The coming boom spurred by a new Sound Transit light rail station and a possible rezone of the University District for transit-oriented development poses some interesting challenges. Here's one: With density and possible gentrification in the offing, can inclusive public spaces such as parks and plazas be part of the plans? Or will efforts to include public space be derailed by the mad desire for density and worries about abetting the District’s homeless youth population?
One much-discussed concept to add open space is the U District Square proposal. A group of architects and university residents wants to close off Brooklyn Ave. at the new light rail station and turn it into a public plaza. Their concept drawings show a two-block stretch alongside University Tower (and between 45th NE and 43rd NE) that would be closed to most traffic and host a variety of community-building activities, including the neighborhood's farmer's market. The space would feature trees, benches and an area for outdoor concerts or films. Some of the plaza would be taken up by the large entrances to the underground station, but the plan's proponents say these surface eyesores could be incorporated into their concept.
Brooklyn has already been declared a city Green Street. As it is, the street sees a lot of bike commuters. Cory Crocker, president of U District Advocates, sees the U District Square as a potential catalyst for community. Crocker is a web designer who got his master's degree in arhcitecture from the UW. Advocates like him are all for density, but the coming tidal wave of growth adds urgency, they say, to the need for a centrally located, active civic open space in the heart of the District. A "heart" is what the late Philip Thiel, longtime UW architecture professor and advocate of the square, always said the U District needed.
Crocker's group is also involved with a proposed a parklet for 43rd Street between the Ave and Brooklyn. That segment has been closed-off for station construction. The parklet would fulfill two important urban functions: It would boost business to the adjacent restaurants and shops by drawing people to an attractive open spot on the street, and it would serve as a kind of test for the more ambitious square idea. The parklet is part of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s parklet pilot program. According to Crocker, there has already been pushback from locals who fear the small park will become "overrun" by the homeless.
The U District has wrestled with its public streets and walkways for decades. The Ave. underwent a major re-do in the late 1990s which widened its sidewalks and greened the street, and proposals for improving and urbanizing the neighborhood go way back. The advent of University Village in the 1950s alarmed the District's business community, which feared that the new retail hub would siphon the life out of it. UW architect and urban activist Victor Steinbruek proposed turning the Ave. into a semi-covered pedestrian mall and putting a neighborhood farmer’s market there — in 1955. U Village, which has undergone dramatic expansion in recent years, offers an upscale, car-centric shopping experience, in counterpoint to the District’s more urban Ave. Some believe that the success of U Village has only exacerbated the commercial district’s economic and social challenges.
The late Victor Steinbrueck imagined University Ave. as a bustling pedestrian mall. Credit: Victor Steinbrueck
From the standpoint of designing any urban open space, the stance toward the homeless population tends to be defensive, to say the least. Many park designs are downright hostile: unsittable seats, fences, hard surfaces, security cameras. Recently, a colleague sketched for me a new downtown development which will include a corner park or plaza next to new high-rises. Another man who lives near the proposed development looked at the napkin doodle and said: "Great. How do you keep the homeless out?"
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