Our Orthogonal Onion: What kind of urban plan is that?

Historians of urban planning like to divide cities into two primary groups.  The first has streets laid out in an orthogonal grid with the streets at right angles to one another just as the Romans did.  The second group describes urban plans as onions with cities growing out organically like onions from a founding center.  Its Roman roots notwithstanding, Paris is an example that comes immediately to mind.

No one would say that Seattle and our Queen Anne streets resemble the rings of an onion, but they sure seem to have been randomly organized.  We’ve got simple grids that don’t line up.  We’ve got military roads like Dexter Avenue that skedaddle all over the place, and diagonal trails such as Gilman Drive that appears to meander to avoid the hills.  We have curvy streetcar lines that blend street names.  There is a randomness to our streets that defies orthogonal reason.

The explanations for this randomness are many.  Wild west platting is one while trolley routes, military roads, waterways, stairs and pioneer rivalries are others.

Seattle’s 1853 street layout fight is well-known.  Arthur Denny and Carson Boren wanted the grid to follow the curve of Elliott Bay’s shoreline.  Dr. David ‘Doc’ Maynard wanted it to follow compass lines.  When they couldn’t agree, the three pioneers went ahead and laid their land out however they damn pleased.

As Denny, an adamant opponent of the use of alcohol, noted in his memoir:

It was found that the doctor, who occasionally stimulated a little, that day had taken enough to cause him to feel that he was not only monarch of all that he surveyed, but what Boren and I had surveyed as well.

The irony of Arthur’s sobering comment is that in the 1930’s the city determined that Denny had platted his streets in violation of the law under which the original land claims were filed.  Arthur’s brother David obeyed the law.  His claim  — which includes much of Queen Anne, upper and lower, north side of Denny Way (named for David, who also opposed using alcohol — lines up with true north, as do all the plats in King County except those downtown bits that follow the shoreline.

My house is in Blewett’s Second Addition on 1st Ave. N.  It documents Seattle’s underlying do-whatever-you-damn-please planning Gestalt that lasted until at least 1876.  (See:  Myra Phelps, A Narrative History of the Seattle Engineering Department, 1978).   In fact, until that time the only rule seems to have been the federal one Arthur Denny violated.

I assume that Edward and Carrie Blewett, real estate investors, are the Blewett mentioned in my deed are  who divided up most of the east side of Queen Anne hill.  When you roam the neighborhood east of 1st Ave. N., you notice that the Blewett couple chose to omit alleys from their plat.  We can only speculate why but either they needed extra room to accommodate a couple of named streets (Warren and Nob Hill) or simply figured they could sell more land if they didn’t set aside space for alleys.  Whatever their reasons, they didn’t work for the folks who developed the west side of First Avenue North and all the plats stretching west to 10th Avenue W.  They all have alleys (I know. I know. Queen Anne Park has none.) and don’t line up with the Blewett grid.

Looking north at the still unpaved alley between 1st N. and Queen Anne Ave.

You can read the difference in plat design at the intersection nearest our house where Newton St. hits 1st North.  Although Newton looks like it tees there, it really extends to the property line of the houses after Newton’s right of way crosses 1st North.  We know that the right of way crosses to the west side of the sidewalk because of the sidewalk stubs that run from the curb.  Until the City added No Parking signs in early August, the short stretch of the street was a mini gold mine where folks who inadvertently parked along the sidewalk stubs were cited for blocking the intersection and won, therefore, $40.00 parking tickets.

Looking west where Newton tees at 1st N. Note the sidewalk stubs.


In Queen Anne, geography and the need to grade the route for those the streetcars climbing the hill added to our confusion.  Taylor abandons the grid at Lee and then swerves across the hill to Fifth Avenue North at Trolley Hill Park.  You’d think the strange curve where Queen Anne Avenue almost tees at Galer was drawn to accommodate the streetcar, but I think it simply marks the strange intersection of four randomly designed plats.  The northern end of Dexter where that street sweeps under the George Washington Memorial (Aurora) Bridge may be another streetcar adjustment, but it may also reflect another important aspect of street planning in our neighborhood.

Dexter was laid out by the U.S. Army as part of the Military Road that began in Steilacoom and that was supposed to terminate in Bellingham.  Its curve under the Aurora Bridge may have been created to bring the road down to the narrow neck of Ross Creek where it crossed Lake Union’s outlet to the sea and may have had nothing to do with the streetcar line.  I think it could be a combination of the two explanations.

The surrounding waterways also contribute to the zaniness of Queen Anne’s unruly streets.  Westlake Avenue originally followed the shoreline on trestles, and almost no streets run straight through down the slopes above Lake Union.  The shoreline that ran through the mud flats north of Smith’s Cove didn’t get a real road until 1923.  Along the bluff above Elliott/InterBay, streets try hard to follow the grid, but the topography makes that part of the neighborhood feel all higgledy-piggledy.

The Army Corps of Engineers almost got the Ship Canal to line up with the grid, but it runs on a bit of a diagonal following the old stream bed from Lake Union to Salmon Bay.  The concrete walls marking the edges of the canal make it seem like it is parallel to our east-west streets, but it isn’t.

There are those folks who will contend that the many stairs climbing our slopes also contribute to the confusion. but nearly all of them line up with the grid.  The map the Queen Anne Historical Society sells [Map of the(oft) Pedestrian Public Stairs of Queen Anne Hill] at www.qahistory.org proves that to be true for folks on foot.  For those of us on bikes, on scooters or in cars and trucks, the stairs contribute to that old world charm of the (faux) European onion rings that make Seattle and Queen Anne special.