Completing a missing link – after many years East Howe Street Steps and Plaza cross the finish line

Folks enjoying the East Howe Steps Plaza opening May 7, 2023. Photo by Peter Haley

Five-year old Charlotte Williams who cut the ribbon at the East Howe Steps Plaza opening May 7 was just a twinkle in her mother’s eye when work for the plaza was happening. Her mother, Ariah Kidder, was on the project’s Eastlake neighborhood steering committee. In fact, Charlotte could even be said to have been a far-off twinkle in her grandmother’s eye.

little girl cutting ribbon
Charlotte cuts the ribbon. Photo by Curt Milton

Work for the plaza began over three decades ago when Eastlake resident Brian Ramey rallied the neighborhood in 1986 via a paragraph in a mimeographed two-page, front and back, Eastlake News newsletter, to fight off the city’s plans for mini-warehouses under I-5 where Colonnade Park now is. “Can you imagine the traffic in and out of there,” said Ramey in a telephone interview. “We killed it.”

Instead of mini warehouses, the neighborhood got Colonnade Park and a public stairway connecting Eastlake Avenue to the historic Howe Street stairs up Capitol Hill.

Ramey was also thinking about the right of way of East Howe Street between Eastlake and Fairview Avenues that was nonexistent to the public. Instead, it was blocked by parking lots, used by local businesses – a Mexican restaurant on Eastlake Avenue and offices on Fairview Avenue. There was nothing that connected the two avenues to the lake although technically a public right of way ran right through them. Why not extend the stairway there?

It was an idea that gradually snowballed over the years and decades.

As Tom Kipp, a former member of the “East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza Project” as it was known in 2014 (the group would later drop “Gateway”) wrote in the Winter 2014 Eastlake News, “Longtime Eastlake resident Brian Ramey has been working with his neighbors to complete the connection between Lake Union and Capitol Hill since the early 1980s, when he and other Eastlake residents convinced the City and State Department of Transportation not to construct  a proposed 1500-unit mini warehouse building beneath the Interstate 5 freeway overpass, where Colonnade Park is now located.

“Mr. Ramey subsequently conceived the idea of a public stairway and plaza that would reclaim and transform over 9,000 square feet of city property in the specified section of the East Howe Street Right-of-Way (an area which is 30 feet wide and approximately 100 yards long, fanning out dramatically as it approaches Fairview Avenue East and the Cheshiahud Loop Trail) and has been working with private developers in pursuit of that goal.”

By the second decade of the millennium developers were eying Eastlake Avenue as zoning changed allowing for more height and density. With the support of the Eastlake Community Council, Ramey’s group, the Lake Union Neighborhood Council (which became known as the EHSP Steering Committee), created especially to work on the right-of-way project, won a Department of Neighborhoods grant for $25K to begin various design concepts of the East Howe Steps Gateway Plaza. The group would receive two more grants – a $25K site survey grant and a $50K design grant. All the grants required a neighborhood match in either cash funding or volunteer hours.

That winter of 2014 marked the beginning of three public open houses for plaza design at TOPS Seward School (Dec. 11, 2014, Feb. 5 and Mar. 19, 2015) with assistance from the design firm HBB Landscape Architecture, and countless steering committee meetings.

Ramey left the neighborhood during that time to live on an island ranch near Shelton, Wash. Another longtime Eastlake resident Ron Endlich became steering committee chair.

By 2016 initial design plans were in place, half the battle, but it had taken longer than volunteers expected. Still, it appeared the steps and plaza were just around the corner. By September the group received a $100K final design and construction grant (that would also require a neighborhood match), and the steering committee held an impromptu celebration on the site September 10 with coffee, pastries, information, and tours.

The steering committee celebrates a $100 construction grant in 2016. Left to right: Mary Hansen, Ron Endlich, Linda Furney, Ariah Kidder, Judy Jopling, Tom Kipp, Leslie Silverman.

But it was a matter of hurry up and wait again. Construction kept getting pushed out as buildings on Eastlake Avenue and on Fairview, either side of the Howe Street right of way, had to be completed first before any work on steps or plaza could happen.

two buildings On Eastlake Ave. and on either side of E. Howe street under construction
2016 Construction on Eastlake Avenue and either side of the E. Howe Street right of way.

Endlich, who is a veteran of public works, having worked for Sound Transit (where he has been involved in all phases of light rail planning, engineering, and construction) was perhaps uniquely qualified to take the project the distance when the finish line looked impossible. The numerous bureaucratic hoops, negotiations, and construction delays didn’t faze him.

It wasn’t until March 2019, three years after getting the $100K construction grant, that the East Howe stairway between Eastlake and Fairview Avenues softly opened to the public. The East Howe Steps apartments to the north on Eastlake Avenue completed the top half of the stairs. Alexandria Life Science building to the south on Fairview installed the bottom half and the landscaping. For both developers, their portion of stairway was part of the city’s street improvement permit requirement.

In the meantime, the steering committee also worked with the city and the owners of the office building to the north at 1910 Fairview Avenue. They reached an innovative public/private partnership resulting in a memorandum of agreement, signed September 2018. The Fairview property owners committed $500,000 to fund the community’s plaza construction at the bottom of the stairs with the approval of a permit parking agreement. The plaza was slated to be completed along with the stairway but was slowed down by a complicated permit approval process. And then the pandemic hit. The plaza would have to wait.

But once the plaza ground broke in early 2023, construction happened lightning fast. The opening was earlier than expected. Instead of summer it was late spring that five-year old Charlotte cut the ribbon to officially open the plaza and the new stairway.

Two people
Leaders of the Little Steppers, who climbed to Eastlake Avenue, and Big Steppers, who climbed to the top of Capitol Hill. Photo by Leslie Silverman

About 40 community members and city representatives were at the opening, including City Council Member Alex Pedersen, who was instrumental in getting the project through the city permitting processes, and Laura Jenkins, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Department of Neighborhoods, who had been attending meetings in Eastlake for years. The EHSP steering committee members Detra Segar, Leslie Silverman and Mary Hansen (in addition to Ron Endlich and Ariah Kidder) were there. Authors Jake and Cathy Jaramillo who have written a guide to Seattle Stairways also attended.

Missing was Brian Ramey. Committee members had tried contacting him without luck. But when I reached him, he was happy to hear the steps and plaza were completed. “I’d lost track of it,” he laughed. Looking back on the process, “It was a fight,” he sighed without saying much more and changing metaphors, “you just have to keep on cooking.”

After the ribbon cutting event, Endlich added “I’m very happy with how the plaza project finally turned out. I would like to thank past and present members of the steering committee for their long-term commitment to help see this complicated project to its completion. I hope it inspires other Eastlake residents to find ways of working together to improve our neighborhood.”

Ron Endlich, Detra Segar (Eastlake Community Council president) and Alex Pedersen all said a few words at the ribbon cutting; portions of their speeches are captured in this fun video:

Appropriately people climbed the stairs, some all the way to the top of Capitol Hill, being awarded thereafter with a downhill journey.

Written by Judy Smith

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