WSDOT Flickr Pool
WSDOT Flickr Pool

Although it remains murky whether or not we will finally, forever be rid of the viaduct, it’s never too early to start arguing about what should replace it.

Poplar Pt. proposal, from flickr user stirlingr
Poplar Pt. proposal, from flickr user stirlingr

One thing I’m sure we’ll see is a push to turn a large part of it into open space.  After all, open space is accessible to anyone, while housing and offices are enjoyed by a relative few.  GreaterGreaterWashington, which is basically the Washington, DC equivalent of STB and hugeasscity combined, came out against extensive open space in a very large redevelopment going on in Anacostia.  He even trots out the Jane Jacobs:

In orthodox [modernist] city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes [sic]. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with an old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.

There certainly is a place for mega-parks like New York’s Central Park and our very own Arboretum.  But the creation of urban “green space” should always be measured against the fact that it will displace people, ultimately causing the destruction of genuine natural habitat.

34 Replies to “Can a Park Be Too Big?”

  1. “Although it remains murky whether or not we will finally, forever be rid of the viaduct, it’s never too early to start arguing about what should replace it.”

    LOL. Really.

    That was great. That is so Seattle.

    Actually, I’m not going to argue with anyone, I will just point out that we have very little open space in downtown to begin with. Even the proposed civic square is supposed to have a condo tower and retail. Ideally, that space would be something like San Francisco’s Union Sqare (or Century or whatever the hell its called…you know the one, over in the retail district). So maybe the question is: should we turn the boulevard into one long park, or several smaller neighborhood parks? I could see it both ways…

    1. The problem with open space is that you have to have *serious* pedestrian uses on all sides, or else it ends up just being a big empty open space. Central Park is smack in the middle of several million people. Union Square/Century Square in SF is in the middle of a retail district. The waterfront, while it brings tourists, would end up being very empty.

      People have a hard time judging scale. The scale of the pedestrian uses on the waterfront is an order of magnitude smaller than most of the examples of open space we use.

  2. Well, contrary to what you say this open space would not displace any people since those people are already displaced by a big ugly viaduct. Downtown needs more open space and the waterfront is a great place for it. I agree with Zach that it doesn’t necessarily need to be one huge park though. The city could sell some of it off to developers (with strict regulations on height, level of low income housing, TOD and the like) and then leave large swaths as parks.

    Could also be space for community centers and other related services.

    By selling some of the very valuable space the city could raise the money to build improvements and transit in the area, which would make it a much more palatable option for voters, especially during tough economic conditions that will likely persist for years to come.

    1. Maybe “displaced” is the wrong word. If you don’t put any housing or offices there those uses will have to go somewhere else in what is likely to be a low-density, auto-dependent configuration.

      In the end, somebody ends up clearing out a few hundred more acres of forest in Snoqualmie.

    2. The waterfront is a terrible place for open space. You can’t just go putting space around all willy-nilly – it has to be in a place where a large number of people (proportionate to its size, really) cross it regularly to get to/from other destinations. Jacobs explains this, and she’s right, we just seem to ignore it.

      There are nowhere near enough people or destinations there to justify that kind of big space. It’ll become empty and uninviting fast. That’s what the Gehl report said, too.

  3. Martin asked the wrong question. The question should be can the earth’s population be too big? In the year 1900 there were 1.6 billion people on earth. Today, there is over 6.6 billion people. In forty years there will be 9 billion people. I want to us to leave as many open spaces to future generations while we can.

  4. I would just want the space along the waterfront to have some sort of form rather than just be a vast empty sidewalk. Looking again at the Embarcadero, yes, they have a lot of open space, but its divided up between space for cars, space for trolleys, space for people to walk, and space for people to lounge. Rather than cramming a road into one corner and giving the rest of the space to a plaza, the open space feels filled with purpose.

  5. I favor one long waterfront park visible as we take the ferry system over to Bainbridge or Bremerton or Vashon. The viaduct has been an eyesore for too long now and there certainly needs to be more open space and parkland in Seattle. Freeway Park and the Olympic Sculpture Park are both great and established (well getting there in the case of the OSR) but the waterfront needs something. I would also like to see a streetcar running down there and some kind of elegant lighting and railings at the edge of the peirs. I know that is very European, but an elegant parkway of decorative lighting and railings punctuated by ornate waterfalls (as opposed to that ugly thing outside the Aquarium – I am not a fan of concrete art for the most part)would do me just fine.

    1. i don’t know about the waterfalls, but otherwise this sounds very pleasing to me. a place i’d like to visit.

