‘Superilles’ for Seattle? Council member Mosqueda has her eye on 6-block pedestrian-and cyclist-first ‘superblock’ for Capitol Hill

Seattle knows a thing or two about dramatically changing neighborhoods. But Sant Antoni, a paper-plane shaped neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain, has seen a different kind of radical transformation.

After an extensive renovation, the art nouveau market anchoring the neighborhood returned to its original 19th-century splendor last year. In the area around it, parking was moved underground, newly planted trees and shrubs dot the streets and public plazas, children romp in new play areas, and bicyclists and pedestrians now have ample space to move around freely. In short, public space has increased by thousands of square meters — all because car traffic was deprioritized.

The urban design concept, in this case designed in tandem with local residents, businesses and others, is called a “superblock” or “superille” — and if you ask citywide City Council member Teresa Mosqueda, Seattle should get one.

Mosqueda has her eye on a 6-block area on Capitol Hill, between Pine and Union between 12th and Broadway.

“This could be a really great place to test what this model may need to be successful,” Mosqueda said. “This is an opportunity to look at what other cities like Barcelona have done to change street design elements to reduce traffic and improve pedestrian access to public spaces.” 

 

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The future Capitol Hill superblock?

The superblock concept is not necessarily built on the idea of banning cars. Rather, it redirects or incentivizes car and other vehicular traffic to go around a defined group of city blocks instead of through it so that pedestrians, cyclists and residents have more space and peace of mind (and cleaner air) inside it. For the 6 blocks of Capitol Hill Mosqueda has her eye on, that could mean that car traffic with no destination in the area would be encouraged to drive on Pine, Union, 12th and Broadway rather than on the streets within the six-block area.

But, Mosqueda stressed, there is no plan yet and any push isn’t likely to come until after November’s election with seven of nine council seats up for grabs. “This is something I’d love to start exploring in 2020. This is definitely on the wish list of accomplishments before my term is up.”

An option, she said, is a short-term bill that would use temporary design elements to change the flow of traffic, which could be tested for a short period — “as soon as we feel like there has been robust community engagement.”

“I want folks to know that anything the City Council would consider, would be considered with community input, and that includes small businesses.”

The six-block area in Capitol Hill would be an ideal testing ground for several reasons, Mosqueda said. It is close to multiple transit options and a public park, Cal Anderson. Cars are already going quite slow due to traffic. And while the area’s already heavily used by pedestrians and cyclists, they are relegated to sidewalks and bike lanes with cars passing them.

“You can imagine how much safer those individuals would be if that type of through traffic wasn’t occurring there,” Mosqueda said.

Anne Vernez Moudon, Professor Emerita of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington, also brought up safety as a key benefit of superblocks (which are not, to be clear, megablocks).

Within the confines of a superblock, “you don’t worry so much about bicycling because it’s not so dangerous. Cars don’t go very fast, or you don’t have cars. You have quieter neighborhood streets, and more of a neighborhood feel,” Moudon said, adding that within superblocks noise and air pollution levels lower and temperatures rise less.

There’s no fixed way of going about implementing superblocks. On streets within the superblock, you could reduce traffic to one lane, narrow the roadway, or limit car traffic to residents, taxi’s, police, emergency, and delivery vehicles only. Or it could be as simple as just reducing speeds, Moudon said.

“When you think of it, we already have that with the functional classification of streets,” she said, noting different speed limits on arterials and local streets. “It’s just that we don’t necessarily organize classes of streets at the neighborhood level.”

Writer David Roberts calls superblocks a “hot new urban planning idea out of Barcelona” in his five-part, in-depth series on the topic. But in a way, cities, including Seattle, have been experimenting with similar concepts for a while, Moudon said.

In 2014, Bell Street Park was branded Seattle’s version of a “woonerf,” a Dutch urban design concept (similar to a superblock) that encourages car drivers to match the speed of pedestrians in the area.

Or take “greenways,” Moudon said: residential streets with less and slower-driving cars so that people who walk or ride bicycles can feel and be safe and comfortable. She called them “the beginning of the application of super-blocking in Seattle.”

Nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a coalition of neighborhood groups advocating for safer streets, has also experimented with a version of superblocks called Home Zones.

“We’ve been pushing the [Home Zone] idea in areas that don’t have good sidewalks and safe places to walk,” said Clara Cantor, Community Organizer with the organization. “Particularly in North Seattle and on the edges of South Seattle.” SNG has piloted a DIY Home Zone project in the Licton Springs neighborhood. The Seattle Department of Transportation is currently running a $350,000 pilot program to create two Home Zones. Cantor said the plan is to implement one in South Park, and one in the North End.

