Third Avenue may be one of Seattle’s most important streets– it houses the city’s most frequent transit corridor, is lined by major employers and institutions, and is downtown’s most central avenue. You can’t fault someone, then, for asking why Third is also one of the city’s most horrible places to be. And so it is– hotspots of drug and gang activity, long monolithic stretches of blank wall, and few attractive qualities of urban life prevail along its desolate corridors.
A few months ago, the Seattle Times printed a story on the arterial’s long, disenchanted history and woes of high crime. After a bit of finger-pointing, there seemed to be a consensus among the planners and policymakers that the solution was twofold: more police and better urban design, summed up nicely in this quote from Jon Scholes, the VP of the Downtown Seattle Association:
“More plantings, more lighting, more trees are great, but if we don’t deal with the drug dealing we haven’t improved the corridor.”
As much as the public likes to think that nicer streets and more cops are the holy grail to making over Third and crafting a more livable downtown, there’s a crucial component in the formula that didn’t so much get a peep in the Times article– commerce, and lots of it. Commerce gives a reason for people to be somewhere, a reason that’s nonexistent right now for the many blocks that span Third. With it comes buyers, sellers, patrons, people, and eyes, lots of them to keep on the street, as Jane Jacobs would say.
As such, the makeover of Third through urban design and policing is directly tied to how commerce is incorporated into the landscape. Design shapes frontage and streetscapes amenable for retailers, retailers attract foot traffic with their wares and goods, and foot traffic helps induce communal policing within the vibrancy of an urban environment. Moreover, commerce creates tax revenue, which help make these improvements to begin with.
With Metro’s “rainbow of frequent service” and the prospect of a much larger role to play when the DSTT becomes rail-exclusive, the future of Third Avenue can be promising. And while design improvements have a power of their own, only the attraction of people, and a lot of them, can truly make it a great urban street. Commerce, as we’ve argued all along, is the best way to do that.