  6. I’m scared of putting a large park on the waterfront that becomes a dangerous and uninviting place at night. Two large urban parks, Volutneer and Ravenna/Cowen, both get used during the day, but at night they become very very sketchy. I think some of that area should be put to parks/open space, but they shouldn’t over do it.

    1. I think a lot of that has to do with how dark and crowded with trees those parks are at night. I’d like to think of a potential waterfront park more like Cal Anderson Park, which has lights everywhere plus lots of people around at all hours. I can walk around there past midnight and feel still reasonably safe.

      The key for the waterfront will be giving people reasons to go there, which will probably involve some combination of more retail/restaurants (not just the tourist shops there now), some housing across Alaskan Way, and a waterfront streetcar that runs late. During the day, I would love to see some espresso/newspaper stands in the park too.

      1. Cal Anderson may be small, but it’s about as wide (several hundred feet) as the waterfront park will probably be. It’s about a quarter mile long, so a good comparison would be five Cal Andersons arranged end-to-end. In my mind, that feels like a nice place to be.

      2. Cal Anderson has lots of people around at all hours because it has destinations around it that are open at all hours. The waterfront does not – and it will be impossible to get those uses there after the fact, because the park will become scary at night right away, and those uses won’t want to move in.

  7. this city needs all the open space it can get. there are very few respites from urban sprawl, and even fewer that are easy to get to via public transit.

    there’s a big difference between a deserted park in a poor urban neighbourhood and a well designed, scenic waterfront park like Seattle has an opportunity to build with the removal of the viaduct. bikes and walking paths of some kind would be nice.

    1. Very true. We do need all the open space we can get. But we live in a selfish time. We ourselves enjoy using large urban parks like Green Lake or Woodland Park, but some don’t want to create large parks for future generations. I have no doubt that Martin, or people like him, voted no on the Seattle Commons. It’s a sad, selfish time we live in.

    2. New York is full of well-designed, scenic urban parks that are full of crack heads and bums. Even Steinbrueck park in Seattle is full of bums. It’s more than just well-designed, it’s got to be well used.

  8. There’s just no reason to assume that space not used on the central waterfront would be compensated for by suburban development. Mayor Nickels is betting the farm on the idea that a beautified waterfront will stimulate dense development in adjacent space. Take the ferry across to Bremerton and you can see that housing development has been stimulated on their central waterfront by a tremendous expansion of public park space.

    And really, for most of the area shadowed by the viaduct, the space isn’t that wide. The reason it seems scary and dangerous now is the traffic and obvious use as a homeless shelter area. Subtract the space that will be needed for a streetcar line, four lanes of traffic, and a full lane-width for two way bicycle and jogging path, and what’s left will be about the width of the viaduct now.

    Believe it, you will be able to cross this space without a compass or emergency rations.

  9. “Open space” does not mean empty space. Parking lots are often empty space. The Arboretum has a bunch of trees in it, places to walk or meet people, have events, etc.

  10. This is a strange fear for a city with places like Discovery Park. I agree we should design this space carefully (points yet again at parallels with the Embarcadero), but I think it will take really bad design to turn such a lively space into anything but a lively space sans elevated highway.

  11. I’m trying to imagine if there’s a way to include any of the features of Vancouver’s Stanley Park in a narrow area without hundred year old trees… but San Francisco’s Embarcadero may be a better model for our space.

  12. Max: I’m a former NYer: care to name the well-designed parks you’re claiming are infested with trouble…?
    Central, Battery, Astoria, Tompkins sq, Morningside, Union Square, Prospect, Barry, FortGreene, Bryant, etc etc are all great parks that enjoy plenty of use. (I’ll give you Queensbridge, Maria Hernandez and maybe Garvey as pitstops for the crackheads).
    Lighting and plantscape have a proven & weighty effect on use and safety, regardless of zip code or state.

  13. I’m not saying that it’s part of New York being a bad place, I’m saying it’s a part of the parks just being too big and in the wrong places where not enough “normals” can cover the whole thing.

  14. This may be a fantastic opportunity for some sort of transfer of development rights program. With the Viaduct gone, there may be too much open space on the waterfront and too little in other parts of downtown.

    We could sell some of the land on the waterfront and use it to buy a few other parcels spread throughout downtown for smaller, well designed, strategically located open space.

    An issue just as critical as size and location is design. We have a few office towers (like Safeco, the U.S. courthouse, etc.) that have plazas, i.e. open space. It is accessible to the public and even intended for public use, but they are never utilized. These spaces are simply terribly designed and they do not function.

