Community Post | It’s time for Capitol Hill to get its first pedestrian plaza

As a reminder, anybody can post to CHS — and many bodies do! Thanks to Shane for sharing his vision for a Pike/Pine pedestrian plaza on the site. — jseattle

(Cross-posted from my transportation policy blog: Apologies for sections that state well-known facts about the area in question–the article was originally intended for a broader audience.)

I was reading a few articles at CHS blog a couple days ago and I got an idea. The articles in question were this one about parklets, and this other one about preserving the character of the neighborhood as development continues in the area. The parklets piece got a lot of activity in the comments section, much of it negative, mostly with people complaining that there’s little enough parking already, and with many questioning whether something like this would even be popular. From my perspective it seems like they’re doing this the right way, starting with buy-in from the business owners and the community and then going from there. It’s a great idea, however small, but I see no reason to stop there.

Pike street between Broadway and 12th Ave.

Anyone who’s lived in Seattle in the past decade or enjoys going to see live music probably has heard of, if not attended, Capitol Hill Block Party (started in 1997). Every year for three days E Pike street is closed off between Broadway and 12th Avenue and filled to the brim with people. This is incredibly good business for the many bars enclosed by the boundaries of the event as they have a captive audience, but (I think) not so good for the businesses that don’t sell food or alcohol. That’s been a point of contention every time CHBP rolls around, but I’ve never really heard much grumbling about the road closure and parking spaces lost during the festival. This seems especially incredible given the complaints about taking away a few spots for parklets: if removing a few parking spaces is so damaging to visitor retention (i.e., business from people from other neighborhoods or other cities), how is it that so many thousands of people manage to make it here when we shut down several dozen spaces? Clearly, people can find other ways to get here if they really want to.

Capitol Hill Block Party: more fun than parking. Photo by Dave Lichterman.

Under normal circumstances Pike is open to cars, but with crosswalks on all corners of each intersection and heavy pedestrian traffic, it’s not very fun to navigate in a car. With the high concentration of bars and music venues on this stretch of road this gets exponentially worse in the evenings, particularly on weekends. It’s a mess, and the only people who are really justified in trying to drive through it at night are cab drivers looking for a likely fare. Given the number of pedestrians, obvious safety concerns with people streaming to and fro at all hours (often not sober), and parallel east-west routes one block north at E Pine street and one block south at E Union/Madison St., it’s time to close off Pike to car traffic permanently.

Pedestrian plazas like this have a proven track record of vitality and enjoyment by the community. They encourage more foot traffic in the area, which of course translates into more customers for the businesses that abut the space. Notably, after Times Square was made over to become largely pedestrian-oriented it quickly found itself much more appealing to businesses:

Two years after the advent of its car-free plazas, for example, Times Square made its first-ever appearance on real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield’s list of the ten most desirable retail locations on Earth.

By no means is Seattle the same as New York, nor is the Pike/Pine corridor Times Square, but the same model has been replicated throughout the country, again and again: dedicate more space to pedestrians and they will use it. Businesses that allow these changes reap the financial benefits, while residents and visitors reap the benefits of greater safety and community. There is already relatively little vehicle traffic on this section of Pike and the natural strengths of this location make it the perfect place to try out our first authentic pedestrian plaza. With the Broadway streetcar coming in 2014 and Link light rail two years later, E Pike is only going to become a more popular and accessible destination whether the road is reconfigured or not.

Pike has already established itself as a favorite location for mobile food vendors, too, and this is a great opportunity to build on that reputation by providing plenty of dedicated, conveniently-situated space for more vendors to join the party. For the brick-and-mortar restaurants and bars this would potentially open up a lot more space for each of them, allowing them to fence off a significant area outside their buildings for extra customer space (much like what’s seen at Grim’s and Barca on 11th Ave, although perhaps larger).

Where would you rather spend your time?

Now, as far as challenges: yes, this would require the removal of several dozen parking spaces. Compared to the total number of parking spaces in the area this would make little difference, but there will certainly be complaints. When we look at the hundreds (or thousands) of people that cram themselves into these few blocks every weekend, however, it becomes clear that these parking spaces are servicing a minuscule fraction of the total number of people in the area. Roads belong to everyone; they’re a public amenity. This particular public amenity is much more heavily used by pedestrians than vehicles and it would be great if its design actually reflected that. More than the on-street spaces, I think the challenge to overcome is the Havana parking lot, conveniently contained in a red rectangle in the Google Maps image at the top of this post. This is presumably a private lot, and closing off Pike makes this completely inaccessible by cars. I don’t know the solution here except to buy out the lot, which might be prohibitively expensive for a voluntary, wonderfully-useful-but-not-strictly-necessary project of this nature.

Which brings us to cost more generally. One of the great things about these type of projects is that they don’t need to become hugely expensive like most other major street reconfigurations. This is something that could be done extremely cheaply, at least at first. It could be as simple as blocking off the roads with some big rocks, throwing some plants, tables, and chairs in the middle and calling it good. This would probably be sufficient to achieve the goals of increased safety and increased pedestrian traffic, but over time it would of course be great to see some real investments in making this a genuinely attractive and pleasing destination. In other locations we’ve seen business owners actually contribute to improvements as they’ve seen the impact these conversions have on their bottom line, so doing things on the cheap as a means of enticing further investment might be exactly the way to go.

