It took two decades of community planning to guide the affordable housing and community space-rich “transit oriented development” set to open above Capitol Hill Station in 2020. Proponents hope a new community-driven plan will play out faster to grow the neighborhood’s Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and — ultimately — create a pedestrian-and cyclist-first “superblock” in the middle of the neighborhood.
The start of this new “Public Life” plan began this summer in Copenhagen and will, officials hope, take a small, $150,000 step forward this fall as the Seattle City Council puts its touches on the city’s next fiscal budget. The discussion will begin Friday in council chambers.
“It’s about focusing on the EcoDistrict to make it more pedestrian friendly and a model for sustainability,” citywide representative Lorena González tells CHS about her proposal to add funding for a “Public Life Study” of Capitol Hill and the longterm hopes for the plan to shape the neighborhood:
This action would add funding for a neighborhood focused Public Life Study of Capitol Hill in partnership with community organizations, such as the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict. A public life study seeks to evaluate and characterize the use of public space (i.e., how is public space being used and who is using the public space) to provide insight into how design, activation, social behavior, built environment, and urban form influence public activity.
A 2018 Public Life Study (PDF) by the Seattle Department of Transportation evaluated 108 block faces across the city, including four locations in Capitol Hill. The study focused on metrics like counts of people walking — and people standing still. Findings vary. Some were dead simple like the densest neighborhoods tended to have the busiest streetscapes. Others were more illuminating like the “linger factor” — the ratio of people to people standing still — and its consistency even in busy environments. Some takeaways make you long for Saturday. “Overall, we found that weekend activities were more extroverted (67%) as compared to weekdays (55%),” the study concluded.
González sees the study as the formal start of a planning process that will eventually bear real fruit on the streets of Capitol Hill with the EcoDistrict as a core to build on.
This summer, she visited Copenhagen and European cities on a Capitol Hill EcoDistrict-led tour of “sustainable, urban strategies” overseas. The delegation was large including the council member and representatives from the EcoDistrict, Seattle Central College, Sound Transit, the Seattle and Washington State Departments of Transportation, 4Culture, and Seattle University as well as King County Council member Joe McDermott.
The trip left her with three key lessons. One takeaway was a healthy respect for the “four second rule” after seeing the variety within Copenhagen streetfronts where the streetscape seems to change every four seconds as you pass along. Copenhagen also deepened her respect for designing with climate resiliency and creating urban spaces “intentionally designed for green architecture.” And, finally, the trip sold her on the superilles, blocks of cities dedicated to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Next stop: Cal Anderson to hear from Brie Gyncild & Michelle Lambert. We're hearing about changes through the decades and community work to influence #transitorienteddevelopment and what's it's like to raise a family in the state's densest neighborhood. pic.twitter.com/2ly3b24LJX
— Councilmember M. Lorena González (@CMLGonzalez) October 8, 2019
And it won’t just be cool urbanist fantasies of carless streets and bustling plazas. On a walking tour of the neighborhood last week, community representatives talked with González and officials about concerns like LGBTQ and public safety, day care, and the environment.
When it comes to creating a Capitol Hill superblock, González has an ally on the council in Teresa Mosqueda. CHS talked with Mosqueda about her hopes to plant the seeds for such a block starting next year, possibly with a short-term bill that would use temporary design elements to change the flow of traffic — “as soon as we feel like there has been robust community engagement.”
González’s “Public Life” plan could be the first step in making a Capitol Hill block happen.
Capitol Hill Housing started the EcoDistrict effort in 2013 with funding from The Bullitt Foundation to increase sustainability efforts in the neighborhood. It has largely been a symbolic effort to date with efforts to pilot “shared parking” and a project to transform the Neighbours alley under its wing. In 2015, the EcoDistrict seemed primed to become a larger driver in the neighborhood’s community planning. After the Capitol Hill Camber of Commerce shuttered this summer following a failed expansion bid, the EcoDistrict effort stands as one of the largest, most solidly backed community groups in the neighborhood and a potential counterweight — and ally — to the growing presence of the GSBA’s Capitol Hill Alliance in the neighborhood’s business community..
“In 2020, the EcoDistrict hopes to lead an inclusive, participatory planning process that will create a community-driven vision and implementation plan,” Capitol Hill Housing CEO Chris Persons said in a recent update on the nonprofit developer. “With billions of dollars in upcoming investments to institutions and infrastructure within and at the edge of Capitol Hill, now is the moment to put people first in planning for public spaces such as parks, sidewalks, streets, and alleys.”
“The EcoDistrict has been serving a function as a steward of the public good for that geographic area, and they’ve done a great job of pulling together a diverse coalition,” González says of building on the organization’s work. The council member said the group is unique in the neighborhood at this point in having the “organizational structure” to make sure the planning work is viable and productive.
Things will be even more solid when the organization gets a new leader. Capitol Hill Housing has been searching for a new executive director (PDF) to guide the EcoDistrict. Applicants should have a master’s degree in urban planning or a related field, broad knowledge and passion for urban and environmental issues, and familiarity and connection to Capitol Hill.
Even as the 2020 budget wheels turn at City Hall, work to shape the Public Life plan is beginning.
You can help.
The Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and 15th Ave E architecture firm Board & Vellum are beginning to collect “observational data of public spaces throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood” and they’re seeking volunteers to help.
“Learn how to collect observational data in a range of public spaces to help the EcoDistrict better understand how our community uses existing public space,” the pitch reads. “Volunteers will receive training on observational data collection to track how our sidewalks, parks, and intersections are being used in day-to-day life. Data collected will help the City of Seattle leverage billions of dollars in upcoming investments to inform a holistic, equitable planning process that will yield a community vision for well-connected, safe, and active public spaces on Capitol Hill.”
And, maybe someday in around 20 years or so, you can say you helped build the Capitol Hill superblock.
You can learn more about the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict at capitolhillecodistrict.org.