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How to Build a Bridge

Lucile Bridge

From the west slope of Beacon Hill, the Lucile Street Bridge runs under Interstate 5 and dives in a massive U over the railroad tracks at the base of the hill, delivering cars, bicycles, and pedestrians onto the streets of Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. Passing over it, the bridge registers as nothing more than infrastructure; interchangeable with any other stretch of cement that gets a person one place to another.

But some thirty-five years ago, there were people who lived and worked nearby who were passionate about the bridge -- they struggled, and against considerable odds willed it into existence. This is the story of what they had to do.

In 1904 the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific Railroads built a temporary wooden structure over the railroad tracks on Lucile Street. Built with two ninety-degree turns to reduce the steepness of the span, the bridge was meant for car and pedestrian traffic. By the mid-1970s the bridge was nearing the end of its useful life. 

In August of 1976, the city and the two railroads commissioned a study to determine what should be done. Consistent with the railroads’ desire to spend no more money on the bridge, the study concluded that it should remain intact, but closed to auto traffic. Georgetown residents seethed when they got word that the railroads were going back on their decades-old promise to replace the temporary structure and they were ready for a fight.

In 1975, Jim Diers, a recent college graduate from Ohio arrived in Seattle with a sense of purpose -- to improve the lives of regular people. He joined up with a new group called the South End Seattle Community Organization (SESCO) which was organizing residents to take on the most important problems faced by their neglected neighborhoods.

In his first report on the neighborhood he had been assigned, Diers wrote “Georgetown is going industrial, but nearly 2,500 people still live amidst new industrial structures. Except for some younger transients, the residents are primarily elderly homeowners who have spent their lives in the area and intend to die there.”[1] Of the issues that residents raised with Diers, the bridge was one of the most pressing as it was one of the few remaining links between Beacon Hill and Georgetown after Interstate 5 was completed in 1968.

Save Our Bridge was the original name the residents gave their group. According to Diers, “because S.O.B. gave some the mistaken impression that we favored keeping the present structure,” they renamed it the Lucile Street Bridge Committee (LSBC).[2] It was assembled from many existing groups that were active in the community, including St. George’s Parish, Active Georgetown Seniors, Maple Hill Neighbors, and the Aeromechanic’s Union.[3]

On November 6, the LSBC organized a march from Georgetown to Cleveland High School where a hearing on the fate of the bridge was scheduled. Led by an 82 year old grandma, they marched up the bridge carrying signs with slogans like “City Council, what are your RR ties?” and “No More Studies”. The spectacle of more than 400 people - children is soccer uniforms, elderly Georgetown residents, and local politicians -- crossing a 72 year old wooden bridge that had been deemed unsafe for vehicles weighing more than 3 tons did not fail to make an impression.

In the school auditorium, the Seattle Banjo Club entertained the crowd with their renditions of “Lucile St. Bridge is Falling Down” and “We’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and residents and business owners of all stripes spoke out in favor of replacing the bridge. The collection taken up that night totalled $168.53; $100 of which was donated by real estate magnate Jack Benaroya.

A month later, some 250 residents, including representatives from 23 different South Seattle community groups, overwhelmed a City Council Transportation subcommittee meeting with a well-orchestrated, two-hour presentation. Police and fire officials testified that the loss of the bridge would mean increased emergency response times and strongly endorsed the replacement option.[4] The LSBC presented George Benson, chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, with a petition supporting the rebuild signed by more than 2,300 residents.

“I’ve never felt as though I stood at the end of a cannon barrel before, but I feel that way now,” said the railroad’s consultant when he went before the crowd to present his firm’s findings.  Amidst a chorus of catcalls, he explained to them that “The bridge is strongly needed from a sociological standpoint and a pedestrian and bicycle standpoint, but from a technical, cost-benefit standpoint, it’s not feasible to replace it.”[5]

Bob Medina, an LSBC leader, read the railroad’s recommendation and asked the crowd to vote by a show of hands whether they favored it. Not one hand went up. He then asked for a vote on the replacement proposal that his group had prepared. Every hand in the room was raised except those of representatives of the railroads, the Engineering Department, and Transportation. Medina turned to Councilman Benson and asked if he would support it. Benson struggled to answer and Medina was happy to help: “A simple ‘yes’ will do!”[6]

That “yes” came less than a month later when in 1977 the City Council passed a resolution requiring the railroads to match federal money to build a new bridge built for vehicle and pedestrian traffic.  The residents of Georgetown had won.

