Last year, New York City embarked on a bold plan to transform Broadway by converting bits and pieces of the roadway into public open spaces. Building on the success of these new places for people—particularly in Times Square—the city is now planning to pedestrianize 34th Street and Union Square.

Here in Seattle, plans are in the works for the city's first attempt at a similar urban design effort since Pine Street  between 4th and 5th Ave was put off limits to cars from 1990 to 1995. (In the latter year, after a vocal campaign led by Norstrom, Seattle residents voted overwhelmingly—61 to 39 percent—to reopen the street to traffic). The latest proposed scheme—which has actually been tossed around by city planners for at least a decade—would close Westlake Ave. to car traffic between Olive Way and Stewart St., creating a new pedestrian plaza between the South Lake Union Streetcar station and historic McGraw Square Park.

The city's plan for the McGraw Streetcar Plaza; credit: Seattle Department of Transportation (click to enlarge)

Like Broadway in New York, Westlake Ave. cuts diagonally across the north-south street grid, creating a series of triangular parcels that are often too small or awkwardly shaped to make feasible building sites. But they do offer great opportunities for small open spaces, as illustrated in the rendering below from a design study by Hewitt Architects. Furthermore, removing diagonal street segments from a grid can often improve car traffic flow.

Westlake Ave plan; credit: Hewitt Architects

One big challenge to the success of the McGraw Streetcar Plaza is the lack of activation; that is, there aren't many good reasons for people to hang out there. Both the Bank of America and the Westin present dead facades to the plaza. Seattle, unlike Manhattan, lacks the high densities of people and jobs that virtually ensure that open spaces get used. The Bank of America site needs to be redeveloped, and the Westin should be a good citizen and renovate the southeast edge of their building so that it provides some life to the street.

Another factor that may compromise the plaza is that the city is trying to get it designed on the cheap by in-house planners at the Seattle Department of Transportation. It's great that SDOT is taking the initiative, but considering the prominence of the site, along with the fact that a successful plaza could be a catalyst for similar projects citywide, it's surprising that the planning wasn't elevated to a professional design firm or put out for a design competition.

But then again, perhaps it's not so surprising, considering Seattle's wishy-washy track record of commitment to achieving state-of-the-art urban design in public spaces throughout the city. It's going to take hefty amounts of both political will and money to tranform our city from a place designed for cars to a place designed for people. The recently launched Streets for All Seattle campaign is the right medicine, and we're going to need a lot more of it.
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