Pedestrian Chronicles: Building Bell Street Park

Growing up by slowing down.

By Josh Feit February 28, 2014

For this week's installment of The Pedestrian Chronicles, I've got an update on Bell Street Park, the $5 million ped-friendly project along Bell Street between 1st and 5th Aves. 

When I wrote about the project, which is being funded by Parks Levy money, for the January issue of the magazine, only one block of the experimental ped and car mashup was open, so it was hard to picture. But now, stretching up to 5th, the corridor of planters, perches, mixed car-and-ped zones, zebra crosswalks, a dog park, and the simplest but most innovative feature of all, a level plane between sidewalk and street (no curbs), it's easy to see what a vibrant stretch of downtown this is going to be. (By the way, the perches are made out of the re-purposed, former curbs.)

The trees and gardens still have a lot of growing to do, but so does Seattle.

The New York Times published an op-ed today advocating this very type of "social friction" design for city streets.

Arguing that city streets should accommodate pedestrians more than cars, guest writer Leigh Gallagher (assistant managing editor at Fortune and the author of "The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving") writes: 

Queens Boulevard, for example, isn’t a city street; it is a highway masquerading as one. We should either call it a highway, and build medians, barriers or even pedestrian bridges, or treat it like a city street and make the lanes narrower, add more stoplights and crosswalks, and install obstacles and other elements of “social friction.” (Another tool: trees with branches that extend over the street creating a canopy that, like social friction, acts as a naturally occurring slowing device.)

Transportation planners talk about the benefits of “street diets,” efforts to slim down car lanes and add elements like bike lanes, planters or pedestrian plazas with tables and chairs. Just look at the groundbreaking work of Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City transportation commissioner who re-engineered many of the city’s most sprawling intersections as public plazas, most famously turning the stretch of Broadway in Times Square into 2.5 acres of new pedestrian space.

And all of this, including a micropark on the southeast corner of 1st and Bell outside Local 360 restaurant, is coming together in Belltown.

And here's the argument city leaders should be making for more Bell Street Parks, as they're bound to face opposition from people who don't like the move away from car-centric design to one that accommodates urban density: This isn't a rush into some development dystopia, it's a return to the lazy Seattle of the 1970s, when life moved a bit slower.

That, in fact, is the whole point of building a street grid that accommodates foot traffic.

Creating spaces to linger on the corner (picture food trucks in the extended pedestrian zones, one of the designers at SvR Design told me) and forcing cars to pay attention by creating more entry points for foot traffic, establishes an Andy Griffith Mayberry setting, not an Uma Thurman Gattaca nightmare.

Yeah, the trees and gardens still have a lot of growing to do, but so does Seattle.



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