If we want to revive downtown Seattle, we should make it a place people wanna be
Capitol Hill is the city.
I have one friend who would get this reference, but it’s not just a reference to an enjoyable night out where I repeated that phrase ad nauseam—it’s an idea.
If you’re going out in Seattle, if you’re going out in whatever “the city” is in that context, you’re probably going out on Capitol Hill. That, if anywhere, is the cultural mecca of the city proper.
It could maybe be Ballard. Or Fremont. Or even Georgetown, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood.
If you’re out experiencing real Seattle, you’re out in the neighborhoods.
In this context the “you” is someone who lives in Seattle. Visitors may want to go to the waterfront or the Space Needle or the Cheesecake Factory—but those aren’t real places.
I used to live on Capitol Hill, right across the street from the fountain at the north end of Cal Anderson, and on slow and sunny weekend afternoons, I’d occasionally walk down Pike or Pine to downtown with no specific agenda. But the only place I really ended up was Pike Place Market, and that small park across the street.
It’s still very much a tourist spot, but it’s one of few places that’s nice to go without having to spend some money.
On spending money, the opening of a new $2 billion Seattle Convention Center was a cornerstone of a few days of discourse on the revitalization of downtown. Other subjects included the usual crime talking points and the departure of Niketown, a relic of an era when big brand name commercial spaces were also tourist attractions.
I don’t know quite how I feel about that conference center expansion, but what I do know is that it’s part of my broader belief that downtown Seattle isn’t really for people who live in Seattle.
Downtown is sliced and diced by wide stroads that usher people in and own of downtown, on and off freeways. The downtown Seattle library—one of this city’s great public marvels—has the southbound entrance to I-5 running up one of its sides, with five-lane roads on the front and back. The main entrance to our ballpark is at the foot of the entrance to two interstates.
There isn’t really a lush park of any kind in the heart of downtown Seattle and, if anything, people-centric space is going backwards.
Even the stuff we’re supposed to open soon is built more for moving people through spaces rather than spending time and enjoying them.
Peak hour on the Seattle waterfront where an elevated highway was taken down to build a much larger surface highway. pic.twitter.com/PlQcvsqS5k— The Urbanist (@UrbanistOrg) May 24, 2022
There is some good stuff in-between but the north end of Alaskan Way is about as car-centric as the south end.
Wait…we’re building a 4-lane road through Downtown where previously there was zero car traffic? And because of that, there will only be tiny sidewalks? pic.twitter.com/ZcRKHlQEO1— Northwest Urbanist (@NWUrbanist) February 2, 2023
Yeah, that’s a brand new four-lane road right through the heart of the waterfront project. Actually, ahem, that is a brand new four-lane freight route through the heart of the waterfront, so you can expect to see big, loud trucks capable of turning a small child to mist should they dare step off the curb.
Looks quite a bit different now than the illustration we were sold on.
The thing is, all this is about more than the visuals. Not just what you see above, but also that crummy AI illustration up top, too.
Like, I’d love to see something like this in Seattle, too. Sure.
But it’s about more than looking pretty—there’s a goal to all of this.
This point from Devin Silvernail, Policy Director for Seattle City Council Member Tammy Morales, is spot-on.
So much of “Twitter urbanism” feels & looks like city porn. So little “why” behind folks desire for a changed American city. Improved social wellbeing, racial & economic equity, community care, & so much more need to outshine what just feels like lust for looking like Europe. https://t.co/FEcZIO6IU9— Devin Silvernail email@example.com (@silvernailsea) January 28, 2023
Up top in the title have I have the goal for downton Seattle to be “a place people wanna be” and that was changed from “a place people wanna go.” But it could just as well be “a place people wanna live.” Even then it’s not just “wanna” but can.
These efforts—pedestrianization, urbanization, building cities that aren’t so car-centric—should target an outcome where our pooled resources ensure the maximum number of people can live well. They can live near their job and their friends and their hobbies or can get to them in a way that doesn’t require a mode of transportation (cars) that is unaffordable and just don’t scale.
We can have actual thriving communities, and not ones defined as successful because they have a Starbucks or Niketown.
Does Seattle really wanna be the type of place where we lament the closing of a Starbucks, as prominent folks have done about multiple locations, some massive corporate chain that serves burnt coffee?
Seattle? The funky radical Seattle borne of ’90s grunge and Griffey’s backwards cap?
C’mon, we should be celebrating every time some massive chain closes downtown. We can do better.
We should have small funky cafés that spill out onto expansive public plazas. We should have biergartens shared by some of the best breweries in the world. We should have a big-ass park in the heart of our city.
And everyone should be able to reach them by foot, by transit, by bike or by some combination therein. That’s if they don’t already live there—as many people should.
Everyone should enjoy downtown Seattle. Because it’s for us.
Let’s stop building it for people who only occasionally want to be there.