The Pedestrian Chronicles: The Pike-Pine Corridor

The Downtown Seattle Association promotes a new plan to connect the waterfront to Capitol Hill.

By Josh Feit March 6, 2014

I think I'm going to hire the person who wrote the passage below to take over my Pedestrian Chronicles posts.

Check it out:

After several decades of enduring hazardous, machine-dominated streets, the public ground of our cities is being rediscovered as the primary asset that defines an urban neighborhood as a desirable place to live and work.
The  future of urban streets is in putting the pedestrian first and reclaiming streets as local places for everyone to safely and pleasurably conduct daily life.
The urban neighborhoods that are in the forefront of restoring ... their streets are already drawing the most mobile and forward-thinking residents and companies. Seattle is simply continuing its role as a technically and socially progressive, internationally competitive city by making a boldly pedestrian-focused environment in its downtown core.

This awesome urbanist propaganda is from the intro to a 100-page February 2014 report written by local landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) for the Downtown Seattle Association's "Pike Pine Renaissance" plan—a blueprint the DSA is pushing to turn the stretch from Elliott Bay (heading east) up to Melrose Ave. on the western edge of Capitol Hill's Pike-Pine corridor, and from Virginia St. (heading south) over to Seneca St. downtown, into "the best urban experience in the country."

The "core space in downtown is tired, just at a time when public urban spaces have become more important"
—DSA VP Jon Scholes

According to the DSA's VP of Advocacy and Economic Development Jon Scholes, the "core space in downtown is tired, just at a time when public urban spaces have become more important" to people who are flocking to cities.

Scholes notes that the waterfront development, the new hotel at 9th and Stewart, and the neverending action up on Capitol Hill make the "space between all that development" more important.

The GGN report gets stuck in a lot of loopy urban planning academic jargon—"the Light Layer" "the Middle Layer" and "the Deep Layer"—but in person, Shannon Nichol, a landscape architect and founding principal at GGN, can break it down to plain English. Her firm's smart plan looks at Seattle's current street infrastructure and, rather than mapping out an expensive makeover, prioritizes "working with what we have."

That may sound like redesigning downtown on the cheap—and it certainly is a frugal approach for such a grand proposal—but it's not a copout: It's an effort to preserve what's already great about Seattle and enhance it. And Nichol's thinking taps into a central tenet of the new urbanism: re-purposing or "upcycling," essentially, turning a perceived problem into an asset—or "pump it up and run with it," as Nichol says.

The project will certainly still cost money. Scholes estimates that a first phase over the next couple of years focused on upgrading the infrastructure—sidewalks, benches, trash cans, flower beds—on the Pike-Pine corridor will cost about $20 million. (GGN estimated its overall phase one proposal between $30 and $50 million.) Scholes says the project hopes to piggyback on the Local Improvement District (LID) that the city has already recommended to help fund waterfront redevelopment. (An LID raises money from the increase in property tax revenues due to redevelopment. Proponents of the waterfront LID hope to raise about $200 to $300 million).

We've raised financial questions about the LID before, including concerns about extending it too far afield from the waterfront. Scholes, however, says property owners along Pike-Pine have expressed interest in joining the LID for the DSA's Pike-Pine plan.

To make this swath of downtown a pedestrian paradise, Nichol, who also designed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says Seattle needs to own the "weird, inconvenient, rugged, and irregular" flow of east-west hill streets while tapping into the "leafy, traditional" elements of the north-south avenues. The plan seeks to amplify both Seattle elements—accenting the grandeur of hill views east to west and capitalizing on the cozy, sequestered feeling of the north-south avenues—as a way to create a more nuanced landscape with the two different street modes juxtaposed. The hill streets to and from downtown will become a "route to great places," Nichol says, likening the avenues off to the side as "rooms" that people "peek in to" along the way.

Not sure any design can truly make the uphill walk as "fun" as Nichol says it will be, but her ideas for the hill streets are exciting. One key element is turning the intersections along the east-west corridor into "speed bumps." Nichol says the "speed bump" effect won't be as jarring as real speed bumps, but adds that by making the crosswalk flush with the sidewalk, and providing sloped approaches for cars heading north-south, the hill streets will became more of a ped-friendly "boardwalk" and that cars won't barrel down the avenues.

"The intersection sketch (top left) represents the idealized intersection where the pedestrian crossing is kept at the level of the sidewalk so that people never have to encounter the vulnerable moment of lowering themselves down to roadway level. Cars experience the raised pedestrian crossing as a moment to slow down."

Another element of the hill streets—though the plan doesn't, like the Bell Street Park design, literally do away with curbs—is to envision them as one space rather than "as separate tubes for cars and pedestrians," Nichol says.

Neither the report (nor Nichol, for that matter, who talks cryptically about making pedestrians "very subtly more aware of the shops across the street from you") exactly explain how the plan will erase the car/ped split on the hill streets, except to say: "The Hill Streets’ rugged topography and phenomenal views of the water remind us of Seattle’s history and natural context. Our recommendation for the Hill Streets is to emphasize their openness and asymmetry, allow views both across the street and towards the water, and create a sense of the street as one volume." 

That dreamy jargon comes with some (kind of) specific recommendations to: strategically plant trees to highlight views; add traction to the sidewalk; and use garden squares to liven up the walk.

One very tangible idea in the report is to light up downtown alleys, something already underway in Pioneer Square's alleys.  The GGN report says: "Alleys between Pike and Pine Streets offer an opportunity to build vibrance along the corridor and strengthen its cohesiveness from Market to Market. Alleys knit the two streets together by creating additional routes for pedestrians to cut between destinations on either street. We propose simple alley lighting installations like those already being done in Pioneer Square’s Post and Nord Alleys."

Speaking of nighttime lighting, the plan also contemplates some "one-time" events such as doing a lighting instalation during the winter months between Pike Place Market and Melrose Market on Capitol Hill, or closing off Pike St. to cars for a street fair.

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