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The Northeast 43rd Street Improvement Project: Creating safe access

The Northeast 43rd Street Improvement Project: Creating safe access

A pavement marking signifies a bike route in front of the U-District Station construction site on August 15, 2020. The new Link light rail station, scheduled to open in 2021, will be accessible from bike and walking paths.

In pre-pandemic circumstances, a project of this scale would have caused considerable commotion, but given the still rather empty sidewalks and streets, the dust from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) project to implement “streetscape and pedestrian improvements” on Northeast 43rd Street between Brooklyn Avenue and 15th Avenue Northeast will likely settle without raising many eyebrows until its completion in Spring 2021.

Construction, along with the related traffic detours and parking restrictions, began Monday Aug. 17.

The subtle groundbreaking of this project marks a significant shift in the overall infrastructure of the U-District and will, as SDOT’s project website notes, create safe access “to the new U District Light Rail station for all modes of travel, whether people are walking, biking, or taking transit to the station.”

The mention of all modes of travel, and the notable exclusion of vehicular traffic, points to the future of the Ave as an increasingly walkable thoroughfare. 

SDOT highlights a vision for “the future of these two blocks” as being built entirely for people who walk and take transit. Although the plan falls short for those who hoped the department would approve the city’s first full pedestrian-priority street in front of a rapid transit station, and thereby “Pedestrianize the Ave,” the chosen plan calls out other safety needs taken into account, such as creating a roadway buffer zone for fire trucks. 

As a sort of compromise mindful of the pedestrian-friendly future of the district, the chosen plan also incorporates a “curbless design in order to focus on comfort and safety for those who walk and other vulnerable users.”

It’s difficult to envision the benefits of a pedestrian-oriented public works project in light of the current events encouraging people to avoid such spaces, but the planning has been ongoing and balances the long-term accessibility needs of the district with the short term concerns of disruption. 

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This project is anticipating Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail extension, which will “transform how people get around the surrounding neighborhood,” and “is projected to serve between 22,000 and 26,000 riders daily by 2042.”

The project will also highlight additional changes in store for the same block, such as the plans underway for twin mixed-use student housing towers above a new University Temple United Methodist Church on Northeast 43rd Street. The approved plans for these towers make note of 43rd as a “green street” and emphasize transit and pedestrian access in lieu of parking and roadway additions.

While the majority of travel to and from the UW campus — the population most impacted by U-District projects — will remain curtailed due to distance learning and office closures throughout the construction process, a return to campus will inevitably be marked by an acceleration of multiple such improvement projects also centered around the U-District station , including additional street paving projects along 43rd as well as 12th Avenue Northeast.

This redesigned corridor is the first among many changes to come that will continue to reshape the look and feel of the Ave and the U-District overall. This project is also among the first for this district to examine multiple approaches to road layout design, in an effort to provide equitable access.

The sort of compromise this plan strikes sets the pace for an array of future redevelopment projects which will dramatically reshape the Ave in the years ahead —  and likely shift the infrastructure in favor of those who walk and take transit.

Reach reporter Austin Van Der Veen at Twitter: @avanderbean

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