What would leave Seattle’s efforts trying to catch up with Barcelona and other European cities, however, is that there, similar efforts go hand in hand with larger-scale projects pedestrianizing city cores and/or partly banning cars to cut air and noise pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Seattle, a superblock would only be a drop in the ocean, Moudon suggested. The only way Seattle can solve the pollution puzzle (and benefit the environment and people’s health) is by reducing the number of cars overall, she said.

“If we don’t reduce the number of cars, but we do make superblocks, what will happen is that along the superblock’s higher-speed streets, you will have more noise, more air pollution.”

Still, the health benefits — less noise and air pollution, more exercise — within a superblock are clear, Moudon said, and there are other benefits as well: In Barcelona’s superblocks, foot and bicycle traffic has increased, as has commercial activity.

“In other cities, there was some protest from business owners who said they’d lose revenue, but the opposite has happened,” according to studies, Moudon noted.

“If you are in a car, you are not going to stop for coffee easily, but if you’re walking around, you’ll say, mm, a little donut, a little coffee. It’s very well known that in denser places, if people are walking more, they (…) buy more things.”

Mosqueda echoed the sentiment. “In Barcelona (…) what they saw was an increase in overall sales for small businesses and an increase in foot traffic. And that is true of what we’ve seen when we’ve gotten rid of parking spots and reduced traffic and lanes in front of small businesses across our own country,” she said.

“So I think it’s a win, win, win: a win for local business, a win for safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, and a win for the environment.”

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40 thoughts on “‘Superilles’ for Seattle? Council member Mosqueda has her eye on 6-block pedestrian-and cyclist-first ‘superblock’ for Capitol Hill

  1. This is a fantastic idea. This area regularly has way more pedestrians than cars in the evening, and most of the cars are just TNC or food delivery services blocking everything.

  2. great idea. i live and work in this zone, and frequently think about how much better it could be if more street space could be allocated to people walking, eating, living. And late at night, there’s horrible/noisy congestion from TNC cars.

    It will make neighborhood businesses even more successful because the entire destination will be more desirable.

    Would love to see PPUNC and business groups get behind this.

  3. I have concerns. “Encouraging” vehicles not to use these streets is a recipe for disaster. Some stoned idiot will tear down the street where pedestrians roam freely and kill several. Cars can’t be discouraged they must be banned, with bollards of some type. I mean, as a carless pedestrian I love the idea, but under these conditions I’m not going anywhere near.

    • Oh lord, it’s not like we need to reinvent the wheel. Cities all over the world do this successfully. There isn’t any reason that it cannot be done easily and successfully here as well.

  4. It could be good – if the city does approve some parking. Maybe this area could survive on residents from the neighborhood alone, but if they want to bring in more people parking will be needed.

  5. this is a horrible idea. I co own a business in that corridor and we ALREADY struggle for parking. Where is this NEW parking going to materialize? The city won’t provide it as it would need to be built. and an underground garage? not happening. Thats all old infrastructure under the streets and would have to be completely redone- essentially stopping business altogether. NO NO NO. I will fight this- Mosqueda is on ludes

    • There are two major public parking garages with nearly 800 parking spots within two blocks of your salon, at seattle central and harvard market. What do you mean by struggling for parking?

    • Who even talked about changing parking? What is wrong with the loony car fringe that they read this:

      “car traffic with no destination in the area would be encouraged to drive on Pine, Union, 12th and Broadway rather than on the streets within the six-block area”

      and respond with NO STEEL MY PARKING?

    • In the article the writer talked about business owners thinking they would lose business and finding the opposite to be true. People walking and biking are more likely to stop in at a shop. They’re more likely to notice a shop.

      You’re not likely to get more parking in that area (besides that it just won’t fit), so you might want to consider putting your energy and effort into finding what will work rather than fighting it.

  6. LOVE THIS IDEA!

    So sick of entitled car culture. Waste of money and resources and pollutes the environment. Tired of the congestion of cars in this area anyway.

    Complete and total support for this idea.

  7. This part of Capitol Hill is probably the only neighborhood dense enough with pedestrians and a steady day and night “sidewalk culture” (to butcher Jane Jacobs) to try such an experiment.

    Furthermore their are plenty of public transit options into the zone and as noted parking garages nearby.

    I’m certainly not “anti-car” (or at least like many here) but this is a good idea and could benefit the neighborhood.

    One stumbling block would be deliveries to the various restaurants and cafes in the zone (Vita for instance would be heavily affected) but surely designated drop off and pickup times could be arranged.

    Try it out, it might just work. If nothing else it will quiet down the neighborhood during the day and make it more of a “walking nightlife” (think NOLA) in the evenings.

    • Deliveries wouldn’t be affected as this zone would not eliminate cars it would just discourage them and make them wish they’d gone around. While most parking would be eliminated there would be loading zones, etc. It could be something along the lines of what already exists in the Pike Place Market really, which, while messy, works.

