On Friday, when the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced its third set of streets open to people walking and rolling, calming them for people on bicycles as well, the list did not include any streets inside Seattle’s densest neighborhoods. Downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union, First Hill, the University District, and Northgate all fall into the category of an “urban center” neighborhood and no plans have been announced for the residents in those neighborhoods to more safely use the city’s street space to get around without a car.

Seattle’s streets are serving two vital functions right now: allowing people to exercise, either on the streets themselves or in nearby parks, and to access essential services. The sidewalks aren’t up to this task, particularly in dense areas, nor in neighborhoods that lack them. Seattle’s dense urban centers and urban villages are also some of the most open space-scarce neighborhoods. Fewer than 3% of the land inside urban centers is devoted to parks or open space–contrast that with over 12% of the land outside the urban centers entirely, in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.

What urban centers do have is a massive amount of street right-of-way. Over 1,300 acres in urban centers are streets–more than two square miles. That’s over one in three acres devoted to travel and parking lanes. They are currently frozen in amber, an unneeded street system that’s wildly under capacity, encouraging dangerous driving. Sidewalks outside critical neighborhood businesses like grocery stores remain mostly as they existed before a COVID-19 world, despite the intense pressure that is being placed on these spaces. Over a month into the stay-at-home order, we need to act more nimbly to adapt our public spaces to our current needs. This is true absolutely everywhere, but it is felt most acutely in neighborhoods that have the most people living closely together.

Seattle’s growth strategy is pretty simple: build most new housing in urban centers and urban villages, and not much elsewhere. Between 2016 and 2019, Seattle added just over 34,000 units of housing, an increase of 1 unit for every 10 that existed in the entire city before then, in just four years. Of those units, over half were built in Seattle’s urban centers, which sit on just 7% of Seattle’s total land area, an increase of 22% in those urban centers.

For every acre of developable land inside the urban centers, Seattle now has over 41 units of housing sitting on it. Contrast that with just under seven units per acre in the single-family neighborhoods, almost six times fewer. During a crisis that impacts how far apart people need to be from one another while walking outside their homes, we simply need to add more space.

Streets in our urban centers are likely going to be harder to open safely for people. They are likely higher trafficked, with more frequent deliveries and emergency access needed. These are also reasons why such a program is essential. Washington’s stay-at-home order has been extended until at least the end of May, but distancing requirements will likely be in place much longer.

As Governor Jay Inslee’s reopening plan proceeds, there will be an additional competing need for additional street space, again most particularly in our densest neighborhoods: restaurant seating. Restaurants operating under significantly reduced seating capacity restrictions will continue to sustain themselves with a to-go business model, but our streets have the space to provide additional seating near restaurants while still maintaining public health standards.

Seattle’s next round of Stay Healthy Streets needs to include street openings in as many urban centers and urban villages as possible. The residents of those neighborhoods deserve better than everyone pretending that our current street configuration is working for them.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. The city should immediately close Pike Place Market to cars. Allow for people to visit the market vendors that are open and support small local businesses. It is the heart of our city and still dominated by lanes for driving and parking on either side. It’s time to permanently close it to all but delivery vehicles. Start there.

    1st and 4th avenues are big streets with very little traffic currently using it. It also encourages speeding. One is due to get a bike lane and the other a streetcar, so let’s start now. block off one lane for cyclists and another for extra sidewalk space and eventually restaurant serving space.

    The waterfront. It is very wide, noisy, and full of drivers driving too fast and avoiding the tunnel. The pedestrians who would like to enjoy a stroll along the water are forced onto an 8′ wide sidewalk with runners, dog walkers, families with strollers, etc. There is plenty of space to make it one lane of driving in either direction. Give the rest to pedestrians, cyclists, and runners. Being near the water makes everyone feel more calm and free. Doing so currently means an anxious walk squeezing past lots of people and fast drivers.

    As for east west streets I would consider either pike or pine (Giving a full lane to pedestrians), The bridge over I-5/Lakeview, Thomas street through south lake union and Lower Queen Anne, Finally make Bell st ped and bike only, King street through the ID,

    There are my candidates. Pike Place should be first. It is our most important public space downtown!

  2. +1000. I’m so glad someone is finally writing about this.

    I live in downtown Seattle. The extent to which it has become this rapidly unlivable is unprecedented. The extent to which I’ve no discussion of this (other than a Reedit topic) is staggering.

    TL;DR: Downtown needs open streets far more than residential neighborhoods. And we get nothing.

