Why is urban planning so feeble in Seattle? Why no major open space downtown? Why do opportunities, such as Seattle Commons or retooling Seattle Center, become battlegrounds? Why so little beloved and bold architecture?
I got thinking about this a few weeks back when I was asked to be on a panel called "Activism: Better City" at the U.W. College of the Built Environment, convened by Marga Rose Hancock. The panel was looking back at some ambitious planning initiatives 30-40 years ago. The hope was to stir similar efforts today, but when I went back to examine how well these earlier ideas had worked out, I got discouraged, not mobilized.
The first effort the panel looked at was the Action: Better City (called A:BC) project of 1968, in which 50 local architects formed design groups and proposed such things as a 52-acre park in the heart of Belltown; dramatic palisades of buildings out over the Viaduct; and a handsome central plaza called Westlake Square. One of the A:BC instigators, Fred Bassetti, recalls the seminal project in this essay.
None worked out, but the group did lay the foundations for Seattle urban values, once the bad ideas of ringing downtown with freeways and parking garages had been defeated. The values: walkable, dense, diverse downtown street life; exploitation of alleys and smaller spaces; a major downtown park; transit to supplant cars and lots of downtown living. All those ideals hold true today, despite our poor efforts in realizing them. That major downtown park may eventuate on the central waterfront, 50 years later!
A subsequent effort was the Gang of Five, a group of five smallish architecture firms that looked again at major downtown issues and published their proposals in Seattle Weekly in 1981-82. The firms were Olson/Walker, Hewitt/Daly, Calvin/Gorasht, Schorr/Miller and Hobbs/Fukui. Peter Miller, owner of Peter Miller Books, a design bookstore, and I served as ghost writers.
The articles (Nov. 18, 1981, Jan. 6, Feb. 24, and April 28 1982) are most interesting to re-read today. Modesty and pragmatism were the key features, in contrast with the dream-big manner of A:BC and today. Downtown living was the major goal. In a way, the Gang prefigured low-regulation density advocates such as Edward Glaeser, who push for all kinds of ways to build taller buildings and increase density, with less deference to competing goals such as historic preservation, design review and affordability.
Here are some of the major Gang of Five ideas:
•Erect a big parking structure north and south of the Kingdome, topped with mixed-use buildings and incorporating a major transit center. Finally, this year, one-quarter of that opportunity is being built, along with a transit center at nearby Union Station.
•Keep and repair the Viaduct, but slow its traffic to 35 mph to cut down noise, enclose the lower level in glass and eventually convert the top deck to a park. Move Alaskan Way, the surface road, to under or east of the Viaduct, creating an 11-block park and promenade along the waterfront.
•Locate some major facilities in Pioneer Square: the Art Museum facing Occidental Park, a library to replace the “sinking ship” garage, a convention center at Union Station. (No way the powerful downtown real estate and tourism interests would have stood for this.)
•In Belltown, slow the traffic and narrow the streets. Put a monorail station at Bell Street. Keep older buildings by allowing developers to straddle them with taller buildings overhead and over the sidewalks, creating arcades. Focus parking garages at the monorail stop and a big project around Second and Battery, with tall buildings on stilts so that pedestrians can see through them to the waterfront views. Build a low-rise residential village where the Gates Foundation is today. Lid over depressed Broad Street, to make Seattle Center more a part of the city. And top it off with a gondola on Broad, linking the waterfront, Seattle Center and Lake Union.
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