Instead of letting new spaces languish during “off hours,” let’s time share the public right-of-way throughout the day.
by Josh Feit
All summer, I’ve been setting up my computer and working afternoons at a picnic table under one of those outdoor dining canopies—one of the approximately 230 that have sprung up during the pandemic. My impromptu afternoon office is at E. Harrison St. on Capitol Hill next to Rione XIII, an Italian spot that seats diners outside under the plywood and plastic roofing all evening. When I settle in there, the restaurant is closed. Typically, I’m the only one using the space at that time of day. I did walk by on Tuesday night last week—the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday nights—and notice that a singer-songwriter with a PA, microphone, and guitar had commandeered the place for a performance; a small audience had gathered.
Turning city right-of-way into curbside seating instead of parking spots is one of the ways we’ve reconfigured city space during the pandemic—and not just for sanctioned dining it seems, but also for DIY uses such as music performances and potential co-working spots.
This amorphous moment has created an opportunity for the city to harness a relatively untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times—like applying the concept of “adult swim” to city spaces— could remake Seattle, particularly if we apply the time-share concept with sustainability and social justice in mind. I’m definitely not talking about Ping-Pong in the Park.
We saw some examples of businesses using time creatively during the pandemic—senior-only shopping hours at grocery stores, for example. But pre-pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions, the city has never truly (or formally) explored the tactic of reserving the same space for different uses at different times. Closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on summer Sundays—and opening it for people to walk, bike, and roll—is perhaps the most notable, and coolest, example, along with (briefly) making a few blocks of Capitol Hill’s nightlife district pedestrian-only on weekend evenings, and turning Ballard Ave. over to a farmers’ market on Sundays.
We have an opportunity to harness an untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times could remake the city for the better.
Generally speaking, Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development Interim Director Rico Quirindongo is excited about the way the pandemic has upended traditionally designated uses.
Prior to COVID-19, he said, “the public realm was owned by single-occupancy vehicles,” and “parking was king. What has happened in a time of COVID is a transformation of that, where [the public realm] was assessed differently. The necessity was around public health. We couldn’t gather indoors. So there was a land grab, if you will, where we the people took it back. We took it back for gathering, we took it back for protest, we took it back for celebrating, we took it back for retail. Are all those things that we want to keep? Hell to the yes.”
As the former chair of the Pike Place Market PDA Council, Quirindongo says he sees the potential for divvying uses up by time. The idea is already afoot organically in the Market, he says. “With Pike Place Market, the lines have been blurred between around to whom does the space belong, and when does it belong to whom. Sometimes it is a marketplace, sometimes it is closed. Sometimes people are walking down the middle the streets, sometimes it is a loading zone. Sometimes it is single-occupancy vehicles. And when and how that happens, is just left up to the organic nature of people and time.” He notes, though, whenever the PDA broached the idea of formally closing the the block to cars in favor of pedestrians, the businesses told them no.
Quirindongo’s point that Pike Place Market is “sometimes closed”—promptly at 6 pm, I’d add—offers a perfect example of a missed opportunity for time sharing. Such an elegant, popular, and coveted space in the heart of downtown has no business closing at 6:00, especially in the post-COVID era when we’re trying to resuscitate downtown. Pike Place—the street—is a great candidate for adding nighttime uses when the Market shops are closed. How about opening the few blocks on Pike Place between Pike St. and Virginia for outdoor theater or concerts (Pike Place Stage) or pop-up restaurants and food trucks after dark (Pike Place Night Market)?
Speaking of the heart of downtown, we should also explore alternate uses for our more than 40 privately owned public spaces (POPS)—several of which, such the atrium at the U.S Bank Centre at 5th & Pike, the arcade at Union Square at 6th & Union, and the garden and terrace outside Benaroya Hall at 2nd & University, are located downtown. These could transform in the evening into pop-up retail, concert spots, or neighborhood service centers.
And as I said, time-sharing must also work to address inequity. How about: Making non-arterial streets pedestrian- and bike-only blocks in the hours before and after school when kids are out and about; having high-school locker rooms double as rest stops for people experiencing homelessness during after-school hours; using parking lots as job fair markets on Sundays; or using restaurants as culinary schools on Mondays, when most restaurants are closed. And similar to restaurant dining canopies that close during the day, let’s not close the bevy of new coffee shop outdoor seating structures at night. How about using them as pop-up human service centers for people in crisis in the late evening hours? (They could also work as mini-performance venues, or simply work as micro-parks for hanging out.)
The beauty of time sharing public spaces? It doesn’t require new investments in infrastructure. Like striping highways with HOV lanes, it’s basically free. And also like HOV lanes, it doubles the functionality of public space.