    Poorly designed open space in an urban setting is an unconscionable waste. It is worse than useless. At least if we built a building there we would generate tax revenue. Ben makes some good points about Jane Jacobs work on this subject, though I think he has a bit of hero-worship going with her. The point is, we do need to get past the debate of more v.s. less open space and onto the debate of good v.s. bad open space.

  15. IMO we need as much open space as possible. Highly visible, vital and attractive open space. We aren’t talking Myrtle-Edwards here. We need to think about attractions that kids and families will come to during the day and adults will come to at night. Sports courts like tennis, basketball and a skateboard park come to mind. Also, we are going to need to start requiring new buildings along that corridor to face the park and have retail. Ideally those would be 24-hour establishments or at least have late night hours to keep eyes on the space. Large, heated patios for restaurants and cafes that spill out onto the space come to mind. Hot dog stands and ice cream vendors help as well to keep people around on those late summer nights. Not to mention such a central location would make an ideal place for things like festivals and outdoor cinema.

    Also, using space for things like flower gardens and fountains not only make for a very attractive space but they ensure there isn’t too much purely “open space” that could easily become sleeping bag hotels.

    With these kinds of ammenities and of course the increasing infill of residential units to the city core, this will be one of the most amazing parks in the country.

    My main point of comparison is the waterfront park in Palermo, Sicily. Not the richest or fanciest town in the world but damn if their open space doesn’t stay active, vital and fun well into the night.

    More condos and offices would ruin our last real opportunity for a central park; a large contiguous undeveloped space in central Seattle. We need an amazing, active, central park. It will be difficult to design it right but we need it.

  16. One thing to remember is that Seattle parks tend to be occupied by thousands of people who formerly would have lived in flophouses or cheap hotels. In the 70s thousands of units of Single Room Occupancy housing were destroyed by changes in Pioneer Square and along Western and First Avenues.

    Seattle is also one of the warmest places in Puget Sound. Combined with the social services agencies, this forms an attraction for the homeless. Add in increasingly effective regulation of black market activities and you have a recipe for congregation in public parks. Railroad stations and bus stations also used to suffer from this.

    In theory, a wise society would not just spend money on beautiful parks celebrating the human condition, but would also spend money improving the human condition. This is probably also true in practice.

    1. I like that last line a lot. In theory, could the space be used for both celebrating and improving the human condition?

      I agree with Dan at hugeasscity, tighten up the open space. I like the idea of a new row of narrow buildings. Sales of those properties could certainly help fund making the remaining open space all the more excellent.

  17. Designing good open space is only part of the answer. Designing good programming for that space is another. Having community events scheduled for the new waterfront will draw people to the space, and encourage further exploration and use. Imaging something like the Fremont Sunday market being in this park once a week, or larger city-wide events similar to Northwest Folk Life Festival. I’m not saying that we should transplant those established events from their venues, but that we create additional community oriented events specific to this space. We lost the concerts on the pier several years ago. Here’s a place to recreate them.

    It’s a symbiotic relationship that open space has with developed space. Good programs draws people to the area. People decide they want to live near-by because of these uses. The added neighborhood population spurs the creation of still more uses for the open space.

    So while we talk about the creation of space, and how it should be configured, let’s also talk about what it should be used for, and brainstorm ideas for events that Seattle currently doesn’t have, because we currently don’t have the proper open space for them.

    1. I was thinking along the same lines. If there is a large (too large?) piece of “open space” available because the viaduct is gone it represents an opportunity that is unlikely to occur ever again. Why not try something less permanent first. How about greatly expanding the moorage facilities of the Seattle City dock? That would help encourage the sort of round the clock usage that prevents the area from being a magnet for crime and vagrancy.

      Speaking of music in the park, how come none of the percentage of construction money earmarked for art gets allocated to performing arts. Statues, murals, etc. seem to get it all up front yet require (sometimes considerable) upkeep. Doesn’t music, theater and dance count as art? Can the money be spent on flesh and blood or does it have to be concrete and steel?

  18. As Serial Catowner says above there really isn’t that much space, especially on the central waterfront. There certainly isn’t enough for development other than maybe some small shop spaces similar to what is along the ferry terminal lot. Not that this would be a bad idea. Some food/beverage/retail spaces on the city side would help keep the area active.

    North of Pike I’m not sure what the plans are. If there is access to the Battery St. tunnel then much of the ROW will be a street. There might be room for a small pocket park or two up in there.

    Probably the best opportunity for park space or development will be West of Qwest Field and 1st. Due to the tunnel portal and access ramps this won’t be the greatest space for a park, especially since Terminal 46 and the Coast Guard Station take up most of the water side. Though that means this isn’t going to be the best place for development either. Some infill on the West side of First might be the best thing.

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