    To reduce my thoughts to 3 points:

    1. The city is actively neglecting downtown residents.

    While I appreciate the city’s leadership is busy right now, the lack of responsiveness is inescapable. I’ve contacted Andrew Lewis by phone and by email several times (as well as the mayor) over a 1-month period requesting a follow-up conversation with their staff. No response whatsoever.

    2. Downtown residents are acting rationally: they’re choosing to abandon downtown in droves.

    With companies now being transparent that their downtown offices will remain closed for at least 6 months, residents are (rationally) abandoning downtown in droves. The apartment building I live in has had to slash rents 15% in 6 weeks — at a time in which Seattle-wide rents appear to be relatively stable.

    This building’s vacancy rate (including openings for the next 3 weeks) appears to be around 11%. Their historic vacancy rate is closer to 2%. There is, of course, no rational reason to live in an unlivable neighborhood to be near an office that isn’t going to be open anyway until 2021.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if downtown Seattle’s continued transition into a mixed commercial/residential neighborhood gets set back by years. The premise of living in a tiny, overpriced apartment under the notion of treating the downtown as your home no longer works during a pandemic — unless your city actively intervenes to keep it that way.

    The only reason I haven’t moved out myself is because I don’t know how a non-driving resident can safely move during a pandemic.

    3. Downtown uniquely and badly needs open streets.

    I want to cringe when I see people posting photos on Facebook for their Summer Parkways-like experiences enjoying their opened streets. Good for you — but in downtown, I barely leave my small studio apartment every 2 weeks.

    Our streets are wide open for (non-existent) cars to have all the social distance they want — but the people who need it can’t socially distance at all on downtown sidewalks.

    Downtown famously has a concentration of individuals who are mentally ill and/or drug-addicted. You can’t socially distance when there are one or two drugged-out people hanging out in the middle of the sidewalk. Repeat this every other block or so.

    Additionally, I’ve seen anecdotal data that we’re seeing more harassment given the lack of potential intervening bystanders (social safety). The need to be able to have more physical space (and concentrating people onto a few streets designed for social safety) is crucial.

    Overall, it’s not an insight to say that America takes our urban areas for granted, and consider the “authentic” and “heartland” neighborhoods to be the more suburban and the lower-density. But it’s sad to see how the American disposition towards urban neglect apparently play out on on a smaller scale even within our urban area of Seattle.

    • Hi Eli, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Glad this resonated and sorry to hear how bad things have gotten in your neighborhood and the lack of response you’ve gotten. We need swifter more decisive action.

      Do you have any streets in mind for pandemic pedestrianization?

      • I have no idea – I *think* SNG has specific downtown streets in their draft proposals? I admit I have been outside so rarely since the pandemic (for the reasons above) that I don’t have a super informed opinion around a solution.

        I am personally curious how other downtown residents are managing. My optimistic hypothesis is that people may start moving back in 2021 to avoid public transit (given the capacity limitations for social distancing.)

    • As a fellow downtown resident, I’m sad to say I agree. The transition from a wonderful neighborhood for the car-less-by choice into a place where I am afraid to go outside after dark has been stark and unsettling. The streets often feel unsafe even during the day. Within a couple of blocks of home, there have been stabbings, gunshots, and police K-9 chases just run the last few days. I have re-thought downtown living and plan to leave when my lease is up. It’s clear living in a neighborhood with a critical mass of residents is important.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Despite the cost, downtown really has been wonderful to live in for the past year, especially as a car-free resident who just moved back from NYC. I’ve never felt the want for a car, with buses and light rail going all over the region. I loved having a 2 block walk to work. And I loved waking up early on a weekend and having a protected bike lane all the way to the Amtrak station, for low-carbon weekend trips to Portland and Vancouver BC.

        It is shocking to see how every strength of a concentrated area became a liability during a pandemic. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.

        I’ve been hoping for leadership from Andrew Lewis and SDOT, and to stay in downtown. But after a month of emailing and phone calling, there’s been no evidence whatsoever of change.

        Luckily, my building’s management (Equity Residential) has been very responsive and appears open to allowing me to transfer into another apartment complex mid-lease – seemingly with minimal penalty (but need to confirm). So I’m afraid I’ll likely be joining the downtown depopulation very soon.

        • Also, if you have any ideas for “urbanist-friendly pandemic neighborhoods”, I’m all ears!

          (I’m ruling out Capitol Hill and other central areas since I expect they will have the same issues.)

        • I expect many people, including some urbanists, will be rethinking the wisdom of uber-density. There are lots of urban villages around the city, and some in the suburbs, where an urban lifestyle can be had without the problems and drama of downtown Seattle.

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