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June 30, 2022

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Seattle residents painted their own crosswalk. The city scraped it off

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SEATTLE — When the crosswalk at 83rd and Greenwood showed up last September, it didn’t look like all the others. Rather than the piano key pattern used by the Seattle Department of Transportation — staccato bars of white paint, separated in pairs of two — this one was a series of large, evenly spaced white blocks.

It didn’t look like the others because this crossing was painted in the middle of the night, without city approval. By whom is unclear; no one’s claimed credit and those who may have an inkling either can’t or won’t say.

While its beginnings are unknown, its ends are not: SDOT scraped the guerrilla crosswalk off the street earlier this month.

Spokesperson for SDOT, Ethan Bergerson, said the city plans to install a permanent crossing there, which is part of a designated bike route to and from Green Lake. It will include signage and traffic signals, and installation should begin in the next several months, he said.

But residents of Greenwood say they’ve been told for years now a crossing was coming but have yet to see any progress. It was originally supposed to be built in 2021, but delays related to COVID-19 and the supply chain, as well as labor being diverted to the West Seattle Bridge, pushed it down the road. It’s for this reason that, while he doesn’t love individuals bypassing community input and had his own questions about the crosswalk’s safety, Greenwood resident Rob Fellows can understand why someone would take matters into their own hands.

“It’s impatience,” he said. “It’s a form of activism — let’s get this thing going, let’s change the city’s priorities. It’s well meaning. The people who put it out there were trying to do something good for the neighborhood, I don’t have any question about that.”

There’s a name for when community members make unsanctioned changes to city-owned streets: “tactical urbanism.”

“Tactical urbanism to me is essentially what a fed-up citizenry takes into their own hands when it comes to their own safety on their streets and sidewalks,” said Ben Scott, a Greenwood resident who’s documented the saga of the 83rd Avenue crosswalk.

Acts of tactical urbanism pop up occasionally in Seattle. A similar crosswalk appeared in South Seattle sometime in the summer of 2020. Clara Cantor, a community organizer with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways noticed it on walks with her newborn. A year later, that, too, was scratched off, with SDOT telling her it didn’t meet city specifications.

Forrest Baum, an environmental studies student at the University of Washington who’s involved with Greenwood-Phinney Greenways, pointed to another form of tactical urbanism: the large concrete blocks businesses have laid in Ballard and near the Ship Canal to keep people living in RVs from parking long-term.

Los Angeles had its own version of the Greenwood episode as well; a group painted four crosswalks at an intersection before the Los Angeles Department of Transportation removed them.

The intersection at 83rd is in the heart of Greenwood, next to Coyle’s Bakeshop. It’s also part of a neighborhood greenway — a route labeled for bicyclists — following 83rd from Green Lake to First Avenue Northwest.

People cross at 83rd whether there’s a crosswalk or not, said Scott, but when one arrived in September, he said cars seemed to slow in a way they hadn’t before and no longer blocked the curb ramp as they dashed into Coyle’s for a pastry.

“It was one of those things that, when it popped up, a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, great, how exciting that that’s here,’ “ said Ryan DiRaimo, an architect and housing advocate who lives in the area. “That’s what I thought was really intriguing about it, but at the same time I wondered when they would scrape it off.”

SDOT built a crosswalk on 84th, one block to the north, but Scott said that crossing is illogical for bike riders following the 83rd route.

“The suggestion that you should use a different crossing than the one that makes sense for your path is one that we ascribe to pedestrians and bikers only,” he said.

Baum said his kindergartner has begun riding his bike recently. Baum liked that the crosswalk could slow traffic through Greenwood. “I thought it was really useful as far as someone who’s walked across there and biked that way,” he said.

But Fellows, who works in transportation and supports putting a crosswalk at the intersection, had concerns that this one may create safety issues. “The paint isn’t reflective, there’s no stop signs, there’s no notice to drivers that things are going to be different there,” he said.

There were likely liability concerns as well, he said. “If you’re a traffic person, you spend half your life in tort claim court.”

The life span of the crosswalk was roughly eight months. Bergerson with SDOT said it didn’t meet the department’s standards but said the installation of traffic signals should begin this year. “We’re working to get the word out to the public,” he said. It won’t arrive tomorrow, he added. “It just takes some time.”

Baum said he wouldn’t have minded its removal if it had been immediately paired with a specific plan for it replacement. Absent that, “even though it’s this sneaky tactical thing, I think taking away something that people feel is an asset to the community is going to rub some people the wrong way,” he said.

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