Transforming Highway 99: Lessons learned from Shoreline’s Aurora Corridor project

Before and after photos of construction along Shoreline’s Aurora Corridor. (Photos courtesy City of Shoreline)

Part 3 in our series on the planned transformation of Highway 99 through Edmonds. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As the City of Edmonds begins work on transforming its Highway 99 corridor into a more attractive, livable area for both residents and businesses, planners are pointing to the neighboring City of Shoreline as an example of what’s to come.

Shoreline’s three-mile Aurora Corridor project was completed in 2017. The total cost was about $140 million, which included construction of two pedestrian/bicycle bridges over Aurora Avenue, which are part of the interurban Trail. More than 80 percent of the project was funded by federal, state and county dollars.

“A lot of the impetus for the design was safety and beautification,” said Shoreline Economic Development Manager Dan Eernissee.

Those same elements will be a focus of the Highway 99 project through Edmonds, according Edmonds officials. Consultant SJC Alliance, hired by the City of Edmonds in September 2017, is working now to create a plan concept for the two-and-a-quarter-mile Edmonds stretch of Highway 99 that includes wider sidewalks, safer pedestrian crossings and brighter street lighting.

The goal is to identify improvements to be made and a timeline for completing them, environmental documentation and right-of-way costs. Construction will occur in stages, as grant money is identified.

The City of Shoreline followed a similar path with its Aurora Corridor project, starting with design work in 2005, which was completed in four stages and finally finished in 2017.

Motorists navigating the Shoreline section of the highway during that lengthy construction period had to bring an extra dose of patience, and some Aurora Corridor business owners also saw their share of challenges.

Grinders Hot Sands made it through the Aurora Corridor construction, but not before some trying moments. (Photo by Teresa Wippel)

One of those businesses affected was Grinders Hot Sands, located in the 19800 block just south of the Snohomish-King County line. Mitch Gilbert in 2014 bemoaned the impact of construction on his popular sandwich shop. “I don’t know how we’re going to survive this,” he told The Seattle Times.

Turns out that Grinders — now under new ownership — did survive. “There were some crazy days,” recalled Jackie Olson, who along with a business partner purchased the sandwich shop from Gilbert in June 2015. She remembers the time when several customers’ cars were literally stuck in the parking lot after a construction crew removed a temporary ramp while diners were still in the restaurant. “It was an hour and a half process just to get their cars out,” she said.

Olson said that parking has always been an issue for Grinders. Construction didn’t help that as the restaurant lost two spaces – plus street parking — as a result of the project. She’s also not sure that the improved look of the highway really matters to business owners or customers. “It’s Aurora,” she said. “I haven’t seen businesses turn over into higher-end business just because the street’s nicer.”

“Traffic flow is much nicer, definitely safer for pedestrians,” Grinders owner Jackie Olson says. (Photo by Teresa Wippel)

However, she’s positive about one aspect of the project: improved access for customers, thanks to left-turn and u-turn pockets.

“Traffic flow is much nicer, definitely safer for pedestrians,” Olson said.

When the project was underway, Olson recalled talking with Dan Dyckman, who owns Darrell’s Tavern about a mile south of Grinders. “They had already completed that stretch and he told me, it’ll be a lot nicer when it’s finished,” Olson said. “So I just remember holding that in my mind.”

“He said the access part is what is lovely and I find that to be true as somebody who drives up and down the street now — being able to make those u-turns to get better access,” Olson said.

Shoreline’s Eernissee said that the city “bent over backwards” to assist businesses that were disrupted during construction.

“The solid businesses generally survive,” Eernissee said. “It’s the marginal businesses that it doesn’t take much to upset the apple cart. They are already off balance.”

The City of Shoreline “bent over backwards” to assist businesses impacted by Aurora Corridor construction, City Manager Dan Eernissee says. (Photo by Steven H. Robinson/Shoreline Area News)

Still, he said, a key component to helping businesses get through construction is receiving support from the property owner, who often is leasing space to the affected tenant. He noted that the City of Shoreline did compensate property owners for disruption during the Aurora Corridor project, but the city had no control over whether that compensation got to tenants struggling to overcome the impacts of construction. Out-of-state property owners, in particular, “didn’t comprehend how disruptive the project was,” Eernissee said.

