For weeks across the summers of 2015 to 2017, the Seattle Department of Transportation ran a People Street program. SDOT blocked off Pike between 10th and 11th avenues, and 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine streets on Saturdays during the summer, and during a few Thursday art walks. The program experimented with closure times like Saturdays from 6 PM to 2 AM, or Thursday art walk closures from 4 to 10 PM. People, in general, loved it. Business, in general, did not.
SDOT recently released a report summarizing data it collected from the program, and is now offering up that information, and technical assistance, to neighborhoods throughout the city which might want to do something similar.
No groups have yet applied for the program, said Mafara Hobson, of SDOT. If any do, the city plans to step back from its role in organizing.
The department, instead, will only offer technical assistance, explaining to interested groups what sorts of permits they might need and other assistance navigating the process of setting it up.
Beyond that, however, SDOT won’t try to organize programming or the events themselves. The local neighborhoods, Hobson said, likely have a better sense of what the residents will want and enjoy in the various parts of the city. And SDOT’s mission doesn’t typically include running street fairs.
“No one thinks of SDOT as party people,” Hobson said.
Capitol Hill groups don’t seem to be lining up for the chance to continue the People Street program here.
Natalie Curtis of the Capitol Hill Community Council said her group is not actively planning anything. The group might consider hosting a one-time event, but they’re not planning anything like SDOT’s program of closing the streets weekly for an entire summer.
The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this story.
The 2015 pilot project run by Capitol Hill Housing’s Capitol Hill EcoDistrict was designed to test a three-block pedestrian zone between Broadway and 12th on E Pike as part of a month-long trial of the concept hoped to alleviate street violence and make the area easier to patrol for police. In the first phase, the E Pike pedestrian zone between Broadway and 12th Ave focused on simple crowd management and releasing sidewalk pressure. Things got more festive in August with street yoga, a drag show, and late-night street performers, while dancing in the streets ended up getting rained out. The pedestrian zone project was funded through $30,000 of a $160,000 city grant the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce received earlier in 2015.
The project faced criticism from local businesses and property owners who said the nighttime street closure perpetuated the public image of Pike/Pine as a nightlife-only party district, that day-time oriented retail businesses weren’t benefiting equally, and that the project didn’t achieve its goal of increasing public safety in the area.
Over the following summers, SDOT tested various implementations but the pushback against the closures refused to fade.
The information SDOT gathered during the pilot program did provide some interesting insights into how better to run the programs, and what happens on Capitol Hill.
In 2017, there were a total of 10 street closures. City planners learned quickly that the closures needed good quality signs, so people didn’t mistake the closures for construction-related road closures. They also found the schedule needs to be consistent and predictable, and that something as simple as providing tables and chairs encourages people to use the spaces.
SDOT tried to include community activities, such as yoga in the street, or pianos in the park, through a free application process. They had 14 planned community activities, and a few unplanned activities, such a dance group and a band which showed up.
Thousands of people came out during those nights. On Thursdays, SDOT found the program peaked at about 7 p.m. with slightly more than 2,500. Saturdays, perhaps predictably, peaked later. Just before midnight there were more than 3,000 people. However, SDOT does not have any baseline data about how many people are out on a night when there’s no People Street, so it’s impossible to know the impact of the program on how busy the area is.
SDOT surveyed people who attended, and the program was a hit with them. Of 818 people, 96% said they liked it, and 77% found it was no harder than usual to get to the area. The survey also found that 72% of visitors were from Seattle, and 62% from the “Pike Pine vicinity.” However, “vicinity” wasn’t well defined, and was generally up to the person being surveyed.
The study also showed businesses were lukewarm on the program, at best.
For example, SDOT issued permits to allow restaurants to have an outdoor dining area during the People Street evenings. The department issued 10 permits for such areas, and the report included details about three. Quinn’s, according to the study, really enjoyed the extra seating, and took advantage of the outdoors seating all 10 times. Big Mario’s found that while the outside area was busy, it wasn’t worth the logistical trouble and stopped after four events. Stout, with its cavernous indoor space, didn’t really need the extra seating, and stopped being part of the People Street after only a few times.
Businesses also complained of a drop in sales during those evenings, 34% of respondents said they had lower sales during People Street nights than during comparable evenings in years without the street closures. 25% said their sales were about the same, while only 5% said sales were higher. The remainder of businesses either didn’t know if there was much impact or said not applicable.
SDOT will provide technical assistance for up to three neighborhoods with groups that want to continue the program this year. The application deadline is March 2.