Some 100 University District residents and employees attended a new community forum on Tuesday night that seeks to revitalize the neighborhood’s vision for its existing and future public spaces. Seattle’s standards for open space are 1 acre/1,000 households and 1 acre/10,000 jobs, and currently the neighborhood has a 3 acre deficit. With 1,500 residential units now under construction or planned, and an additional 4,000 units expected by 2035, the neighborhood’s open space deficit will surely grow. Amidst other planning processes, including an upzoning centered around the 45th Street light rail station, the goal of the forum is to publish an updated public space plan for the U-District that will guide future planning and development.
Public open space is critically important to the health of cities, especially as as growth and density increase. Such spaces can take a variety of forms, ranging from traditional parks and squares to shorelines, streets, and alleys. They provide an “outdoor living room” where people can gather, eat, relax, and play in the public sphere. Recent trends in urban design and landscape architecture recognize how location and coordination with surrounding land uses is critical to the success of public spaces. Local zoning also regulates how and where private development should provide open spaces, such as with street setbacks, rooftop access, courtyards, etc. but regulations that require to public open space on private property are often only incentive-based.
The forum, which will have two more public meetings, has been in the making for at least a year. Rapid apartment growth in the post-recession period has stimulated debate, and the recent creation of the Seattle Parks District opens up new opportunities for funding. As a result, The U District Partnership and the Seattle planning and parks departments hired consultants from the Pomegranate Center and MAKERS Architecture and Urban Design to lead public meetings, digest public input, and deliver recommendations on the open space plan.
The first meeting began with an introduction of the neighborhood’s spatial and temporal context and provided an update on public projects that are already underway. The City is planning to upgrade Brooklyn Avenue, 42nd Street, and 43rd Street to “green streets”, projects that were envisioned back in 1998 and before light rail became a reality. The segment of Brooklyn between 45th and 43rd is tentatively designated as a “festival street” where a spinoff of the University Farmer’s Market can take place all week long. In collaboration with the university and the state department of transportation, a small waterfront park on Portage Bay called Sakuma Viewpoint will be expanded. Backers for a parklet on 43rd are currently fundraising, and the University Playground will soon be getting improvements.
The facilitators then asked each member of the audience to answer a question: What guiding principles or values do you propose for developing open space in the University District? The responses ran the gambit and reflected the diversity of those in attendance. Residents value livability, sense of community, gateways and destinations, equitable distribution of green space, co-locating with transit and walking connections, pet friendliness, all-season usefulness, public art, and more. Then came the second question: What kind of functions and activities do you envision? Sitting, socializing, eating, sporting events, children and adults playing, gardening, water features, exercising, and quiet reflection all came up. Early on it became clear that there are a variety of needs. One common theme that residents supported was the importance of a central park proximate to the light rail station to welcome the thousands of people who will be passing through it every day.
An important piece of new and improved open spaces will be maintenance and programming. Zori Santer, past director of Portland Parks and Recreation and now with MAKERS, said her experience is that government cannot be the sole provider of park services due to limited resources, especially for large parks. Instead, many cities turn to non-profits and private community organizations to manage funding for public spaces. Friends of the High Line in New York, the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation in Dallas, or even Friends of Waterfront Seattle are recent examples. The U District Partnership may play this role for future public spaces in the neighborhood. The Partnership already manages the funds generated by a Business Improvement Area (BIA), which is an extra property tax on neighborhood businesses. The Partnership is proposing to expand the BIA boundaries, and if approved by property owners, it would generate $750,000/year (up from only $140,000/year) for events, marketing, street cleaning, and economic development.
As the second most active urban center in the Puget Sound region, the U District is set to become an even greater hub for business, academics, and social life over the next 20 years. With positive collaboration between residents and city government, the neighborhood can create a well designed open space system which refines its unique identity. Stay tuned to this space for updates on future meetings, which will be on October 30 and December 3 at 7:00pm at Alder Hall Commons (1310 NE 40th Street).