When Bell Street Park opened in 2014, it was one of Seattle’s first explorations into designing streets as “shared space”. Modeled after Dutch “woonerfs” (which literally translates to “living street”), it was meant to turn Bell Street into public open space while still maintaining vehicle access. In a traditional woonerf, pedestrians have legal priority to walk on any part of the street, including the roadway. No official and explicit confirmation like that exists for Bell Street Park, and people are almost never seen walking in the middle of it, except for brief crossings.

Turn restrictions have been put in place to prevent drivers from using it as a through-street and facilitate the flow of transit while keeping the pedestrian character, but they are largely ignored due to poor signage and perhaps lack of will.

All of the cars in this picture stalling the bus in traffic turned onto Bell illegally.
All of the cars in this picture stalling the bus in traffic entered Bell illegally

In an April 2014 article of The Stranger, Charles Mudede asked Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, what he thought of the park:

Woonerven are clever design experiments. In an ideal world—one where vehicle drivers all slow to 5mph or less—they really can become social spaces. The problem is, as the concept is adopted around the world, these shared space zones are being used as substitutes for true pedestrian spaces. Here’s the question we should use to judge the success of any woonerf: would I send my eight-year-old out there to play alone? If the answer is no, then this is not a truly accessible social space. It’s just a slow zone for cars.

This means that Bell does not function like a park as originally envisioned, but rather a traffic calmed and beautified street. This is an improvement, but if it is to become a park, sections of it must truly function like one, rather than a “park boulevard”. The strongest case for this are the two blocks between 1st and 3rd Avenue. They have the highest concentration of retail, outdoor seating for the retail and the highest pedestrian volumes–especially on weekends.

If you want to see Bell Street Park improved for pedestrians, come vouch for it at the upcoming Belltown Community Council meeting where Dongho Chang and Jonathan Dong from SDOT and Victor Obeso from King County Metro will be present to take feedback. Here are the event details:

  • When: Wednesday, April 8, 6.30pm
  • Where: Belltown Community Center, 415 Bell Street, Seattle, WA

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  1. I just noticed that they added those signs diverting traffic, essentially making it a transit, bike and pedestrian street (and cars coming to park or load). It doesn’t look like compliance is too great but it seemed much calmer to me than the previous times I had ridden there. This is a big improvement because the street is already beautiful, it can just get run amok if it gets high volume/speeding traffic.

  2. The Birch of the Shadow

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  3. Souls in the Waves

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    • Towards the end of the meeting, I spoke with the City Traffic Engineer, Dongho Chang, about the coming weekend re-routes of Metro buses off of Bell St. I suggested the City post a “Street Closed, Local Access Only” sign at the entrance to each block during those weekend hours, and keep most motor vehicles off the street. (Bikes allowed everywhere of course.)

      This would allow park users to use the park same as any other park — free to go where they want. The street was designed to “feel” like a park everywhere — why it’s so disconcerting to know the only legal way to walk from one side of the park to the other is to walk to an intersection and wait for the WALK light.

  4. I have two communications from the Seattle Police Department informing me that, as far as they are concerned, Bell Street “Park” is no different from any other city street. Pedestrians wishing to cross from one side of the park to the other must walk to a signalized intersection and wait for the Walk light, then cross the street in the crosswalk. Nothing even remotely akin to a woonerf.

    • I once spoke to an SPD officer near Bell who told me the same. As it stands today it’s neither a woonerf nor a park. It is much better than what was there before – safety is higher, illegal activity is gone (anecdotal reports). But I think it can actually live up to it’s “Park” name if they try dedicating the space to people on foot during certain times. I would love for Parks and SDOT to try it out on weekends over the coming summer.

      • The street gets closed (at least the blocks without transit buses) occasionally for special events. All the published photos glorifying this “park” are taken during such events. Only during those times are people free to wander where they want.

        One of the things I find most disappointing is the total loss of tree canopy. All the mature trees were removed, and replacement trees are mere saplings that will take years to grow. And they appear to be ornamentals, which will not develop an extensive canopy. A major loss for tree lovers.

        • There aren’t many places that put shore pines (native) in their streetscape! Love it!
          Also, the black tupelo (nyssa sylvatica) and tulip trees (liriodendron tulipifera) will get quite large – especially in those luxurious planters. With the pedestrian-level lighting, that should keep a nice, well lit streetscape experience under the canopy as they grow.

      • That is what is happening! The Friends of Bell Street Park have been working with Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Parks, SDOT and local businesses and residents to develop an Art & Activation Plan (presented to the public this Friday at 6pm at the Belltown Community Center). Come see the plans to close the street for events!

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