Event Recap: U District Open Space Forum

Doug Campbell, owner of Bulldog News, opens the event. Photo: author.

Some 100 University District residents and employees attended a new community forum on Tuesday night, which seeks to revitalize the neighborhood’s vision for its existing and future public spaces. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan sets the standard for open space at 1 acre per 1,000 dwelling units and 1 acre per 10,000 jobs. Currently, the neighborhood stands at a 3-acre deficit by these metrics. 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 a rezoning effort centered on the NE 43rd Street light rail station, the goal of the forum is to publish an updated public space plan for the University 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 stoops, frontage plazas and gardens, rooftop green space, and interior courtyards. Although, these are often only incentive- or performance-based amenities.

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 (UDP) 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 an 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 NE, NE 42nd Street, and NE 43rd Street to “green streets”–projects that were envisioned back in 1998 and before the imminent reality of a light rail station. The segment of Brooklyn Avenue NE between NE 45th Street and NE 43rd Street is tentatively designated as a “festival street” where a spinoff of the University Farmers’ Market can take place all week long. In collaboration with the University of Washington and Washington State Department of Transportation, the small waterfront park on Portage Bay (Sakuma Viewpoint) will be significantly expanded. Backers for a parklet on NE 43rd Street are currently fundraising, and the University Playground will soon be receiving 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 space. Residents felt that such a space should be in proximity to the future light rail station and 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 in public parks planning and management has taught her many valuable things, but most especially this: government cannot be the sole provider of park services due to limited resources and lack of hyper-local park management personalization, especially for larger park spaces. Instead, many cities turn to non-profits and private community organizations to manage funding and programming 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 prime examples. The UDP may play this role for future public spaces in the neighborhood. The UDP already manages the funds generated by a Business Improvement Area (BIA), which is an extra property tax on neighborhood businesses, and the former neighborhood Chamber of Commerce. The Partnership is proposing to expand the BIA boundaries, and if approved by property owners, it would generate $750,000 per year (up from only $140,000 per year) for funding events, marketing, street cleaning, and economic development.

As the second most active urban center in the Puget Sound region, the University 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 slated October 30 and December 3. Each of these meetings will be held at 7pm on the University of Washington campus at Alder Hall Commons (1310 NE 40th Street).

Scott Bonjukian is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. He writes about local and regional planning issues at his personal blog, The Northwest Urbanist.

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Scott Bonjukian is a car-free urban designer with a passion for sustainable and efficient cities. With degrees in architecture and urban planning, his many interests include neighborhood design, public space and street design, transit systems, pedestrian and bicycle planning, local politics, and natural resource protection. He primarily cross-posts from his blog at The Northwest Urbanist and advocates for a variety of progressive land use and transportation solutions.

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Some of the individual proposals sound fine, but it is hard for me to buy the argument that the U-District needs more open space. The area has way more parks than most of the city. If you look at a satellite view of the city, you can see that the UW campus has plenty of green space. Walking around there, you will notice not only big fields, but plenty of big trees. Given the sparsity or cars, the entire campus could be considered open space. The areas that are a ways from campus just so happen to have other, albeit small, parks, If you are close to the freeway and north of 45th, for example, then you have the nearby University Playground. If you head north enough, you have Ravenna/Cowen Park, which is a very nice park (one of the best in the city). The same is true if you head south. There are little parks or green spaces along the way, and you can access the waterfront (where there is more public space). If you go far enough and cross the bridge, you can get to the arboretum, which is an outstanding destination. I’m afraid the numbers used to calculate the amount of needed open space somehow ignore the ‘U’ in “U-District”. The campus is wonderful, and it is open to everyone (and everyone paid for it).

In contrast, look at downtown. Between the sculpture park, Denny Park, Freeway Park and Pioneer Square there is very little open space (unless you count Westlake Park, which is a joke, and hardly deserves the name “park”). That is a huge chunk of downtown with very little in the way of open space. The waterfront changes will help, but I would rather focus on expanding Freeway Park to the north, which would add a bit of open space and better connect downtown with Capitol Hill. I would much rather spend money on that, rather than adding extra open space, especially Westlake Park style open space, to the U-District. That includes the area around the train station as well. It is tempting to think that we get this land “for free”, but if we build a cement “square” similar to the area surrounding Safeco Tower, then we will be throwing away a lot of money. Money that could be spent expanding of developing parkland in other areas.

It seems like focusing on open space misses what is good and bad in the area. The UW campus is marvelous. The “Ave” (University Way) is a gem. 45th is a nasty, ugly street. The contrast between the Ave and 45th is especially striking when you consider that 45th has way more “open space”, in the form of buildings setbacks or parking lots. To be fair, the other sides of the Safeco building are far worse. For example, the 12th avenue side is atrocious — it not only lacks retail, but any sign of life.

