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    Bell Street Park: A noble bust

    In their grand attempt to create a "living street" designers just tried to do too much.
    Looking west down Bell Street: dog fences, planters, upended curbs as seats and a car that may - or may not - be legally parked.

    Looking west down Bell Street: dog fences, planters, upended curbs as seats and a car that may - or may not - be legally parked. Credit: Mark Hinshaw

    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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    Posted Wed, Apr 23, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks, Mark. Having watched the Parks Department process on another city project I can't say I'm surprised. The design phase with community input turns into a laundry list of things that Joe next door wants, Jill across the street wants and the family on the next block want. Consequently the design team tries to incorporate all these elements into their plan to please and garner the support of as much as the community as it can. Like you say, the typical result is a cacophony of disparate elements without a clear focus. In design, simple is usually better but unfortunately that is not how the community or political process works.


    Posted Wed, Apr 23, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    "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."

    Moving traffic SHOULD be the primary, if not singular, priority for streets. You don't think people want to be able to travel through and within a city quickly and efficiently?

    What are sidewalks for?


    Posted Wed, Apr 23, 4:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    *WHY* should people who don't live or work in an area take precedence over those who do?

    The primary function of streets, as opposed to roads, is to provide local access and accommodation. The notion that streets are primarily for through traffic is a recent invention, pushed by auto company public relations campaigns.

    "Jaywalking" was invented out of whole cloth to stigmatize the use of streets by those who live and work along those streets, to shame them out of making fair use of a public asset that belongs as much to them as it does to the strangers passing through.



    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Why should people who do not live downtown take priority on the actual streets? Because we come to downtown to DO BUSINESS, ie, spend money. And we need LOTS of easy parking. We don't just drive there for pleasure, because truly, going downtown for any reason is a nightmare, and I only go when necessary. But I spend money every time I go downtown. Econ 101: honor thy patrons wallets.

    For those who choose to live downtown - you should grab-a-clue: There is a lot of traffic, and it is noisy, and very, very important.

    Move to the suburbs if you don't want city traffic.

    Jaywalking wasn't invented out of "whole cloth", what a dippy phrase. Jaywalking was invented by pedestrians in a hurry, simple as that. And cities saw a wonderful opportunity to increase revenue by issuing 'jaywalking tickets' which cost actual money. Econ 101: cities will tax or ticket the bejezus out of anyone they can think of. Next we'll see a walking tax for all those who refuse to jump on a bus or other public transit.

    Strangers are what ensure a city stays viable BTW. Econ 101 once again.

    Posted Thu, Apr 24, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    What gets me is that my bus to downtown still uses Bell St. That seems silly if not stupid. If we want less vehicle traffic, let's remove the busses at least from the equation.


    Posted Thu, Apr 24, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    So who are the members of the Design Team and what were their contributions? Why leave anonymous? Do any live on or near the project?


    Posted Fri, Apr 25, 3:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'm pleased the Bell Street Park has been completed, is in use and the neighborhood and park have started a long process of mutual accommodation. I must admit working early on to advocate for this park from 2004 to 2009. We thought it was the only way in a reasonable time to get some open space, some green, some opportunity for mixing in Belltown. That turned out to true.
    I also want to recognize that achieving this park was in large measure a result of enlightened City professionals and department leaders, who were ready to break with tradition to meet a unique need. This entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit must be encouraged by the City’s top leaders. We saw this is the Parks Department, SDOT and DPD for this project.
    Yes, Bell Street Park in 2 months has not developed the 'patina' of Occidental in Pioneer Square has over decades. But the 'patina' will develop over time and we'll start to see results in a few years. It will help when the complete vision of the Park from the Waterfront to Denny Park/SLU is achieved, hopefully in just a few more years..
    The Park isn't finished but it is a good start and if the neighborhood and Parks take real ownership, it will be a great improvement to this part of Belltown. Big tuna


    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Is a patina what Belltown calls it when things fall apart because they were cheap, unneeded and poorly built?

    Posted Sat, Apr 26, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    "... flimsy and insubstantial art works?" Mark, you are way way too kind on this one.


    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

    I don't define "park" as a space with enormous, smelly, polluting buses passing through within feet. I think anything called a "park" ought to provide a respite from urban artifacts like buses and cars. I see this as just another expression of the war on cars. Not remembering that the city was doing something on Bell, the other night on my way to volunteering at 2nd and Blanchard I got stuck going through the "park" on my way to 2nd Ave. Perhaps a nice idea, but certainly the wrong site. If I lived nearby I can't see myself thinking that I'd like to go have a stroll or a sit near monster buses and traffic. Not my taste.


    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    Agree, the park is the result of a laundry list of things wanted by various people and groups. What may have started out as a good idea, ended up as a mishmash. That seems to be the MO for the Parks Dept. They want to make everyone happy, and hence have a tendency to get carried away.

    Such is the problem with the long list of "I wants" created by the Parks Advisory Committee and being considered by the City Council right now. It seems they suffer from restraint aversion... and they are now proposing a permanent revenue stream beyond the general fund.... a metropolitan parks district (MPD) that will be called the Seattle Parks District (SPD) that can levy annual taxes on us, our children, our grandchildren.... in perpetuity ...... with NO requirement for restraint or serious accountability checks. Sounds like a bad idea to me.

    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    Can we please not call it SPD? At least until the other SPD is no longer under a Justice Department microscope?


    Posted Sun, Apr 27, 6:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    "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."

    I call B.S.

    This is a freaking CITY. This looks exactly like a neighborhood road that needs to sustain low traffic volumes to me ... ummmm wait, no it doesn't ... IT LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE THE WAR ON CARS THAT SEATTLE IS FAR TO FAMOUS FOR.

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