Oh Seattle, look at you getting all worked up over the proposal for a Chihuly "glass house" in Seattle Center. Granted, Chihuly has become more of a bland corporation than an artist, and the whole idea goes against the public spirit of Seattle Center. But a relatively small tourist trap of a glass museum isn't going to have much of an impact on the overall future of Seattle Center.
Right now what matters a whole lot more is that the 2008 Seattle Center Master Plan calling for half a billion dollars of improvements is going to be mothballed due to lack of funds. That's sad state of affairs, because Seattle Center is starving for big ideas that will bring big change, and I think I've got one such idea that has the potential to massively transform Seattle Center for the better. Hint: It involves building more roads.
It's no secret that Seattle Center is kind of a mess. I've been visiting Seattle Center for almost two decades—both as a single person and as a parent—and though it has its charms, there is something overwhelmingly dysfunctional about the place. Seattle Center is not a place where people from the neighborhood tend to casually stop by just to hang out, because there is little reason to go there unless you are heading to a major function or destination such as a museum; there are no typical local urban uses like shops or cafes that encourage people to linger.
And externally, Seattle Center is an island, and is not well connected to the surrounding neighborhoods—it functions more as a divider than as a uniter. And on top of all that, getting there from other neighborhoods by any means other than a car tends to be a hassle.
And so I say, as many have said before: Seattle Center needs an extreme makeover.
Taking out the stadium, as proposed in the Master Plan, is an excellent bold move to start with. But how about something even more radical and counterintuitive: What if we brought the street grid back in?
Not everywhere, but in several strategic locations. And not typical streets, but woonerfs, where pedestrians and cars safely share the street, like they do in Pike Place. When events like Bumbershoot happen, the streets get closed.
The diagram above illustates a quick study of how it might look. Given the context, the most important streets to bring through would be 2nd Ave and Thomas St. But as shown, some combination of Republican, Harrison, John, Nob Hill, and 4th Ave should also be considered.
SDOT's Mercer Street plan will eliminate Broad Street as far south as Harrison Street, but there is no major need for it south of Harrison either. The plan above also shows the opportunities that would arise with Broad Street taken out all the way to Denny Way. Potential open space expansions are in shown in green, and improved redevelopment sites are in orange.
Many will no doubt react negatively to this concept because they believe cars would drastically compromise the pedestrian experience. But I'd argue that there is more to be more gained than lost. Many of the world's most popular open spaces happily coexist with cars. And there would still be plenty of spaces secluded from traffic.
The new streets would open up Seattle Center and help knit it back into the surrounding urban fabric, attracting more people and creating much needed energy. Overall, I believe that bringing back the grid is perhaps our most promising strategy for transforming Seattle Center into the true urban living room that it apspires to be.
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