The day before the council vote, the activists held a press conference in Councilman Benson’s office where they presented him with a rusty nut from the bridge and a note that read: ‘This paperweight was found lying under the bridge and testifies to the deteriorated condition of the 73 year old temporary structure. We hope that you will place it on top of the other issues on your desk.” [7]

The estimated completion date was September 1979. The project was now in the hands of the city, state, and federal bureaucracies, each with its own interests and “proper channels.” By September, the city Engineering Department had not, as promised, signed agreements with the railroads and with the consultant for the preliminary design of the bridge. They said they needed more time.[8]

On October 6, the Lucile Sreet. Bridge Committee called the television stations down to South Seattle and staged an inspection of the old bridge. They sent a report detailing the needed repairs to the Engineering Department, which were made in a month.

The Bridge Committee called its own unofficial public hearing on October 13, which was attended by 150 people along with councilman Benson and two city engineers. The program included a skit entitled “The Snails” about the pace of officials in the building of the new bridge. Organizers presented the city engineers with “The Fast Mover Award,” a ceramic snail mounted on a trophy pedestal, to take to their boss”[9]

As relentless as the residents could be, city officials saw in them a credible partner in the bridge project. Facing difficult choices during the design phase, the Engineering department put the decision to the LSBC, who ultimately voted to wait a little longer for their preferred design - a wider roadway with bigger sidewalks.[10]

At the end of April, 1980, two weeks before the bridge project was to be sent out for bid, the city announced that, due to a cut in federal highway funds, construction would be delayed indefinitely. In May of 1980, the Seattle Times ran an Op Ed titled “City Hall Breaks Promise, Shuns South End (Again).”[11] Mayor Royer and several city council members responded with their own Op Ed, which closed with the emphatic statement: “The Lucile Street Bridge will be built.”[12]

On the evening of July 16, 1982, residents of Georgetown were joined by Mayor Royer and a delegation of city council members and residents for the ribbon cutting at the intersection of Airport Way South and Corson Avenue South. Echoing the original demonstration six years earlier that kicked off their campaign, the neighbors marched from the top to the bottom of their new bridge.

The new Lucile Street Bridge was built for $2.8 million; with the federal government paying 80 percent, the railroads paying the remainder, and city responsible for ongoing maintenance costs. Far from a piece of anonymous infrastructure, the residents of Georgetown viewed the bridge as a vital feature of their neighborhood, and had taken a stand in deciding its future.

If there is a lesson in the Lucile Street Bridge campaign, it is that petitioning powerful institutions is not enough. The vast majority of Lucile Street Bridge Committee’s work came after the emotional climax of the city and the railroads reversing their original plan and agreeing to replace the bridge. Were it not for the five years of vigilance that came after the original agreement to rebuild -- letter-writing campaigns, meetings, press events, marches -- the Lucile Street Bridge would likely not exist today.

This model of local initiative and government-citizen participation was institutionalized in Seattle when Jim Diers, who had stood with the residents of Georgetown, became the first Director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods in 1988.

 


[1] Jim Diers, SESCO Newsletter, Volume 1976 #7, p4

[2] Letter to supporters of the Lucile Street Bridge Committee, late nov, 1976

[3] Jim Diers, e-mail, 5/3/2011

[4] Seattle Times, “Rally in Support of new Lucile St. Bridge set,” 11/3/76

[5] “Community Turns out for Lucile St. Bridge,” SDJ 11/10/76

[6] SESCO newsletter, 12/15/76

[7] SESCO Newsletter, January 27, Vol. 1977 #1

[8] SESCO newsletter, 9/16, 1977, volume 1977 Number 7

[9] SESCO newsletter, Nov 3, 1977 - Vol. 1977 Number 8

[10] Seattle Times, “Community Panel Resolves Lucile Street span question,” 4/7/79

[11] Seattle Times, “City Hall Breaks Promise, Shuns South End (Again),” 5/2/1980

[12] Seattle Times, “Lucile Street Bridge is Coming,” 6/6/1980