First Hill community representatives say the neighborhood is in desperate need of more public park space and for ten years Seattle Parks and Recreation has been trying to acquire land to build it. In 2000 and 2008 voters approved levies to fund land acquisitions for new parks on First Hill, but affordable properties are almost non-existant in one of the densest neighborhoods in the state.
Last year Parks reached out to the First Hill Improvement Association and the neighborhood’s burgeoning cadre of civically active residents to talk about alternatives. What the city came up with was the First Hill Public Realm Action Plan.
The plan gathers representatives from the city’s Department of Transportation, Department of Planning and Development, and Parks to explore using parks levy funds to carve out public space from the city’s existing assets — primarily streets, sidewalks, and parking.
A consultant hired by the city is due to release a report in the coming weeks that will further analyze opportunities on First Hill to create these types of public spaces. The city has already identified six areas that could potentially be activated for better public use.
The idea isn’t earth shattering, but it represents a significant departure in tactics for Parks, which spends most of its energy acquiring and maintaing traditional grass-and-tree spaces.
“The scarcity for land for parks as the city develops means we have to be more careful how we spend resources,” said DPD urban designer Lyle Bicknell. “It’s new thinking about what parks are and how we can use city property.”
First Hill’s recent “street Scrabble” was a prototype of the sort of project that could become more common around the neighborhood. In fact, the spacious E Union and University intersection could be the first permanent public space created under the new framework, said Bicknell.
This sort of space “activation” wouldn’t be the first time Parks has used acquisition money for development, though it’s never been done on a scale greater than one-off projects. The recently completed Bell Street Park in Belltown and an upcoming project on 14th Ave NW in Ballard are two examples the city could replicate on First Hill.
Parks must get City Council approval each time it uses levy funds to develop parks on existing public spaces. Nevertheless, Parks officials and those who champion traditional parks are understandably cautious about the significance of the First Hill experiment.
“When people approved this money, it was for a park … not painted pavement,” said Donald Harris, property and acquisition service manager for Seattle Parks.
While parks of the traditional variety are more plentiful on Capitol Hill, the city is still seeking to expand its “parklets” program, in which SDOT transfers street side parking into privately developed public space.