“I don’t think there are many things that we would do differently,” Eernissee said of the project. One lesson learned, he said, was unexpected maintenance issues associated with landscaping of medians “in some places where there’s a narrow space between curbs and can’t be easily weeded.”

As Edmonds begins its planning work for Highway 99, Eernissee cautioned residents to be realistic about the end result of the project. “Don’t think these improvements are going to make a walkable condition like downtown Edmonds,” he said. “The road is going to be too wide. You’ve got the highway going down the middle and space on either side.”

The goal, he said, is to create “a triple non-threat: It’s not threatening to vehicles, it’s not threatening to bikers and it’s not threatening to pedestrians.”

The City of Edmonds installed lanterns and lighting along Highway 99’s International District in 2013.

Jae Han, who owns Boo Han Market in Edmonds’ International District, said he is looking forward to the changes that Highway 99 redevelopment will bring, including more international businesses and customers. He also said he hopes that redevelopment of the area will include more distinctive branding  — in addition to the red lanterns installed several years ago — that tells people “Hey, this is an International District.”

As the highway redevelops to accommodate new businesses and a more pedestrian-friendly environment, Han said he envisions that his store will “evolve” as well.

“I’m very responsive to the business environment and our customer community,” Han said.

Edmonds resident Robert Elder, who manages a condominium complex near Ranch 99 Market, said it would be nice if the city would invest in the overall appearance of the Highway 99 neighborhood so residents feel more connected to Edmonds.

Elder pointed to the fact that that Highway 99 automobile dealerships bring a significant amount of tax revenue into the city, but residents living in nearby neighborhoods don’t always see the benefits of those city tax dollars.

“Where are our flower baskets?” Elder asked, referring to the brightly colored flowers that beautify downtown Edmonds each spring and summer. “There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood, when they saw the new median go up in front of Ranch 99 Market, they thought the city was probably going to put plants in it,” said Elder, referring to the city’s project to complete the missing link of 228th Street Southwest from Mountlake Terrace to Edmonds across Highway 99. “But they just threw some concrete in it and called it good.”

Even an occasional banner in Highway 99 neighborhoods announcing downtown Edmonds fairs and festivals would encourage Highway 99-area residents to feel like they are part of the city, Elder said.

Edmonds has many volunteers who help with local projects, Elder acknowledged, but their focus is on downtown Edmonds and the Bowl area. “They are again forgetting about us on ‘this side of the tracks’ when we are Edmonds residents,” he said.

Edmonds City Councilmembers Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, right, and Kristiana Johnson cut the ribbon for the 228th Street project. Highway 99 “needs more attention,” Fraley-Monillas said.

“Highway 99 is such an important neighborhood and it needs more attention,” Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said shortly after the Highway 99 plan was approved. “The new plan and code really sets a vision that will help bring things to the next level. I’m excited about opportunities for affordable housing and great places here.”

When it comes to Highway 99 housing, Shoreline’s Dan Eernissee advised that it’s also important to ensure that any future Highway 99 residential development is integrated into existing neighborhoods, something that has been a challenge so far for Shoreline, he said.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things we haven’t done well,” Eernissee said.

Shoreline has 14 distinct neighborhoods, but none of them includes residential located along Aurora, he said. “Do we just say they’re unique and make them their own neighborhood?” he asked. “Or do we tell the neighborhoods, ‘you need to reach out to those people and figure out how to integrate.”

Part of the issue, he said, is that “multifamily dwellers are on a different page than the single-family homeowners and it becomes an ‘us and them.’ They are not owners, they are renters.

“We’ve got to get over that a little bit. There’s a difference between transient renters and long-term renters,” he added.

