking of projects like I have seen the last couple of years.

        I have some good pictures of 5 guys standing around a hole watching 1 guy actually working.

        And last year they dug a giant hole at Rainier and Genesee and left it there for weeks.

  6. […] The other street in the area that has seen a large number of traffic deaths is Myrtle/Othello, which is currently undergoing a safer roadway redesign. […]

  7. […] that seem to be placed on top of the neighborhood by the city. A road diet on Othello St last year turned controversial, for example, and the debate over relationship between bike lanes and gentrification is very much […]

  8. […] low-income areas are not always enthused about road safety and bike lane projects on their streets. We saw this with the Othello/Myrtle project, which pointed out how much more the city’s conversation about safe streets needs to be […]

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