EVERETT — Before there was an I-5 passing through Everett, north Broadway was one of those vibrant spots along the Pacific Highway that could lure a Vista Cruiser with a neon wink.
Its rows of motels were inviting destinations on the historic road connecting California and Canada. Newlyweds and relatives visiting from out of town would make reservations for a night or two at The Topper or Imperial 400.
I-5 between Everett and Marysville opened in 1969, and that was the beginning of the end for many of those once-prosperous inns. High-rise hotels near freeway off-ramps siphoned away customers. Fewer people had reason to take Broadway, which meant fewer families with kids were filling the rooms.
“You started getting — How do you say it? — some interesting clientele,” said Neil Anderson, who at 62 has spent a lifetime in North Everett.
Addicts, dealers, thieves and prostitutes increasingly took up lodgings while many businesses sputtered and shuttered.
“All of us have always considered north Broadway to be an important gateway into our city, and for a number of years it wasn’t a very desirable entry,” said Mayor Ray Stephanson.
Today, Anderson, the mayor and others believe things are looking up, with the eastward expansion of Everett Community College and Washington State University planting stakes on the other side of the street.
For all the change, life along north Broadway is a gritty mix of old and new.
It’s panhandlers with cardboard signs and street cleaners from the state Department of Transportation maintenance yard rumbling toward the highways. It’s immigrants learning English and ambulances heading to the emergency room. It’s a few remaining homes, some more than 100 years old. It’s government housing, smoke shops and tattoo parlors, pharmacies, clinics and a community food bank.
And it’s 30,000 vehicles a day passing through; not a trivial number, but a fraction of the 132,000 on I-5.
“I’m really optimistic about Everett,” said JoAnn Molver, a retired landscape designer who has lived on McDougall Avenue for 11 years and grew up nearby on Rainier Avenue.
Molver’s front yard has an aromatic mix of her flowers and lavender shrubs and the frying onions from Ray’s Drive-In one block away. She knows her neighbors by name and how long each has lived there. She sees what’s changing and what isn’t.
“There’s kind of crummy stuff going out and nicer stuff coming in,” Molver said.
“But I won’t go out after dark,” she added.
For Anderson, north Broadway is a place rich in memories of favorite hangouts that have long since been supplanted.
There was the Arctic Circle Drive-in on the northwest corner of 17th where he and his best friend would stop for a Coke or burger on their way home from North Junior High School. His parents preferred the Shopland Grocery Store off 11th and he’d go bowling on rainy days at the Tyee, just as his children would do decades later.
Norrie Hardware & Variety Co., known as Norrie’s to the locals, was a place where Anderson’s dad could buy any odd little part. If the bill was $10, and he only had $9 in his wallet, he could bring in the dollar owed on his next visit.
Gone are the sounds and smells of the Weyerhaeuser mills that found their way from the riverfront to north Broadway.
Also missing is the diving woman in the one-piece swimsuit on the sign outside the Evergreen Motel. As a boy, Anderson longed to take a dip in its pool.
He watched the motels slip into disrepair. Paint peeled. Signs weathered. One day the diving lady disappeared.
A strip club came and went, but not before establishing a foothold for prostitution.
“North Broadway has seen lots of changes and ups and downs along the way,” Anderson said.
So the EvCC migration and the bright red brick of WSU are welcome signs.
“Right now, to me, we are heading in a better direction,” he said.
New college district
The University Center rising in a former parking lot of the College Plaza off 10th Street is the most visible sign of changing times on north Broadway.
Across the street, Everett Community College, Everett’s oldest institution of higher education, has a smaller project going up.
This is Mountain View, a modern six-story dormitory scheduled to open in September with 120 students.
Once Mountain View opens, the school plans to demolish the aging Lona Vista Apartments across 10th Street to build another 130-student dorm.
The new student housing is expected to be full by this fall, mostly with international students, although some incoming WSU students have made inquiries.
