Bell Street Park: A noble bust

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

Let’s unpack a few of these items.

First, those little fences. Seriously? Because many downtown residents own dogs, we will start to see planting areas cordoned off by what look like miniature concentration camp enclosures? Surely large dogs will step over this barricade and small ones will slip under. (Perhaps the next step will be to electrify them?) Already, the fences have had to be reinforced with diagonal bracing. And the fences are only on one side. Did someone honestly think that dogs wouldn’t just wander over to the unfenced side? This is a stupendously dumb idea.

I have heard people compare Seattle's fences to the little wicket-style borders used around street trees in several east coast cities like New York. Those barriers were not intended to keep dogs at bay. They were added to enclose privately maintained planting areas. (They actually emerged in the 1930s as a make-work project for Works Progress Administration laborers.) Crafted of thick, welded iron bars, they are virtually indestructible. The fences on Bell look both crude and silly.

Second, the metal bollards. They are barely visible behind most cars and downright invisible behind delivery trucks. So one by one, they are being knocked over. The same thing has happened virtually every time bollards are installed where vehicles can hit them. For example, there used to be a string of them in front of Union Station, now the headquarters for Sound Transit. None remains. In European cities bollards work because they are placed on narrow streets used by small cars traveling at slow speeds (less than ten miles per hour). Here, they are a waste of money — unless they can be re-installed multiple feet behind a curb line.

Third, the confusing parking arrangement. The diagonal paving sends a visual signal to park on an angle. But the intended orientation is parallel to the street. The absence of a curb line in some locations only adds to the confusion, as do the angled curbs and the confusing, colored paving. The solution is apparently to add “wheel stops” (bolted-down curbs) which will indicate the proper alignment of cars. But this will simply compound the visual cacophony.

I could add a fourth complaint about Bell Street Park’s flimsy and insubstantial art pieces, but I’m worried about sliding into meanness.

Bell Street simply tries to do too much. And little of it is done really well. It’s good to see a willingness to play with streets, to see what works and what doesn’t. Maybe Bell Street’s protracted design process worked against simple functional elegance. Maybe people and agencies started to add stuff. Hard to tell.

It’s just too bad that, for all the good intent and effort, the end result isn’t great.

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