The U-District should focus on what is important, and remember why the Ave is by far the most popular street in the area. This means:

1) Put buildings right up front. No big parking lot in front of a building, which is all too common in the area.

2) Require ground floor retail.

3) Consider adding more green to 45th, similar to what was done for Lake City. I would rather cross Lake City Way in Lake City than cross 45th in the U-District. This is hard to imagine, because for much of it’s distance, Lake City Way is a very nasty, ugly street. But the city did a great job in providing for a reasonably pleasant way to cross the street (and revitalized the area in the process). Doing this sort of thing needs to be balanced with the obvious need to get buses in and out. But unlike Lake City, there is a lot less need for buses (or cars) to go *though* the area, as opposed to *to* the area.

Stephen Fesler

Well, it really depends upon how you’re defining the University District. Is it the neighbourhood per the Comp Plan? Urban Design Framework definition? Or is it the Urban Center-designated area? It’s a fluid definition, but DPD and the neighourbhood appear to be going with the UDF’s definition, which doesn’t actually account for Cowen Park.

Also, UW land east of 15th Ave is not included in the definition. There merits of that may be dabatable, but that’s how the City’s defining said deficit. Many neighbours have argued that the UW technically isn’t even public space since all of it is subject to permission by UW authorities for non-UW affiliated public. It’s also worth noting that the UW asserts its independent planning authority since state entities can do so with their landholdings.

To be clear, I think there’s tons of open space. But I can see the desire to add small pockets of more green space through streetscape enhancements, more personalised areas, and even space closer to the core of the neighbourhood–that being The Ave and 45th Street. How that is achieved is very debatable.

The latter things that you mention are out of the scope of this forum effort. But there is the actual EIS that is examining those issues.


Thanks, that’s what I figured. The U-District, using rather arbitrary lines and definitions, is considered to have an open space deficit. You have to draw the line somewhere (literally), and I can see drawing it on the other side of Cowen Park. But to argue that UW technically isn’t public space is ludicrous. That is like arguing that a state park shouldn’t count as public space within a city just because it isn’t owned by the city. For all intents and purposes, outdoor land in the UW is public space. It is more accessible than many city owned properties. You don’t need to pay a fee (unlike the area around the zoo or parts of the arboretum). It has plenty of entrances (so many that it is hard to tell when you are actually on UW land*) and it doesn’t close at night.

I agree that the other points I made are out of the scope of this process. But it seems to me that someone had to argue that the area needs more open space, and I think that argument is misguided. The desire for more open space is understandable. But it isn’t what the area needs, as I said. To use, in essence, a loophole to achieve that goal, and to have the city go along with that process, could very likely turn out to backfire, or at the very least, be a waste of public park resources.

I personally favor lots of public parkland. I believe it leads to a more vibrant, more dense and more diverse neighborhood. For example, a family with kids would not hesitate to buy an apartment close to Greenlake, even if that apartment lacked a playground, or open area. Greenlake is your backyard, and what a yard it is.

Again, I see the need for that downtown, but not in the U-District. I can’t imagine any of the projects doing that for a potential resident. I think it is far more likely that someone looking at an apartment in the area thinks “Wait a second, you don’t have to a be a UW student to walk through the campus, you just walk! This is a great neighborhood”.

* I wonder if non-students who walk south of 41st in the U-District suddenly feel like they are intruding. I never have. Quite the opposite. Even if go as far south as Campus Parkway, it feels like public land. For example, I assumed the area in the meridian (called “the NE Campus Parkway common grass median” here:
http://police.uw.edu/aboutus/jurisdiction/) was owned by the city, but it is under the jurisdiction of the UW.

Stephen Fesler

I hear ya. What you’re saying is entirely a valid point. Frankly, I still think the UW itself should be considered as part of the equation here. A lot of open space there could be reenvisioned and made part of a larger effort to link open spaces for the U District. It seems silly to exclude it, but that’s what all the maps do. It doesn’t exist, and 15th Ave NE has been chosen as that hard line.

But really, I’m not so concerned about numbers anyway. Park space and public space can’t really be quantified by numbers because what really matters are the qualities of them. You can have 100 acres and it can entirely unusable or unsafe. Or you could have 0.05 acres that are an absolute gem and mean so much more than those 100 acres.

So, to me, the quality of space means more than the actual amount of it if I want it to be usable. Passive open space is a different animal. That runs the gamut. It could be in the streetscape, like street trees and bioswales, or it could be private frontage landscaping and p-patches. It really depends.