This is the perfect time to start talking about a conversion for this area. Winter is coming, and, accordingly, pedestrian traffic will be somewhat reduced during the day. This relative lull gives us time to start reaching out to the community and business stakeholders for their thoughts and opinions, and ideally have something in place by late spring, just in time for the busiest time of year for the area. The summer could be a trial period, and if it’s successful we can work toward making it a permanent fixture on the hill.

In the mean time, though, don’t forget to look both ways when using the crosswalk.

Much better.

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30 thoughts on “Community Post | It’s time for Capitol Hill to get its first pedestrian plaza

  1. I never even knew it was possible to post our own articles here until a few months ago, so thanks to jseattle for mentioning it here and there on other guest posts. I appreciate the opportunity!

  2. I would love to see this idea get some traction. Honestly, driving through these areas is not great anyway, and Pine is probably better suited to all of this traffic. I just got a reply back from SDOT about a transportation issue I had recently, and she directed me toward this site for City of Seattle: McGinn seems particularly keen on feedback, especially when it involves improving our night life, so who knows where it could go!

  3. Thanks shanedphillips for posting such a well reasoned article. I agree that the community only stands to benefit from attracting more pedestrian traffic. The walkability of the area was the greatest enticement for me to move into the area, I would be very hard pressed to leave the convenience, and also the sense of community that I feel on the busy sidewalks.

  4. I’ve always thought this would be a much better use of the space. During they day, the majority of traffic I see driving through there are delivery trucks anyways. It would be awesome for the restaurants in the area to expand their outdoor seating during the summer, and be an overall place to walk in general. I would even like to see something like this expanded to 10th and 11th between pike and pine as well.

  5. Recall that both Seattle’s Westlake pedestrian mall and Eugene’s downtown mall died (merchant pressure? correct me _gently_). Could the wet weather for most of the year be a factor? Note that all of the above pictures show people relaxing in lovely sunny weather.

    I fear this will only succeed if we can embrace the rain the way that Tom Robbins’ characters do:
    “But my hosts, I soon noticed, reacted in quite another way. They strolled calmly and smoothly, their bodies perfectly relaxed. They did not hunch away from the rain but rather glided through it. They directed their faces to it and did not flinch as it drummed their cheeks. They almost reveled in it. Somehow, I found this significant. The Zillers accepted the rain. They were not at odds with it, they did not deny it or combat it; they accepted it and went with it in harmony and ease.”

  6. I agree with the point that the images show sunny and pleasant weather. What kind of clear material could be used to cover such spaces when it rains or is cold?

  7. Are you talking about just the three blocks from Broadway to 12th for the pedestrian plaza? Are you talking year-around closure or just during the summer?

    If this proposal is for permanent closure, year around, I would be interested to know how you think a pedestrian plaza might be used in the winter when the days are short, wet and cold and the lovely umbrellaed cafes in the photos would not be tenable.

  8. While I love this idea, it’s worth considering Seattle’s other plazas and why those have failed. Another commenter mentioned the old Westlake Plaza, which I loved, and was unclear why they opened it to traffic a few years back. Anyone know? Also, the beautiful, amazing Occidental Square, which almost no one uses in a vibrant, community-oriented manner. I’ve never understood why that plaza isn’t lined with forward-thinking restaurants and creative-minded boutiques and crammed with tables of coffee drinkers. If these places don’t work, why would a Pike Street Plaza, and how?

  9. If I remember correctly, Nordstrom made the reopening of Pine to traffic a contingency for it moving into and rehabbing the old Frederick & Nelson building (where Nordstrom is now).

  10. Poseur is right…we have Nordstrom to thank for killing the one block (heaven forbid!) that was closed to traffic. They insisted on it as “vital to their business.” Lame.

    Having lived in Germany, a place with a climate not that different from ours but where, almost across the board, city centers have been closed to auto traffic, I can say that the pedestrian corridors can thrive, even if there is rain. The real issue is transportation choices and helping people get to and from these locations without a car. Then it becomes much easier to give up the parking places. And wouldn’t you rather drink a coffee/beer without exhaust in your face?

  11. The plaza at Westlake was closed to traffic on Pine Street in 1988, right around the opening of the Metro tunnel. In the mid-90s, Nordstrom was looking to move out of their old building and remodel the old Fredrick & Nelson location. They pushed for opening Pine Street to traffic and the question went to voters in 1995. I recall at the time that Nordstrom threatened not to go through with their new flagship store in downtown if the measure didn’t pass and the voters obliged, opening up Pine Street to car traffic.

    For the record, I voted against it and regret the choice the voters made every time I see traffic going through the park. I wonder if we’d have quite so many sketchy folks hanging around the park if it was as open and pedestrian friendly as it used to be. Maybe it’s just my own subconscious alienation. Or maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety. “Hey you kids! Get off of my park!”