Roughly 250 students living there are expected to make a significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood — not just at the busy new Starbucks next door, but up and down what local planners hope will be a revitalized commercial spine in the city.
Everett Community College’s enrollment — expected to be more than 3,000 in Everett this fall — is growing at about 3 percent per year. WSU’s enrollment of about 200 is expected to approach 300 as the school adds new degree programs, including software engineering and data analytics.
Paul Pitre, WSU North Puget Sound’s dean, said the school will capitalize on the proximity of EvCC’s Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center with the goal of economic development.
Everett Community College’s long-term plans extend beyond new housing, although two new dormitories on Tower Street are part of the mix. They include three more classroom buildings replacing the College Plaza strip mall and a pedestrian bridge crossing over north Broadway.
“I tell people that in 10 or 15 years, north Broadway will look a lot different than it does right now,” said Pat Sisneros, the college’s vice president of college services.
It wasn’t always like this. When the Everett Junior College moved to its present location in the late 1950s, it started out with seven buildings fronting on Wetmore Avenue.
It wasn’t until 1999, when the college built Shuksan Hall, that the school began its steady march down the hill toward north Broadway.
“At the time I started there the college really hadn’t grown much for some years,” said Charlie Earl, who served as the college’s president from 1999 to 2006.
During his tenure, the school began laying the groundwork for growth.
Since 1999, EvCC has spent $180 million on new construction, including the buildings abutting north Broadway: the student fitness center and Liberty Hall, which houses the school’s health sciences program.
All the while, the school administration, working with the city of Everett, saw potential for what a growing college could do for the neighborhood.
The other big catalyst was the hospital and its need of acreage at the hospital campus to expand, he said.
The school’s athletics center was at the time on 13th Street next to the hospital. The hospital, in turn, owned the College Plaza shopping center on Broadway.
In 2008, a deal was struck to trade the parcels, with a bit more cash flowing toward the college.
That gave the school an additional 17 acres and allowed it to build out the campus to the east and eventually across Broadway.
A timely boost in state spending allowed Everett Community College to erect new buildings along Broadway and give the rest of its campus a face-lift.
“We thought that that was all part of the North Everett commercial gateway into the city, and we would play a very big role in that,” Earl said.
A troubled past
To appreciate the future of north Broadway is to understand its past.
And a good place to trace that past is in the basement of Jack O’Donnell’s home off Grand Avenue.
O’Donnell is a retired teacher and former Herald history columnist. He opens a filing cabinet and pulls out more than a dozen files, each labeled for a block off north Broadway. They contain news clippings, ads for grand openings, property records, fliers for open houses and historical essays. There’s a stack of postcards showing the motels in their heyday.
The records describe a festive Tuesday in August 1927. Bands played, mill whistles blared, politicians congratulated. A decade-old dream and three years of work marked the opening of the Marysville cutoff, a three-mile stretch of road and bridges across the Snohomish River delta. That new link of the Pacific Highway opened up new commercial opportunities along Broadway.
“Everybody knew Everett because of Broadway,” O’Donnell said. “It was hands-down the busiest street in town.”
Rod Waters once slept in a crib in a house on the corner of 16th and Broadway. In the early 1960s, he’d ride his trike on the sidewalk out front. For years, his father drove a truck from California to Everett to peddle produce before starting a string of open-air Country Farms markets.
These days, the house is now the company’s business office. Waters’ phone rings constantly. Moving fruit is a time-sensitive business. People arrive in cars, on bikes and on foot, pushing baby strollers and walking dogs. Lately, business manager Bill Proctor has noticed more foreign exchange students from the college stopping in.
Workers there also have a front row seat to troubled souls. They’ve seen the addicts, rousted the sleepers beneath company trucks and watched a man run down the street in a hospital gown.
They look with hope to the construction a few blocks north.
“It should clean up the area a bit,” Waters said.
