Crossing 4th and 2nd Avenues South at their intersections with Jackson Street is a harrowing experience. The intersection is wide—four busy lanes plus a little extra—and the signal is short. Crossing the both intersections on the same signal cycle is hard, unless you’re jogging.
That intersection is right in the middle of one of the busiest transit hubs in the city. Metro, Community Transit, Sound Transit, the Seattle Streetcar, Amtrak, Bolt Bus: thousands riders transfer between modes every day in the area immediately surrounding the vast intersection. King Street and Union Stations, much-used, legacy railroad buildings, loom over an environment dominated by cars.
With tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses driving through the intersection—4th Avenue South is the busiest south portal into Downtown, apart from I-5—at high speeds, crossing the street can feel a lot like Frogger. According to SDOT data, 90 different collisions have occurred at the intersection since 2004, causing 51 injuries.
Yet it’s also one of the most important transit rider and pedestrian centers in Seattle. In the coming decades, a new light rail station on 4th or 5th Avenue South will further increase the amount of people walking through the area.
The importance of the hub to transit riders is most obvious at peak hours. That’s when the intersection and a crosswalk halfway down the block to its south are overwhelmed by crush loads of Sounder commuters. In that block 48 collisions caused 31 injuries since 2004.
A new plan, which names the area Jackson Hub, will make the intersection safer. It could also transform the area into an iconic entrance to the city, the kind of place that will attract friends meeting over coffee, or appear in family photos and travelers’ selfies.
That vision, which Chinatown-International District (CID) and Pioneer Square leaders developed with regional transportation agencies, is still years away. Megaprojects like the new waterfront plan and ST3 will require heavy equipment, debris hauling, and transforming the Hub itself.
But in the meantime, the area’s busy and dangerous intersections will become much safer. According to Aditi Kambuj, SDOT’s Principal Urban Designer, the City is already working on safety and mobility improvements:
- “Sidewalk expansion along [the north side of] S Jackson St at the Sounder entrance and related curb ramps
- Removal of the old Metro trolley stop at 5th Ave S and S Jackson St
- Leading pedestrian intervals will be added at busy intersections along S Jackson St which will give people a few seconds head start to cross the street to enhance pedestrian safety and visibility
- Improved pedestrian wayfinding is planned for the entire hub area (this was a key recommendation of the Jackson Hub project)
- Relocating obstructions in the sidewalk and making bus stop improvements at several locations
- Once Center City allocated funding for pedestrian lighting, seating, and sidewalk repair which will be advanced in 2019”
Those projects are funded from the One Center City near term action plan, and are in various states of progress. Residents Pioneer Square and the ID, the neighborhoods surrounding the station, worked with the City and government agencies to develop the plan.
The Jackson Hub document ranks prosaic, day-to-day concerns like pedestrian safety as residents’ top priorities.
“People don’t feel safe with the speed of traffic [in the Hub] at all,” says MaryKate Ryan, who manages historic preservation for the ID’s public development authority, SCIDPDA. Ryan says that many of the people the PDA spoke with during outreach for the plan didn’t feel safe crossing 4th at all. “You have to walk relatively quickly as an able-bodied, healthy person crossing that street, in time with the light. I can’t imagine what it feels like if you’re a little bit slower.”
“A lot of them will tell you they just don’t go across [4th],” Ryan says of ID seniors. Because of the intersection, Ryan says, “they just won’t go to Pioneer Square.”
Ryan added that, without safety improvements, the ID’s senior residents wouldn’t feel safe walking to the new waterfront, which is meant to transform life in downtown neighborhoods. The more ambitions parts of the Jackson Hub plan could, in their own way, transform the ID and Pioneer Square on a smaller scale.
As with the waterfront, the long-range parts of the plan call for reclaiming living space from overscale transportation infrastructure. The plan recommends lidding the BNSF mainline, and turning the resulting open space into a park or plaza, and turning part of the existing plaza north of King Street Station into a restaurant or beer garden.
The idea is to create a public gathering place where residents will want to spend time, and create a natural, walkable flow through the Hub between the new waterfront, Hing Hay Park, and Occidental Square. ID and Pioneer Square leaders hope to program the reclaimed public space in the same way that they recently revitalized the historic places.
But that will require time and money. The big ticket items like the lid, beer garden, and a weatherproofing, super-tall pergola over the existing ID light rail station, aren’t funded yet.
“Our next step is to sit back down and see what [funding] there is available right now and what might be available further out,” says Lisa Howard, director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square.
Howard says that one reason the neighborhood groups sought out participation from the City, King County, and Sound Transit was to help build momentum for funding. Howard thinks that, in order to fully fund the project, more than one entity will have to kick in funds.
According to Howard, the plan’s authors sent copies to the Seattle City and King County Councils, plus with Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine.
“We don’t have a single point of contact championing it yet,” Howard says about the elected officials, but she expects that one or some of them eventually will.
The plan is especially important in the context of Sound Transit 3. Sound Transit and the ID community have struggled to agree on a plan for the new Link station that will be built as part of the Ballard and West Seattle extensions.
Some of the same ID leaders—plus Pioneer Square groups, and the Downtown Seattle Association—who have objected to current ST3 plans helped create the Jackson Hub plan. That coalition led community outreach efforts, including concept work and surveys, that went into the plan.
“I think we see that long-term vision as part of the West Seattle-Ballard effort. We’re also taking it and going, what are some of these lower-hanging, near-term things that we could potentially get done that show that we’re serious about listening to the community?” says Wesley King, Sound Transit’s central corridor operations head.
The agency will soon get to work on sprucing up the plaza above the current ID light rail station, once the agency takes full ownership of the downtown subway tunnel from Metro. Agency officials also hope that Vulcan, which controls the bulk of the plaza through an easement, will take on some of the cost and responsibility for making pedestrian-friendly changes—which the daily rush of Sounder commuters will surely appreciate.
“They’re going to seem like minor things, but I think in the grand scheme, when they’re implemented, it will help create a better plaza,” King says. “There’s bulky planters out there with dead bamboo. From a crime-preventative, environmental design perspective, you just really don’t want obstacles like that across your plaza.”
The small things that King referred to—chores like clearing dead plants and unwashed pavement—clearly don’t have the same effect as a transformative infrastructure project. But to riders who go through the same space every day, they can make all the difference in the world.
That’s the best quality of the Jackson Hub plan. It poses the possibility of a transformative, iconic project that could inspire pride from every Seattleite who takes a visiting relative or colleague through it. But in the meantime, you’ll be able to cross the street to your bus safer and easier.