Sit Me Down

This is the open space in front of the Federal Courthouse at Stewart and 7th in downtown Seattle. It’s visually engaging. But is it a place that gets used much by people? It doesn’t look like there are enough good places to sit down, which, as William Whyte observed, is a major impediment to the success of any urban open space.

This is Harbor Steps, at First and University, during Site Specific Performance Network’s May Day extravaganza. Lots and lots of places to sit. Harbor Steps is a well populated open space, at least in the warmer/drier months, because it is so inviting and easy for people stop and take a load off.

Harbor Steps is the most usable and used open space in the downtown office core. But the City of Seattle can’t take much credit for it — Harbor Steps was privately developed and is privately owned. What could the City do to top Harbor Steps?

12 Responses to “Sit Me Down”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    I agree with the basic premise, but I think the issues involved are more subtle than seats. I walk down the harbor steps every day, as do thousands of people. It’s high traffic, combined with places to sit, a nice enjoyable environment, and restaurants and retail stores is what makes the Harbor Steps such a success.

    Without seats such events wouldn’t be as successful, but you need several of the other factors as well (though I admit the courthouse does seem to be an enjoyable environment).

  2. dorian gray

    Harbor Steps has retail hence the pedestrian friendly bit. If you look closely at the Fedie Courthouse you’ll notice it’s essentially a high security open fence. Skinny trees, no shrubbery or benches make it easy to spot nefarious activities.

  3. dave

    The building in which I work, Wells Fargo Center at 999 Third Avenue, has a really nice and well-used (in warm weather) plaza on 2nd Ave between Madison and Marion. Sun-bathed steps lead up from the sidewalk to eateries and a flower shop at a mezzanine level. Not as big a scale as Harbor Steps, but definitely worth taking notes on how well it works and why.

  4. michael

    That is a beautiful shot of the Fed courthouse plaza, or is it a rendering? Hard to tell.
    If you count steps as seating, then this space does have plenty of seating. And it is beautiful place to have a seat. It’s just not so comfortable – likely the lack of adjacent retail and related ped activity as MTE points out, but also could be related to the ominous nature of the big looming federal building…there’s certainly a feeling of security and authority around there.

  5. citruspastels

    What could the city do to top Harbor Steps?

    They could create a long, green park on the waterfront once the viaduct is torn down. This could be one of the most vital spaces in Seattle as it would connect Pioneer Square to Myrtle-Edwards via all our wonderful waterfront attractions. It could have bike lanes, a jogging trail, places to sit, basketball courts, large swaths of lawn and of course, plenty of trees. Such a park would get traffic from the downtown office crowd, condo dwellers, tourists, convention visitors and families from all over the region. In such a central location it could even be populated round the clock provided it’s well lit, patrolled, and offers late night activities. Seattle could have an urban park that would truly be world class.

  6. LisaB

    I’m guessing, from the pictures, that probably the biggest feature lacking from the courthouse public space is active uses to draw people. There’s no reason to linger there – no food, no retail. W.Whyte would say to get food vendors there STAT…

  7. JoshMahar

    “What could the city do to top Harbor Steps?”

    Nothing, hence the reason they got an outside contractor to do the planned plaza in front of City Hall.

    I agree though that this is an incredibly difficult issue. I think it has less to do with design and more to do with the activities available around the spot. For instance, I work at the Inn at Harbor Steps and I know for a fact that the Steps are almost exclusively used by tourists, most of which have come down from the Market to see the Art Museum. Thus, it is on a major walking route of people who really don’t have any set plans. On the other hand, the Courthouse is near very few “attractions” and people in that area are probably going to appointments or scheduled events (such as shows at the Paramount).

    BTW, why can I not get Teriyaki past 8 o’clock in the downtown area?! That is absolutely absurd for one of the densest parts of our city.

  8. mike

    at lunch, when it’s not raining, the fed plaza can get pretty dense. i think it might be useful to find a photo of a gathering at the fed plaza to compare so it is apples to apples. as it is, you make one out to be completely desolate and the other to be continually packed, which it really isn’t.

    and as pointed out, one is a pathway, the other is not. one also has several cameras pointed at it, the others do not.

    but as it stands, when i’m downtown and it isn’t raining, i routinely take my lunchbreak at the courthouse over harbour steps.

  9. danb

    Thanks for all the comments and yes, yes, yes, I am aware that there is more to the success of an open space than just whether not you can sit there. The point of the post was intended to be more about how well Harbor Steps works. But I happened to have this nice photo of the Fed space. It’s nice to hear it gets used. But my sense is the openness of the design makes it less inviting. In NYC Whyte observed how people would tend not to linger out in the middle of a big empty space, but would gravitate towards edges, nooks, things to lean against, etc.

    Anyway not the most fair comparison of images, I agree. But hey, you get what you pay for on this blog!

  10. Matt the Engineer


    Taking the mildly-off-point Teriyaki comment further, why don’t we have street food vendors downtown? We get the odd hot dog vender in front of the bar scene. But I’d love to be able to walk to a nice public place, grab street food, and hang out with friends (or even strangers) for lunch.

  11. mike

    i think that’s because it’s a sign of a functioning city, and we’re not really a city as much as a collection of odd and fugly constructs

  12. Matt the Engineer

    I drove past the courthouse today, and found another reason this was an unfair comparison. 7th and Stewart is a very busy intersection, and is where the photographer was standing.

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