Should Seattle follow West Hollywood's lead and install a Pride crosswalk?
by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
Last month, the city council of West Hollywood, California, decided to make a rainbow-painted crosswalk, installed at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards for Los Angeles' annual Pride festival, a permanent fixture of the city.
'[The crosswalks] are critical to the tourists and young Gay and Lesbian people and not-so-young Gay and Lesbian people who are passing through from Iowa or Montana or Kansas,' said WeHo City Councilmember John Duran, who is openly Gay himself. 'They cannot believe that they actually see a municipality where the rainbow colors are on display all year long. It tells them it is a sanctuary. It tells them there is a safe place in America where the LGBT community is celebrated.'
To some, myself included, this development begged the question, Why don't we have something similar here in Seattle? So, for the past several weeks I have been in touch with the community and the city about the possibility of constructing a rainbow crosswalk (or crosswalks) on Capitol Hill. Here's what I've found.
It might be best to start this conversation with a few basic philosophical questions. Capitol Hill is the largest Gayborhood north of the Castro and west of Boystown, but what do we have to show for it? Do we need something to show for it? It's not like people don't know Capitol Hill is Gay. Do they? Important questions to ask ourselves, but let's put it another way.
What does Capitol Hill already have, if anything, that gives the community pride? Perhaps Cal Anderson Park, practically every Hill resident's home away from home during the summer months, named after the city's first openly Gay legislator? Absolutely. Shit, it makes me proud. But is it really visible enough? Do the young people who frequent the park grounds even know who Cal Anderson was? There's no statue of him there, only a small plaque that most people have probably never noticed before.
What about the Space Needle? When the Pride flag flew atop the Needle, one of the city's most iconic images, in 2011, it felt as if the city had become ours. Pride was everywhere. However, it didn't happen this year and there's no guarantee that that will again anytime soon.
While the Space Needle is privately owned and has every right not to fly the rainbow flag, the streets belong to the people that have marched on them and screamed their voices hoarse on them - and a rainbow-painted crosswalk seems an apt way to represent the struggles that have taken place there.
One very important thing to consider is that right now, the community is playing marriage defense. Thousands of LGBT individuals and families have already donated their hard-earned money to Washington United for Marriage, in the effort to Approve Referendum 74 and preserve marriage equality.
Realistically, many people are already short on donation dollars and the Approve R-74 campaign will most certainly need more of them before November. Should we put the crosswalk on hold and focus solely on the marriage campaign? Should we construct the crosswalk as a celebration if we win, or an inspiration to continue the fight if we lose? These are legitimate questions for the community to consider.
'Probably the best way is to pick an existing marked crosswalk, and then if the individual or community organization has some funding available to paint the crosswalk, they can donate that to the Department of Transportation,' said Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen.
Both Rasmussen and City Council President Sally Clark, who contacted me via e-mail, seem to support the idea.
'A lot of community projects have been funded through [a combination of] community work, community donations, and city funds,' said Rasmussen.
The city isn't going to pay the whole cost. Although Rasmussen implied that the city might provide some help, there is no guarantee even of that.
So, how much would we have to raise? According to the West Hollywood Patch website, the approximate cost of temporarily painting the crosswalk in WeHo was $13,000. The cost to upgrade the crosswalk to a permanent fixture (ongoing maintenance included) is $67,364.
But the city of Seattle gives a much lower estimate.
'The cost would be approximately $2,000 per crosswalk to install, so an intersection with four crosswalks would be $8,000,' said Kristen Simpson, acting deputy director of the Traffic Management Division of the Seattle Department of Transportation. Our experience with the type of material we'd use is that it will likely last about five years before needing to be replaced, but that can vary depending on traffic volumes and other variables.'
Why the difference? It could be because the WeHo crosswalk is one solid block of color, while the city has in mind a standard striped model, which would require substantially less paint. Crosswalk paint is expensive. It's designed to last longer than regular paint, be more abrasive (to prevent loss of traction for cars and people), and be more reflective. There are also environmental regulations it must meet. In addition, labor costs are higher in the L.A. area.
One interesting idea I came across is installing an LED light fixture above a crosswalk to project a rainbow image on it, rather than painting it. Presumably, this could require less maintenance and may therefore be cheaper. It would also be something unique to Seattle, setting us apart from WeHo and other cities where temporary rainbow crosswalks have been installed, including Vancouver, B.C., and Tel Aviv.
Either way, if and when the community raises the money, how long would it take to get the work done?
