Private Public Realm

This alley off the southern edge of Harbor Steps between University and Seneca Streets is one of the nicest examples of pedestrian-oriented public realm into downtown Seattle. Except that like the rest of the Harbor Steps open space, it’s not actually public. The alley and the University St. right-of-way between 1st and Western were “vacated” (i.e. sold by the City) to the Harbor Steps developers. No doubt this had to happen because there is a massive parking structure underneath the steps and alley. But still, it’s unfortunate that an open space as important as Harbor Steps couldn’t be a truly public space.

5 Responses to “Private Public Realm”

  1. joshuadf

    I like to think of these places and similar ones such as UVillage as de facto public spaces. They must comply with laws regarding access based on race and disability at least, even though that still leaves large sections of the population in limbo. Perhaps someday we can imminent domain them into actual public property.

  2. Joshua

    I’m curious why this matters? If, as joshuadf states, this serves to act as a “de facto” public space, and functions excellently so, isn’t this really just a semantic issue? In fact, I would argue that Harbor Steps will maintain this space better than the city actually would. What would we gain by having a “true” public space?

  3. Sabina Pade

    Agreed with Joshua. How would nominal government ownership of the Harbor Steps streets improve them, or make them more public?

  4. Tony

    I believe there exists a contractual agreement between Harbor Steps and the City, that required, as a condition of the vacation, that the Harbor Steps be maintained as a public space in perpetuity.

    Harbor steps is actually a fantastic example of when private development “does it right”. While the city did require the open space, the fact that the Harbor Steps looks the way it does owes almost exclusively to the fact that the private developer wanted it to look that way. Contrast that with the Four Seasons, and you can see the difference between a “good” developer and a “bad” developer. Sadly, at this time, we have not yet found a way to legally distinguish between the two.

    Bad development is like pornography: It’s hard to define, but everyone knows it when they see it. The problem is, unless we can figure out how to come up with a legally robust definition of “good” and “bad”, we are left to roll the dice and hope that the developer isn’t a jack@$$. This is not really a place I want to be.

  5. joshuadf

    Here’s the rub: if a security guard comes up to you and tells you to leave, what is your recourse? If it’s private property they can call the cops and haul you off for almost any reason. If it’s a public space, you have to violating a law.

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