It's time for Capitol Hill to get its first pedestrian plaza

 Pike street between Broadway and 12th Ave.

Pike street between Broadway and 12th Ave.

I was reading a few articles at the local news blog for my neighborhood, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog (really one of the greatest hyper-local news sites there is), and I got an idea. The articles in question were this one about parklets, and this other one about preserving the character of the neighborhood as development continues in the area. The parklets piece got a lot of activity in the comments section, much of it negative, mostly with people complaining that there's little enough parking already, and with many questioning whether something like this would even be popular. From my perspective it seems like they're doing this the right way, starting with buy-in from the business owners and the community and then going from there. It's a great idea, however small, but I see no reason to stop there.

Anyone who's lived in Seattle in the past decade or enjoys going to see live music probably has heard of, if not attended, Capitol Hill Block Party (started in 1997). Every year for three days E Pike street is closed off between Broadway and 12th Avenue and filled to the brim with people. This is incredibly good business for the many bars enclosed by the boundaries of the event as they have a captive audience, but (I think) not so good for the businesses that don't sell food or alcohol. That's been a point of contention every time CHBP rolls around, but I've never really heard much grumbling about the road closure and parking spaces lost during the festival. This seems especially incredible given the complaints about taking away a few spots for parklets: if removing a few parking spaces is so damaging to visitor retention (i.e., business from people from other neighborhoods or other cities), how is it that so many thousands of people manage to make it here when we shut down several dozen spaces? Clearly, people can find other ways to get here if they really want to.

 Capitol Hill Block Party: more fun than parking. Photo by Dave Lichterman.

Capitol Hill Block Party: more fun than parking. Photo by Dave Lichterman.

Under normal circumstances Pike is open to cars, but with crosswalks on all corners of each intersection and heavy pedestrian traffic, it's not very fun to navigate in a car. With the high concentration of bars and music venues on this stretch of road this gets exponentially worse in the evenings, particularly on weekends. It's a mess, and the only people who are really justified in trying to drive through it at night are cab drivers looking for a likely fare. Given the number of pedestrians, obvious safety concerns with people streaming to and fro at all hours (often not sober), and parallel east-west routes one block north at E Pine street and one block south at E Union/Madison St., it's time to close off Pike to car traffic permanently.

Pedestrian plazas like this have a proven track record of vitality and enjoyment by the community. They encourage more foot traffic in the area, which of course translates into more customers for the businesses that abut the space. Notably, after Times Square was made over to become largely pedestrian-oriented it quickly found itself much more appealing to businesses:

Two years after the advent of its car-free plazas, for example, Times Square made its first-ever appearance on real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield’s list of the ten most desirable retail locations on Earth.

By no means is Seattle the same as New York, nor is the Pike/Pine corridor Times Square, but the same model has been replicated throughout the country, again and again: dedicate more space to pedestrians and they will use it. Businesses that allow these changes reap the financial benefits, while residents and visitors reap the benefits of greater safety and community. There is already relatively little vehicle traffic on this section of Pike and the natural strengths of this location make it the perfect place to try out our first authentic pedestrian plaza. With the Broadway streetcar coming in 2014 and Link light rail two years later, E Pike is only going to become a more popular and accessible destination whether the road is reconfigured or not.

Pike has already established itself as a favorite location for mobile food vendors, too, and this is a great opportunity to build on that reputation by providing plenty of dedicated, conveniently-situated space for more vendors to join the party. For the brick-and-mortar restaurants and bars this would potentially open up a lot more space for each of them, allowing them to fence off a significant area outside their buildings for extra customer space (much like what's seen at Grim's and Barca on 11th Ave, although perhaps larger).

 Where would you rather spend your time?

Where would you rather spend your time?

Now, as far as challenges: yes, this would require the removal of several dozen parking spaces. Compared to the total number of parking spaces in the area this would make little difference, but there will certainly be complaints. When we look at the hundreds (or thousands) of people that cram themselves into these few blocks every weekend, however, it becomes clear that these parking spaces are servicing a minuscule fraction of the total number of people in the area. Roads belong to everyone; they're a public amenity. This particular public amenity is much more heavily used by pedestrians than vehicles and it would be great if its design actually reflected that. More than the on-street spaces, I think the challenge to overcome is the Havana parking lot, conveniently contained in a red rectangle in the Google Maps image at the top of this post. This is presumably a private lot, and closing off Pike makes this completely inaccessible by cars. I don't know the solution here except to buy out the lot, which might be prohibitively expensive for a voluntary, wonderfully-useful-but-not-strictly-necessary project of this nature.

Which brings us to cost more generally. One of the great things about these type of projects is that they don't need to become hugely expensive like most other major street reconfigurations. This is something that could be done extremely cheaply, at least at first. It could be as simple as blocking off the roads with some big rocks, throwing some plants, tables, and chairs in the middle and calling it good. This would probably be sufficient to achieve the goals of increased safety and increased pedestrian traffic, but over time it would of course be great to see some real investments in making this a genuinely attractive and pleasing destination. In other locations we've seen business owners actually contribute to improvements as they've seen the impact these conversions have on their bottom line, so doing things on the cheap as a means of enticing further investment might be exactly the way to go.

This is the perfect time to start talking about a conversion for this area. Winter is coming, and, accordingly, pedestrian traffic will be somewhat reduced during the day. This relative lull gives us time to start reaching out to the community and business stakeholders for their thoughts and opinions, and ideally have something in place by late spring, just in time for the busiest time of year for the area. The summer could be a trial period, and if it's successful we can work toward making it a permanent fixture on the hill.

In the mean time, though, don't forget to look both ways when using the crosswalk.

 Much better.

Much better.