Not long ago, the four-block stretch between Eighth Street and 12th Street off north Broadway, was a hotbed of crime and a symbol of decay. Police made drug raids and went under cover for prostitution stings, but knew they couldn’t fix Broadway’s problems solely by arresting hookers, johns and drug dealers.
It would take a commitment, an investment and time.
Bill Deckard knows that well. He led the Everett Police Department’s investigations unit before retiring from the force in December. His officers once caught a killer in a motel where he now has an office in EvCC’s $37.5 million Liberty Hall.
The Topper was one of the last of the eyesore motels, and was demolished in 2007.
“That was a long battle,” Deckard said.
Deckard now runs the college’s public safety programs. In the space where felons once took refuge, college students are training to become police officers, firefighters, medics and nurses. Calls to the police department continue to drop along this stretch of north Broadway from more than 150 a month three years ago to more than 100 now.
“It is a major transformation,” Deckard said.
Jerry Murphy was glad to see the motels come down and college buildings go up.
“Certainly, it changes the tenor,” said the owner of Greenshields Industrial Supply, the northernmost business on Broadway. “There were some people in the city fighting for that college. They stuck to their guns and they got the college there.”
Murphy said he hopes that recent developments will spur more improvements in North Everett where there are “pockets of good and bad and they can live right next to each other.”
Stephanie Larson can vouch for that. She lives on Lombard Avenue, a stone’s throw from Broadway with the Waits Motel in between. She loves her home and her neighbors, but loathes the crime rippling through.
Larson has had a prostitute and her john knock on her front door to complain about her complaining to police. She and neighbors have had people pass out on front lawns. Last year, Larson found a heroin needle in her yard.
She hopes the development to the north will bring some relief, but she worries it’s merely pushing the problems into a smaller area to the south.
“We used to say, ‘Would Mayor Hansen want this in his neighborhood?’” she said. “Now we say, ‘Would Mayor Stephanson want this in his neighborhood?’”
A brighter future
The city hopes to harness economic forces to ensure north Broadway’s makeover is more than cosmetic.
Those same economic forces once contributed to the area’s decline.
The freeway gave most travelers a reason to avoid downtown Everett, and the area had already begun to show its seedier side by the 1980s. Then a new shopping mall was built a few miles to the north in downtown Marysville. That smallish mall was joined by larger shopping centers in Lynnwood, Smokey Point and Tulalip. Smaller suburban communities like Snohomish began to develop their own commercial cores, giving locals a more convenient place to spend their money.
“They didn’t have that option 20 or 30 years ago,” said Allan Giffen, Everett’s planning director.
In the late 1990s, city leaders began to take a hard look at revamping the city’s urban neighborhoods.
That led to comprehensive rezoning of the Broadway corridor from 41st Street north to the Ebey Slough bridge.
Before that, the only real restrictions were on building heights, Giffen said. Under the new code, there are design standards, tax code changes and other ways to influence the decisions that property owners may eventually make.
“The redevelopment of a commercial strip corridor is just a classic challenge in planning,” Giffen said.
“What we’ve heard is people saying, ‘Don’t be like Bellevue,’” he said.
The city’s new code won’t permit used car lots and instead encourages mixed-use buildings with ground floor retail and apartments above, all served by mass transportation.
It’s consistent with long-range projections that show the city’s population growing to 165,000 by 2035.
One of the last measures enacted was a tweak made earlier this year to the city’s tax incentives for multifamily housing to include student housing, done at the request of Everett Community College and the two developers building the school’s dorms.
“Without that tax exemption, both these projects would not have been economically feasible,” EvCC’s Sisneros said.
Change will likely come slowly, in part because many lots on Broadway are just 110 feet wide, first platted in the 19th century.
Just what redevelopment will look like depends on the desires and whims of the individual owners, but with guidelines and public input, a more consistent and attractive neighborhood might arise.
“The best way development occurs, in my view, is to plan it properly and let the marketplace take over,” Stephanson said. “I think that’s where we’re going.”