If you climbed First Hill at University, Union, and Boylston last summer, you might have been surprised by the sudden appearance of a colorful Mediterranean-style plaza that had replaced a dingy and utterly confusing semi-triangular intersection. This is “UUB,” the pavement park put together by the First Hill Improvement Association and the City of Seattle. It was soon dotted with local residents who looked comfortably at home. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at this sunny space with its turquoise-painted pavement, café tables, and lime-green umbrellas reflecting up at the surrounding buildings?
UUB is one of two Pavement to Parks projects piloted over the summer under the city’s Adaptive Streets program. The other is the similarly turquoise pavement park at 9th and University. Their August openings were part of a summer of “tactical urbanism” around Central Seattle that included a lukewarm response to a new “streatery” opportunity and a test of a Pike/Pine pedestrian zone that rankled some area business interests while providing some fantastic photographic opportunities.
With space for parks in the neighborhoods around Capitol Hill requiring more and more creative solutions (see also: 12th Ave Square Park), reception for the First Hill parks has been more positive. In 2016, in fact, City Hall will move forward with similar projects in four more locations — including Capitol Hill.
Susan McLaughlin, urban design and transport strategic adviser to SDOT, summarized the feedback from residents. “We found that the success of the space was just the ability to sit in a safe open public space,” she said. “This is an area where the older apartment buildings don’t always have an open space of their own.”
To launch the First Hill parks and “activate” the University Street area, First Hill Improvement Association, design firm Framework, and the Department of Neighborhoods held mini-parties in the parks while the weather allowed: a dog show in First Hill Park, trivia night at 9th and University, and an afternoon of vintage street games at UUB.
Party attendance alone isn’t sufficient to establish the success of a new urban project, so the city did some research and published metrics indicating that the two pilot pavement parks, the first in the city, are successful so far. If you hung out at UUB or 9th and University last summer, you may have contributed to the research by being observed doing whatever it is you do in the park.
The city’s report explains:
SDOT collected data on the use and public perception of the plazas to assess their function and effectiveness. Starting in July 2015, SDOT staff recorded stationary activity at each of the sites prior to project installation. Once the projects were built in late July, observations and pedestrian surveys were conducted every other month to understand how use and opinions change over time.
In a win for community-building, “talking to others” was the most frequently observed activity at both UUB and the pavement park at 9th and University. 49% of users observed at UUB were people having conversations with other people who were actually sitting right next to them, outstripping the numbers of those who were “using electronics” (13%) and “talking on the phone” (5%). Who said social media ended the ancient practice of talking to friends and neighbors? Apparently, if you build the pavement park, they will come – and talk to each other.
Given the shortage of outdoor public space on First Hill, residents may also be hoping that UUB and 9th and University grow up to be permanent parks — right now they’re interim projects with about two years to prove that they deserve civil engineering features like new curbs, concrete, or de-paving.
That’s where the observational research on user patterns comes in.
“The idea is that these are interim spaces that are down on the ground for about two years, and we select projects keeping in mind opportunities for what’s going to make them permanent,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t want them to become maintenance problems in the future. So we always have to think about what comes next, how does this become a permanent park, a permanent space that people can enjoy in the future.”
McLaughlin said that the road to permanence is different for each site. The park at 9th and University, for example, is serving as a sort of placeholder while a grander scheme for a space contiguous with Freeway Park unfolds under Virginia Mason’s master plan.
Some pavement parks don’t even make it to the pilot stage. Plans for 8th Ave, Terrace St, and Terry Ave didn’t make the cut for 2015, but McLaughlin says there is now funding to deliver four pavement to parks projects per year, at $50,000-70,000 each. New projects scheduled for 2016 include one on Summit and Denny. McLaughlin said that for that location, “We’re identifying the stakeholder groups now and working through some design concepts, working through our traffic operations division, just to make sure there’s no traffic concerns with that site.”
Other project sites for 2016 are spread across the city: Rainier Vista at South Genesee and 29th Ave. South, Taylor and Denny adjacent to 5th and Vine, and still under consideration, the convergence of MLK and Rainier Ave. South.