  12. Hey Korte,
    This is just a proposal so I don’t have any concrete opinions on whether this would be best as a year round or seasonal thing. My initial impression, however, is that there’s not much drawback to keeping this pedestrian-dedicated year round. Even in awful weather its very busy in the evening so the safety and convenience aspects are retained, and I’m certain things could be made to work in such a way that it was pleasing to spend time there all year. The biggest downside to making it temporary each year, in my opinion, is that people might get used to it being car free for six months and then suddenly be at risk when cars abruptly start cruising through again. Ultimately though, this is something that would have to be worked out among the stakeholders.

  13. I agree it’s worth looking at why those spaces didn’t work, but I’m of the opinion that this section of Pike is already very pedestrian oriented and the purpose of the plaza wouldn’t be so much to draw more people there (although that would be likely to occur) but rather to make an already popular space safer and more enjoyable. That, and unlike in downtown there’s not any case whatsoever to be made that this is a vital through route for vehicles.

  14. I’m sure someone has thought about this already, but is this chunk of the street used for emergency services getting from downtown to the hospitals?

  15. zoom,
    It seems very unlikely. This is just about the worst place to race ambulances, fire trucks, or cop cars through as it is. That, and almost all of the hospitals are west of Broadway, with the exception of Swedish at Cherry Hill, which is about 6 blocks south and therefore much better served by other roads.

  16. I think it’s a brilliant idea to put in a pedestrian mall in that section of Pike. As a nearby resident, I can attest that I never drive on Pike if I can help it (using Madison or Pine instead).

    I think maybe one of the photos accompanying the article is of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA? I went to grad school at UVa and spent plenty of time on the Mall. When it was cooler and rainier in winter, there would still be people out walking from shop to shop, and sometimes temporary art installations would take over the space left vacant by stored-for-the-winter cafe seating. So the concern about weather-related use seems a bit misplaced; people will be there walking regardless, and I’m sure we can find something to do with the space.

    There’s an interesting Seattle connection as well: Lawrence Halprin, who designed Freeway Park, was the architect for Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall as well. It’s fascinating to read about the history of the project and how it was developed, given that many of the same concerns are still being expressed today (both for and against).

  17. This would be fabulous.

    Yes, there are days when the rain would be too much (like today). But, most rainy days in Seattle the rain is light and awnings would provide protection for diners.

    I like the idea of a clear roof… doesn’t need to cover the whole thing, just enough walkways for people to move from store to store. That will be expensive though…

  18. This is an excellent idea! Driving in that stretch is very difficult and hazardous for the many pedestrians in the area. Bus traffic already runs on Pine and Union, so that is not an issue.

    As for the rain, Paris has a climate very similar to ours and it maintains a vibrant street scene; just ensure adequate awnings exist over sidewalks and build some covered areas in the plaza and ta-da!

    One side note about Westlake Square though. When the bus tunnel was constructed in 1988, Pine was closed for a considerable duration due to the cut-and-cover method used. Prior to the street´s closure, Metro and the city guaranteed Pine would be re-opened when construction was finished, a promise reneged upon when the tunnel opened. Don’t blame the 1995 vote on Nordstrom or Pine Street Associates – all that vote did was force the city to honor a prior agreement as in “a deal´s a deal”.

    All that said, this is a very good idea.

  19. One thing which will complicate matters is that the left turn from Broadway on to Pine will be prohibited after the streetcar construction. So traffic going to 12th or beyond will be pretty much forced to go to Pike as an alternative.

  20. I think the portion of Broadway between Olive Way and Roy St. would be another potential area for this. It is much larger and we already have tons of restaurants who could use the sidewalk as a café and the city could install some kiosks in what is now the turning lane for street vendors, etc. Through traffic could be redirected to 12th Ave which is currently underutilized.

  21. How about reducing or eliminating the parking along the stretch, expanding outdoor seating areas, but leaving space such that a car could theoretically drive through, but it wouldn’t want to. Basically, make it like the road through Pike Place Market but without the step down from the curb to the road, make it all blend.

  22. I wandered down Pike this evening and it seems to me that if you did block off the street, the stubs of 10th & 11th on each side of Pike could be redesigned for angle parking. I am not a street planner, but it looks like angle parking on those four blocks would give a net gain in parking places. Plus, once the streetcar is running, it will be an easy jump without a car to Pike from many places.

    My son suggested that at the very least traffic should be banned at night all year long to keep drunken drivers away from drunken pedestrians. I’m not sure drunkeness of any kind is a winning argument, but even on a Monday night there were a lot of people on the street at 11 p.m.

  23. A great place on Capitol Hill for a pedestrian plaza would be on East Pike Street from Broadway going east for two blocks to 11th Avenue. It would be a big draw for restaurant and nightlife businesses in the area. The plaza could be extended to half of each block of 10th Avenue on each side of Pike. No covers needed, just leave it open.

  24. I also like this idea – I wonder though, if we could have it both ways. On the weekdays, leave it open for traffic. On the weekends, close it for pedestrians. Kind of like what they do in Austin with 6th St.