Saturday, April 11, 2020

Black Lake Way, old Black Lake Road and how history could have been

One of the most interesting, long-term and simmering debates in Olympia, is how several dozen blocks in SW Olympia are connected to the rest of the city.

Southwest Olympia south of Division and east of the mall is an interesting place. Unlike anywhere else in the city, they are unusually cut off from the rest of the city. Other than 9th Avenue and 4th Avenue, there is really no way to access much of the Southwest side neighborhood.

But, like a lot of things you'll read on my blog anymore, it wasn't always that way.

It turns out that the weirdest little street on the westside, Caton Way, which juts northeast from near 9th and Lee street for half a block is actually the last portion of an old county road that had connected the westside with the rest of the county.

Black Lake Way can be seen plainly here in this 1945 plat map:



In the 1937 version of the westside map, Blake Lake Way is the primary route out of west Olympia.


In this era, there is no Black Lake Boulevard further west, Black Lake Way was it.

Fast forward to 1951:


And you can see the map hardening and stretching. The northern portion is renamed Caton Way already, Decatur in the middle and the last stretch is "Old Black Lake Road."

What happens next is pretty clear to figure out. Here is the 1959 USGS topographic map:


In the 1950s, the interstate highway system came to town and reshaped our communities in ways we're still feeling now. Old neighborhoods in Tumwater (not the downtown or main commercial area) were sacrificed to interstate 5, Lacey was given the seed it needed to be transformed from a sleepy rural neighborhood to a suburban city and west Olympia was given its trajectory. 

Whoever made the decision to site the interchange at Mottman (later Black Lake Boulevard) instead of old Blake Lake Road, created the conditions for the westside we have now. At least according to this document, one of the options when they laid out 101 in the 1950s was to connect what had been Black Lake Way to the new highway.  Like an unused limb atrophying, Black Way Way retreated up into the neighborhood, being covered over by new development and becoming the stub of Decatur. When the current Auto Mall neighborhood was platted in the early 1980s, one portion of the old road was reclaimed and named Caton, acknowledging its historic connection to its severed relative less than a mile north.

It certainly didn't help that the development that resulted surrounding the Southwest neighborhood was focussed towards the Blake Lake Boulevard exit and was autofocussed. The 1980 replats of the historically square blocks favored windy, care friendly designs with little thought to connect to the older neighborhoods.

So, what's the bottom line? First thing, I'm pretty bored. If you look at the date stamp of this post, this is maybe week three of the COVID Stay at Home Order. I've got a lot of time on my weekends to read technical reports and download old maps.

Second, people get very excited about protecting their neighborhoods. This isn't breaking news. No one is surprised by me saying NIMBYs are going to NIMBY. People who live up on the Southwest side just don't want to be connected to the rest of the city. 

But, what is interesting to me is that how history really could have played out differently. We could have seen a history where the Auto Mall never happened and West Olympia sprouted a traditional commercial center on the end of Decatur that is now a dead end. Had the decision been made differently in the 1950s to connect Primary State Route 9 (now Highway 101) to west Olympia by the Old Blake Lake Road instead of Mottman (Blake Lake Boulevard), we would have likely seen a different development pattern emerge. 

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