'If the rainbow was put down on the pavement and a there was capacity in the work schedule it would probably be completed within three to four weeks after there was an approved design,' said Mary Rutherford, SDOT's director of traffic management. 'The LED option would take a lot longer. It would require a lengthier design time and the poles and/or mast arm would be special-order items.'
Lastly, where would the crosswalk go? When I asked the community via SGN's Facebook page, I received a variety of responses: Broadway & John, Broadway & Denny, Broadway & Pike, Broadway & Pine, by the Broadway Market, by The Grill on Broadway, and by the new Capitol Hill light-rail station. One respondent said, 'Just do the whole street of Broadway.' Another suggested doing the ends of Broadway as a sort of territory marker.
'The city would consider multiple locations,' said Rutherford.
How will the community ultimately decide? An online poll? A community meeting?
I've heard some safety concerns from community members and elected officials alike. Of course, safety, in an issue like this, should be paramount. A crosswalk absolutely needs to be easily identifiable as what it is, and none of us want to be remembered as the poor schmo who was mowed down in the rainbow crosswalk.
Some fear that a rainbow crosswalk would be unrecognizable as a crosswalk to people who are unfamiliar with the area. Others think it would make the crosswalk more visible, and thus cut down on accidents.
It's hard to say concretely which is true (or truer). Many of the crosswalks on Capitol Hill are quite faded anyway, and most people seem to get around unscathed.
Another fact worth mentioning is that two other Seattle neighborhoods, West Seattle and Wallingford, already have customized crosswalks.
It is also important to note that visibility aside, in the City of Seattle, pedestrians always have the right of way if they are crossing at a corner, whether it's marked as a crosswalk or not.
'If there is a pedestrian on the sidewalk and they're showing they're about to step off the curb or they're about to cross, then vehicles need to stop,' said SPD Detective Renee Witt. 'Drivers should watch to see if the pedestrian makes eye contact or a steps toward the intersection.'
What about the LED idea? Conceivably, if the rainbow posed a visibility issue, the LED light could simply be turned off at any time or during specific hours or daylight conditions. Sounds like a promising solution, but according to the city, it might pose a bigger safety risk.
'We would not want to install an LED light over a crosswalk with an existing signal for safety reasons. Therefore, it would be necessary to install a pole with a mast arm or multiple poles with a span wire to support the LED light,' said Rutherford. 'Either of these installations would be very expensive and would require engineering design. The long-term maintenance cost would probably be less for the LED light but the life-cycle cost for an LED light installation would be more. The city would require the proponents to support the cost of maintenance as well as the cost of installation for both alternatives.'
SOSEA STEPS UP
If the community raises the money for the project, will the city build it?
'The city has the ability to do a project such as the rainbow crosswalk on a reimbursable basis. If a formal request were made, we would look at the work programmed and determine if we have the capacity to do the project,' said Rutherford. 'If we have capacity, we would work with the project proponent on a schedule that would not interfere with our obligations to the public.'
Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea), a newly formed Seattle-based social outreach organization trying to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ and allied communities, has agreed to step up and take the lead on the rainbow crosswalk initiative.
'SOSea will fill out the paperwork required by the city,' said SOSea's founder and director Shaun Knittel. 'We are fortunate to live in a city like Seattle where the option is not only on the table, but city officials are willing to help out every step of the way to ensure that this project sees the light of day.'
Not only is the city willing, but city officials seem genuinely interested. In fact, the concept image included with this story was done of the city's own volition. I didn't ask for it - they just did it.
Knittel reminds SGN readers, 'This is not something that will happen overnight. There are a number of things to factor in when looking at a timeline to get this done, such as weather conditions and funding. The good news is that many people in the community are excited about the rainbow crosswalk project and have already pledged their support. Also, the city saying that, once approved, it could be done in as little as three or four weeks is motivating.'
SOSea says it volunteered to take on the project because 'Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood is the cultural center' of the LGBTQ community.
'There is nothing wrong with feeling a sense of pride in our neighborhood. This is one of those projects that nearly everyone agrees is a good idea. Business owners and Cap Hill residents alike have chimed in on the conversation to voice support,' said Knittel. 'How fast we get this done will also depend on the generosity of donors. But one thing I know to be true is that whenever the LGBTQ and allied communities support something, they do so with the understanding that part of that support is making a donation.'
For now, Knittel says, anyone interested in receiving updates about the rainbow crosswalk project should 'like' Social Outreach Seattle on Facebook, or e-mail SOSea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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