Earlier this month, more than 150 residents of the First Hill community and representatives from the Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle Parks & Recreation, and the Department of Planning and Development gathered at Town Hall Seattle to discuss ideas for revamping certain streets in the neighborhood to allow for more dynamic and multi-purposed public open green space.
“Not only do streets need to function as mobility, but they need to be the front door, the place where people go to meet. They’re social spaces,” said Susan McLaughlin, project manager for the First Hill Public Realm Action Plan.
“Over the last decade First Hill has grown by over 3,000 new residents,” said Lyle Bicknell, principal urban designer with DPD and one of the speakers leading the town hall. “These new residents and workers need quality green space, in addition to those who already live here.”
During the session, First Hill residents gleaned insights into how parts of their neighborhood might be transformed within the next few years.
The plan essentially consists of this: a 1.7 mile loop of pre-existing parks and several streets which could be revamped to create pedestrian and cyclist friendly greenways, public ‘open space’ as well as ‘active zones’ featuring recreational equipment, all for community use. Broadway’s already established bikeway and streetcar line will make up the eastern length of the loop.
The plan targets four First Hill streets as having potential for being redeveloped for public green space: University Street, 8th avenue, Terrace Street, and Terry Avenue. McLaughlin said they were chosen for their under trafficked and under utilized street space, and potential to provide pedestrian, cyclist, pet, and disabled-persons friendly connectivity within the neighborhood as well as between the neighboring downtown and Capitol Hill areas.
McLaughlin and the other city department reps said that a “three-pronged” approach would be needed to bring their vision to reality:
- Potential land acquisitions by the parks department for park development (the plan has two spots in mind: Madison & Boylston and Terry & Madison, though the department is still engaged in ongoing talks with the owners of said areas regarding potential acquisitions according Donald Harris from Parks & Rec department who spoke at the Town Hall).
- Reallocating under utilized street space [e.g narrowing street widths, adding bike lanes, additional greenery and trees, and calming motor vehicle traffic via speed bumps]
- Leveraging private development occurring along the designated loop to conform with the vision of the action plan via incentives and amendments to city land use code.
If approved, the reallocation of street space elements of the plan could be incorporated into Seattle’s Right of Way improvement manual as a blueprint for the city and developers to work with in the First Hill area.
McLaughlin stressed that the project is still in the conceptual stages, and will require the feedback from and endorsement of the local community to proceed. But McLaughlin and her presenter colleagues also noted that the city is confident in their proposal and hopeful that the neighborhood will approve it.
The plan also proposes the use of interim repurposed public green space prototypes as a method for both experimentation and measurement of the potential success of the entire plan. The interim phase would last from one to three years, potentially starting this summer.
The location of one such proposed interim prototype is at the awkward intersection which conjoins Union, Boylston, and University streets, which would be repurposed as a designated street park with greenery and tabled seating. The park would still allow for vehicles to transition from University to Boylston, but would cut off Union. This intersection would be the only actual road closure as a result of implementation of the action plan.
A similar prototype was also proposed for the corner of 9th and University, which would connect with adjacent Freeway Park.
Funding for the potential overhaul and land acquisition could come from a few sources, such as the public-private partnerships where developers build public green space with incentives [i.e taller construction height limits] and the 2000 Pro-Parks & the 2008 Parks & Green Space levies. However the levy funds would be limited to property purchases and larger park development rather than minor street side installments such as parklets, said Harris.
An example of a public-private partnership already underway in the area is the 10th Ave Hill Climb.
First Hill and Little Saigon, despite their close proximity, are difficult places to walk or bike between. The most direct path passes up Yesler Terrace on a steep slope. Along with Seattle Housing Authority’s redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, planners are taking the opportunity to build a new pedestrian/bike connection between Yesler and Little Saigon.
The 10th Ave Hill Climb is planned as a beautifully landscaped staircase and bike ramp to connect Jackson St. to Yesler St. at 10th Ave, where the street currently stops through Yesler Terrace. The Hill Climb would also offer a more direct connection from Little Saigon to First Hill.
Slope stabilization work on the Hill Climb started this summer and the entire project is expected to be complete by summer 2015.
The project was made possible by a philanthropic grant from banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase, which financed other parts of the Yesler redevelopment. The bank dontated $650,000 to the project, over a quarter of the hill climb budget, according to the SHA.
“We were looking for opportunities to connect (Yesler) with adjacent neighborhoods,” said Anne Fiske Zuniga, SHA’s deputy executive director. “J.P. Morgan had been involved early on.”
The full redevelopment of Yesler Terrace won’t be finished for at least another decade.
While the hill climb isn’t intended to be a high-volume bike route, it will provide a connection from the Broadway Bikeway to Little Saigon.
Harris also said that the University, Boylston, and Union prototype could constitute as a park given its expansive square footage.
“If this proves to be successful, we as a city are going to be looking at multiple ways to invest in this. There are private-public partnerships … SDOT believes there is funding available, there are grants, and there will be more park money as well,” he said.
McLaughlin said that the SDOT could commit funds for the interim designs.
“In order for us to move forward with this installation we just need to know what the community thinks,” said McLaughlin before segwaying into a on-the-spot digital survey of the attendees to get input.
The majority of attendees (the majority of whom lived in the area based on an initial survey question) approved of implementing the interim design, though several raised concerns during the Q&A period.
“My concern is that these public spaces will be inaccessible, especially the ones that are private,” said Austin Miller in reference to the privately developed and maintained ‘public’ park spaces. “If I look too poor and I could lower their [the private developer’s] profits … could [they] kick me off?”
The panel responded by saying privately developed public spaces would operate to downtown equivalents, with private security policing the areas and only trespassing people for legal violations.
Others commented on rising rents in the neighborhood and voiced fears that narrowing streets and expanding public space would cut off assisted living senior homes from ambulances that need close street access to the buildings.
McLaughlin assured the audience that the plan had incorporated extensive input from the major medical institutions of First Hill such as Harbor View and Virginia Mason to maintain ambulance street access to the hospitals and the locations they frequent within the neighborhood.
“I’m very excited about the idea of more vibrant and diverse kinds of open space for this neighborhood,” said Alex Hudson, coordinator with the First Hill Improvement Association, which has worked with the various city departments and neighborhood stakeholders for the last 8 months in developing the plan.
You can learn more about First Hill Public Realm Action Plan via seattle.gov.