Shoreline’s Malmo Apartments, which opened in 2015 at North 152nd Street near Aurora, is an example of a multifamily housing development that offers benefits to the surrounding neighborhood — such as a rooftop garden for meetings, Shoreline Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee said. (Photo by Steven H. Robinson/Shoreline Area News)

Multifamily developments bring “lots of benefits” to offer a neighborhood, Eernissee said. Most have professional management associations, which have money to give to neighborhood groups. Property managers can easily reach out to apartment dwellers via email. And they can even offer meeting space.

Highway improvements were “the hardware” of the Aurora Corridor Project, Eernissee said. Neighborhood integration is “the software.”

“How do we make it a healthy experience? How do we bring what’s great about Shoreline to all the people who live along Aurora in multifamily (housing)?” he said.

A key element of the Aurora Corridor project was the development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes, which offer service from Shoreline to downtown Seattle via King County Metro’s RapidRide E Line. Fortunately for Edmonds, those dedicated bus lanes already exist, with Community Transit Swift buses offering service between Shoreline’s Aurora Village Transit Center and Everett.

“Transit’s becoming great on 99 with the Swift line,” said Patrick Doherty, director of Economic Development and Community Services for the City of Edmonds. What’s needed now, he said, are safety improvements to ensure that “people are not afraid to use it to get to that transit.”

“You don’t want to have them walking along a curb-less, sidewalk-less place with buses going by that splash them,” Doherty said.

Examples of improvements include replacing the highway’s center-turn lanes with a median and installing additional signalized crosswalks so that pedestrians have more frequent places to safely cross the roadway.

“The double left turns become a problem and a safety issue,” Doherty said. As traffic volumes on Highway 99 have increased, “there are fewer and fewer breaks,” he said. “There’s a lot of illegal turning.”

Making the area more friendly for bus riders also dovetails with the Edmonds Highway 99 plan goal of encouraging more transit-oriented development, where people living or working nearby can easily use transit. The plan calls for both economic development and housing, especially affordable housing, in the area. Some of this will be “mixed use,” where businesses are on a prominent part of the site and residences are above the business or located on another part of the site.

While most of that housing will be what planners like to describe as “workforce housing” — affordable to those making 60 to 80 percent of area median income – there is also a plan for at least one project to accommodate those who are described as low-income. And it just so happens it is modeled after an existing project — Ronald Commons — in Shoreline.

Edmonds Lutheran Church is planning low-income housing for vacant property it owns to the east of the church building, seen at right in this Google Earth photo. To the left of the church is 84th Avenue West.

The housing project is being spearheaded by Edmonds Lutheran Church, which is located just off Highway 99 at 84th Avenue West, across the street from the Aurora Marketplace shopping center. The church for years has envisioned the idea of such a place on now-vacant church property located east of the main building. They have moved forward recently because the recent Highway 99 rezoning will accommodate the project, said Edmonds Lutheran Church Pastor Julie Josund. (Look for more on the church’s plans in Part 5 of our series.)

Bill Anderson, a long-time parishioner who is working on the church’s housing plan, said Shoreline’s efforts to transform its section of Highway 99 has transformed his attitude about what the highway could become.

“I think what Shoreline has done is fantastic,” Anderson said. “It really could change what we have into something relatively attractive.”

 — By Teresa Wippel with reporting from Thomas Fairchild

  1. Teresa, Thanks for your excellent three-part series on Hwy 99’s history and future. It helps me put the proposed multi-year undertaking into context. You did a great job of getting reactions from Shoreline residents and planners to that city’s lengthy and messy makeover. In other words, it will reduce traffic accidents and attractiveness but don’t expect miracles: too bad about small businesses during construction, and know going into this that thorny issues will remain, such as crime and trying to integrate multi-unit housing fortresses into a “neighborhood. ” Luckily for us, the Edmonds work should not be as disruptive as the Shoreline project. Woe to those living north of us who will still need to make their way through during construction. Overall, it’s probably worth doing, and I hope people living along and using the corridor feel safer and more connected to Edmonds.

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