    • I saw something like this in the center of Vienna when I was on a trip there a few years ago. There was a designated time early in the morning when trucks had legal access and could make deliveries to businesses, which seemed like a logical compromise. The rest of the day it was a welcoming pedestrian paradise.

      We’re already getting late night and early morning garbage trucks there (the noisiest possible vehicle), so it doesn’t seem like a huge imposition for businesses and delivery services to adjust to this.

      • This is also what happens on Occidental mall in Pioneer Square: deliveries in the morning (6-11), pedestrian mall the rest of the day. It’s extremely pleasant, and the variety of businesses on that block seem to be doing just fine.

  8. I like it the way it is. Cars are already second to pedestrians. They seem to coexist quite well. Having the cars slowing creeping through the people ads to the grit I hate to see lost on the hill. Please don’t sanitize the hill. All the car shares on a Friday and Saturday ad to the vibe. The area has 14 blocks of very valuable parking. Would they then encourage people not to park in those 14 blocks? If yes, tell me how that won’t hurt businesses. If it is no, tell me how it will work to incentivize people not to drive but to park. Or is the removal of parking part of the incentive to keep cars out? Quit messing with the hill, let it morph into what it will be by itself. That is what made it cool in the first place, it wasn’t all the new condos and apartments.

    • I agree 100%. Parking is difficult enough already. Cars are very useful in that area.

      People keep mentioning that parking lot by Seattle Central. It’s a pretty good hike to that lot if you’re up at a place near 12th, and not safe to walk there after dark. It’s a creepy lot as well. I know more than one person who’s been mugged there at night.

      I just don’t see it as being necessary. I remember being upset when they reopened Pine Street to traffic as Westlake Center. I liked walking around there (I don’t drive). But I got used to the change pretty quickly.

      Saw this comment posted elsewhere I liked: “I love how casually they speak about reconstructing multiple city blocks and toying with thousands of people’s lives so that they can experiment and be more like Barcelona. Freaking clueless.”

  9. Can we turn, say, all of 11th Avenue into a North-South no-car zone?

    Has any city done this to an entire long street? Not a square pedestrian zone. Not a bike lane. But an ENTIRE STREET changed to be no-cars?

    • 11th Ave is an amazing connection across the hill from the light rail station through Cal Anderson to Seattle U. It would be incredible if it were car-free, landscaped and pedestrianized. Truly world class.

    • As an 11th Ave resident I say no no no! As a person with difficulty walking I don’t want to force a car to let me off on 12th instead of my front door. Also need it for deliveries. (I don’t drive) And looking after an elderly relative gave me a new appreciation for parking, which was needed for visiting nurses, caregivers, lawyers, and yes taxis to be able to pull up to the front door to take the relative to doctor appts and the hospital.

      I have never driven a car; a lifelong pedestrian. But even I feel sorry for the anti-car attitude and people being so holier than thou about it. “You still DRIVE? Well, you should be publicly executed!”

      • Calm down, Boo. Could you imagine a landscaped 11th Ave, with maybe 1 driving lane for drop offs, pick ups, deliveries, TNC? A significantly wider sidewalk for your mobility issues, calmer traffic in front of your home, and trees, plants and shrubs to beautify your day-to-day life?

        I don’t understand people’s knee-jerk “no” reactions. Like, just take a breath, and use your imagination.

        Tell us what your ideal 11th Ave would look like.

      • If we were to design a city today, surely there would be *some* ENTIRELY no-car streets? I think? I don’t know, but it seems like there should be.

        I’m not sure if 11th is the best place in the city/world for this to happen. It’s just a thought. I’d like to see if it has happened anywhere.

        A 1-car-lane 11th does seem like it would be nice though. Plenty of room for non-cars, while still allowing deliveries and drop-offs.

  10. This is a great idea! I’ve lived in Europe, and these pedestrian-only shopping zones are ubiquitous. They are not only commercially thriving but also connect people socially. Let’s do it!

  11. I think y’all just stepped in a pile of liberal ass bullshit. Seattle has SO MANY MORE PRIORITIES than this crap. But the Democrats want to distract you. There are thousands of homeless children surviving on the streets and the clueless homos of Capitol Hill want to talk about pretty sidewalks. You people are sick and you deserve a second Trump term.

  12. Love it. I think that six block area would be the perfect spot to try this. Cars would not be completely banned here, they would just be diverted from driving straight through. So if someone needs an Uber pickup they could get one, but it would have to enter the area slowly.

    I think the biggest problem currently on Pike is how narrow the sidewalks are. Mostly eliminating the parking and reducing the amount of space devoted to cars would give pedestrians and sidewalk diners significantly more room. One challenge will be dealing with the dumpsters on 10th though. The stench is horrendous and the garbage trucks are so loud.

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