Bridging the Divide

Western Avenue and University Street

Harbor Steps, University Street and Western Ave, Seattle, October 22, 2020, HistoryLink photo by David Koch
Harbor Steps, Seattle July 11, 2005, Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (169607)
Mayor Rice, Harbor Steps Park opening, Seattle, Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (174035)
University Street from Alaskan Way, Seattle, 1966-1970, Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (169460)
Map showing horses on University Street incline, Seattle, ca. 1891, Courtesy US Library of Congress (75696663)
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Intersection of Western Avenue and University Street

One of the challenges of Seattle’s waterfront is the steep hill between the central business district and the shoreline. In the early years, horse-drawn wagons and people on foot used Western Avenue to climb the hill, but that required crossing multiple railroad tracks on Railroad Avenue and taking a long, indirect route. Over time, some staircases, like the one at Seneca Street, were built at some of the street ends between Western Avenue and First Avenue to provide direct, if steep, routes.

The first efforts to separate pedestrians from vehicular and train traffic emerged in the 1900s when the city installed wooden overpasses between the sidewalk along the piers and 1st Avenue, on the hilltop. The first overpass appears to have been Marion Street bridge, which stretched from Colman Dock to 1st Avenue. Built in 1912, the Pike Street pedestrian bridge connected the waterfront with the main market building. It was demolished when the Alaskan Way Viaduct was built. In 1915, the Port of Seattle’s new Bell Street Pier opened, with an observatory deck on the roof and a bridge for pedestrians and vehicles over the railroad tracks to 1st Avenue at Bell Street.

Beginning in the 1970s, as part of the efforts to revitalize the waterfront, the city, port, and private developers created new pathways up the hillside. The Pike Street Hillclimb, completed in 1977, provided a pedestrian route between the Pike Place Market on the bluff and the aquarium and Waterfront Park area along Alaskan Way below. The Harbor Steps development opened in 1994 and, like the hillclimb, incorporated retail, seating, and other amenities to create a corridor of connectivity between the waterfront and downtown. The Port of Seattle’s new Bell Street Pier featured overpasses at Bell and Lenora streets when it opened in 1996.

The newest redevelopment plans for the waterfront include the construction of a new stairwell and elevator at Union Street, to complete the connection between 1st Avenue and the waterfront that the staircase between 1st Avenue and Western Avenue has started.

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