Making use of the city's many vacant lots

Downtown Seattle is spotted with empty pits and lots, conspicuous signs of the ongoing recession, prompting City Hall to find a temporary solution.

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Vacant lot at Second Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle.

Downtown Seattle is spotted with empty pits and lots, conspicuous signs of the ongoing recession, prompting City Hall to find a temporary solution.

They are the conspicuous signs of a recession gone by, the various empty pits and lots, some surrounded by fences, all over the city.

Most are construction projects interrupted by foreclosures or a lack of financing — apartments, offices, and stores that never came to be. Just about every neighborhood has one of them. Even City Hall has an empty lot for a neighbor.

To remedy the blight, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed legislation a few weeks ago that will give property owners incentives to invite nearby residents, vendors, and artists to enliven these otherwise dead zones.

“When we talk about these lots, we tend to talk about the developers,” said Councilwoman Sally Clark, who sponsored the legislation. “We talk about the property owners being underwater or going bankrupt, but these lots also have an impact on the surrounding neighborhood.”

Such lots attract illegal dumping of garbage, among other things, Clark said, and at the very least just look depressing. The new ordinance would allow property owners to turn their construction sites into parking lots (thus giving them a way to earn money from the land), providing they “activate” the sidewalk-facing sides of the lot with things like food vendors, retail kiosks, nurseries, community gardens, or public art.

To be eligible to participate in the city’s pilot program, a lot must already have legally established accessory parking. It also must have had an active building permit by June 1, 2010, or have been cleared for construction by that date. The city will issue no more than 20 lot-activation permits, good for a three-year period. Permits can be renewed for an additional three years.

Mayor Mike McGinn signed the legislation March 31; the ordinance goes into effect April 30. One developer, Kevin Daniels (a principal in the push to develop the north end of Qwest Field), has already committed to an enhancement of his vacant lot across from City Hall, at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, where plans to build a high-rise apartment stalled. The lot was wrapped in chain-link fencing, and covered by a plastic tarp.

Until construction resumes, Daniels has given an artist permission to use the lot to display a moveable sculpture called “Sail Away,” designed by artist Kristi Park, whose project (see it here) won a design contest held by the Seattle Design Commission. The artist needs $20,000 to get the project done and has collected about $1,400 in donations so far. She was hoping to collect more today in a benefit concert to be held near the construction site.

A second lot of interest is located at Second Avenue and Pine Street, the site of a stalled hotel project. The owner has already filled in the foundation hole, paved it over, and started using it as a parking lot. The cost of filling in a pit, paving it over, and then excavating again when the project resumes can be a deterrent to developers, Clark said. Not every property owner will want to or be able to convert their lot to creative use. But she hopes the legislation will tip those who are on the fence.

“I’m happy to play matchmaker,” Clark said of property owners and residents.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at