Disclosure number 1: I know most of the people who were involved in the design of Bell Street Park. I have greatly admired their work for many years; they have pushed the edge of public works, infusing it with sustainable principles combined with a Pacific Northwest attitude about shared spaces.
Disclosure Number 2: I have been involved with the redesign of numerous streets and public spaces in this region and elsewhere. I understand how insanely hard it is to navigate a design through the public process. There are inflexible bureaucracies, contentious citizen committees and arcane standards, any or all of which can defeat the most well-intended and innovative ideas.
Repurposing streets to make them more accessible, more sustainable, safer, more usable and hopefully more attractive is a noble objective. For decades we have built streets for nothing but moving and storing vehicles. Since World War II, we have collectively ceded the design of streets to engineers obsessed with moving traffic as the primary, if not singular, priority.
Far be it from me then to discourage attempts to rearrange that value system and take people on foot, bikes or public transit into account. As it turned out, Bell Street Park only happened because the city right-of-way was transferred from Seattle's Department of Transportation to its Parks Department. This may or may not have been the right decision. In other cities, New York and San Francisco leap to mind, streets have been transformed into splendid public spaces by people within city transportation agencies.
As another columnist recently put it, Bell Street is a “grand experiment.” I agree. The built result, however, is closer to what the British call a “dog’s breakfast.”
Things began well. The design team had a clear guiding principle: Treat the street as a shared space, allowing everyone, including people in vehicles and on foot, bikes, etc. to use it. This idea of a more democratic public street has been around for a long time. For the past 40 years, the Dutch have embraced the idea of woonerf (pronounced voh-nerf) — literally, a “living street.”
Bell Street is Seattle’s attempt to create a woonerf.
We can learn as much from the mistakes inherent in the experiment as from its successes. There are plenty of both to go around. Indeed, in their eagerness to try things out, designers have simply crammed too many ideas into one place. Like an overwritten first draft, the design could have used a merciless editor.
Seattle already has a woonerf of sorts. It’s been around for decades. Occidental between Jackson Street and Main Street shows how the idea of a living street can work. Cars and delivery trucks are allowed to park during limited hours. People can ride bikes or scooters, stand, linger, talk and meander without fear of being run over. Restaurants set tables and chairs out. The space works for lots of different purposes and remains one of the most elegant and graceful public places in Seattle, passing the ultimate litmus test: Every week throughout the year, people have their wedding pictures taken there. Occidental bertween Jackson and Main is a place of both commerce and romance.
How did it happen? Four elements: big trees, brick paving, unique lighting and nicely designed building fronts. That’s it.
By contrast, Bell Street Park has tons of stuff. Meandering curb lines. Several different concrete patterns and colors (mainly grays). Special lighting painted dark brown. Recycled granite curbs as seating. Shiny metal bollards and bike racks. Little rusty metal and wire fences, ostensibly to keep dogs away. Cryptic art pieces. A seating platform, as yet unused. Surface planters. Flowers in big pots. (Okay, to be fair, the designers did not propose the flower pots. Formerly used in Westlake Park, they were dragged in by the Parks Department from some warehouse, complete with mildew in their crevices.) Its just way too much stuff.
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