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The bitter politics of bike lanes and parking in Northeast Seattle

caption: Protesters wave signs opposing Seattle Department of Transportation plan to eliminate parking in favor of bike lanes on 35th ave NE.
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Protesters wave signs opposing Seattle Department of Transportation plan to eliminate parking in favor of bike lanes on 35th ave NE.
KUOW / Amy Radil

The ugly battle over bike lanes in Northeast Seattle could be a sign of things to come in this year's Seattle City Council races.

At issue: a city plan to build bike lanes along 35th Avenue Northeast in the Wedgewood area, including some separated lanes.

The most controversial part calls for some on-street parking to be removed along one side of the street.

That angered some local businesses and residents, including Nancy Cole, who used to own the Shampoo Bar and Organic Salon on 35th.

Cole said a lot of her customers were from outside the neighborhood. “If there’s no parking, people won’t come,” she said.

Cole worried her business could not survive the disruption on top of increasing rent, so she decided to just close shop rather than fight city hall.

Cole said getting more people out of their cars is important to save the environment, but “you have to go about it in a way that isn’t cutting off somebody’s foot.”

Cyclist and resident Chris Priest is on the other side of this debate. He said the improvements are all about safety.

“We want kids to be safe,” he said. Priest also thinks the changes would make this stretch of road “more fun to walk on, more fun to bike on.”

For Priest, the parking issue is a red herring. He said multiple studies by the Seattle Department of Transportation show most of the current parking isn’t being used, which means there’s more than enough to accommodate some new bike lanes.

But that data didn’t persuade some business owners and residents. And things started to go south.

The issue got so heated that at one point there was a confrontation at an informational event with people “shoving and pushing each other around,” Priest said. Opponents of the road changes dispute this account, but say there was "yelling."

Last summer a road construction worker told police he found fireworks planted in equipment, and that he had been verbally “abused” by people walking by the job site.

Rob Johnson, who represents this part of Northeast Seattle on the City Council, claims he received "death threats" because he supports the project. According to The Seattle Times, Johnson later clarified that he was talking about a Twitter message that referred to him as "Former CM Johnson...dead man walking," and another comment posted to NextDoor about homelessness policy.

Nevertheless, at that point last year the city hired a mediator to try to ease tensions, at a cost of $14,000. The results of that process are expected to be released soon.

Last week Johnson announced he'll be stepping down before the end of his term as representative of the council’s District 4.

A crowd of candidates have jumped into the race to replace him.

One is Alex Pedersen, former aide to former City Councilmember Tim Burgess. Many of those opposed to the changes along 35th see Pedersen as their ally.

In a written statement he told KUOW: "It’s crystal clear the residents and businesses feel they haven't been heard by the City Council.”

A similar message is being heard on conservative talk radio. KIRO host Dori Monson said, "There's something going in Seattle right now that kinda illustrates how disconnected people feel from government."

On the other side of this debate the District 4 candidates include Emily Myers, a labor organizer and scientist. Myers said business owners and residents on all sides of this dispute need to be heard, including families and seniors who want to see the new safety improvements.

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