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How useful is Bell Street Park, actually?

bell street park

Aerial view of Bell Street Park Credit: Photo: Seattle Parks and Recreation, SvR Design

Three months ago, amid quite a bit of fanfare, I had the privilege of attending the Grand Opening for the long-anticipated Bell Street Park in Belltown. Mayor Ed Murray, Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Jean Godden and State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells were all on-hand to ceremoniously open the park.

But with the warm fuzzies of the park's grand opening squarely in the rearview mirror, it’s time to check in with real users of the park. Bell Street has historically been a city hot-spot for low-level crime, drug-dealing and civil disorder. Couple that with its controversial design and implementation (including the removal of old trees, cost-overruns, massive delays and fears it might become another Victor Steinbrueck Park) and you've got the potential for trouble. So how is everything going? And how does the community feel about it?

I spent some extended time on multiple days in the park, talking to folks, playing with my kids, visiting restaurants, Mary’s Place and the community center. It was evident that the Downtown Seattle Association, along with the Metropolitan Improvement District, were doing their part to help activate the park, and create an environment of fun, information and safety. The MID had just erected a concierge tent between 3rd and 4th streets, that they were staffing to help direct visitors and provide information, along with games for kids and adults alike to enjoy.

Most importantly, I had the opportunity to interview a few voices who either live, work or play along Bell Street Park:

Marcus Charles is a co-founder of the Capitol Hill Block Party, and will soon be the owner of not one but two restaurants along Bell Street Park. Number one is Local 360, and number two, debuting later this month, is Belle and Whete.

Stephan Muse lives next to Bell Street Park at Traugott Terrace and is about to graduate from the Matt Talbot Recovery Center.

Elizabeth Campbell is a nine year Belltown resident. She founded Sustainable Belltown, and participated in the community process for establishing the Bell Street Park. Over the past six years, she has worked within the Boards of Belltown Community Council, Belltown Housing and Land Use subcommittee, and Friends of Belltown Gardens.

How is Bell Street Park going, really?

MC: Overall, I think it’s going really well. It has really cleaned the street up. Though those trees were beautiful and historic, the street was extremely dark, the sidewalks were uneven, and it was very dangerous. It was an environment that welcomed misbehavior. Now, the Boulevard, is open, airy, the sidewalks are flat, and it is a much safer place.

SM: It’s going great. I absolutely love this park. As someone who lives right next to it, it’s great to have an open place where I can come with friends, sit down, eat some food, play games, and get some sun on my face. I think this is the best thing that Belltown has done.

EC: I’m so thrilled with it. The increased lighting and drainage has helped significantly, and the Bell Street infrastructure changes are really changing the dynamic of the whole street. One thing I really appreciate is that the street has stayed diverse with the changes. The entire breadth of the socio-economic scale is still there. We didn’t just gentrify with the park coming in.

Marcus, I noticed you called it a boulevard versus a park.

MC: I think there’s a disconnect from the communities perspective as when you look at it, it does not look like a park. It looks like a boulevard. We’ve had folks come up to Local 360 who will ask, “Do you know where Bell Street Park is?” We say, “it’s right here!” I think if we just start calling it what it is, a boulevard, it will catch on! (smiles)

In recent years, Bell Street was one of those streets that you avoided due to low-level crime, drug-dealing, etc. Some were concerned with the park going in, that it could perpetuate the problems and give more opportunities for a haven for illegal activity. What are you seeing?

EC: It was one of my concerns with the redesign that we were giving illegal activity a nicer place to be illegal, with Victor Steinbrueck Park being the example. We are actually seeing the design of the space discouraging drug dealing and prostitution. It’s well lit and safe. I used to completely avoid walking down Bell Street, even though I live here, as it was dark and there were always congregations of people who didn’t want residents coming through. Now, with the changes, it is now my safest route to walk-through. That is a very big change for a woman living in Belltown. I now choose that route over others and I know many other people are doing the same thing.

SM: I don’t see much illegal activity happening anymore. The spaces here have made it hard to congregate, especially for the homeless. I thought that this would be a new place that would attract the homeless, but they actually feel out of place here. I feel very safe here and really enjoy spending time outdoors with my friends.

MC: It has not become the next Steinbrueck Park. Partly because of the boulevard feel versus the actual park feel, and so it doesn’t feel as comfortable. With the trees being removed, which they were near the end of their natural life, it has created far less of a shrowd and no more haven for those who were misbehaving. This has really improved the neighborhood.

Initially, I had put a grocery store in next to Local 360 but I couldn’t get people to walk Bell St. at night because of the darkness so I converted it to private dining space.

I will say that I am glad we did the project and it has improved things, but I think Belltown has a gotten a bad rap over the years. Some restaurants recently left Belltown and took some shots at Belltown and made it seem as if Belltown was the reason they were leaving, when I think, in reality, it was a simple excuse to paint Belltown that way. I love Belltown that way it is. It’s an in-city neighborhood and it’s going to be the way it is. There is going to be lots of activity here, lots of social services here, and that’s how it’s going to be as an in-city neighborhood.

What do you envision for the future and how can the park be improved?

EC: Programming is going to be huge. We’ve got children beginning to use the park between 3rd and 4th which is great, so we’ve got to look at continued activation for all ages. We’ve got Saturday markets, summer concerts, and a pet show upcoming. Re-routing buses are huge. Right now there can be too much congestion due to buses and would be nice to address that. Also, I don’t want to developers use Bell Street Park in order to jack up rents. Residents that I talk to in Belltown are concerned that because of the park, and the Amazon effect, they could be priced out of Belltown.

MC: We need to activate the park/boulevard. The park is a great addition to a neighborhood that is revitalizing itself through sheer population. While the park has been a positive impact on Belltown, and is part of a reason I want to be in Belltown, I’m also excited about being apart of the overall revitalization of the neighborhood. From a business perspective, Local 360 has been doing great, along with El Gaucho, and many others, so I think the outlook is bright.

SM: It would be really nice to have some porta-potties out here. The folks at the Belltown Inn have been kind to let us use their restrooms, but when you’re hanging out in the park for a good chunk of the day, playing games, and drinking Big Gulps, it would be really great to have a porta-pottie. I’m just overall encouraged about Belltown, and about all my friends that have been going with me through the recovery program to have a place like this as we get back on our feet.

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