Who’s Your Baddest Streetscape?

I’ve long thought that the east side of the block on 3rd Ave between Union and University deserves an award for being the most abominable pedestrian streetscape in the downtown core.   Behold its gawdawfulness:  at eye level the ~350 feet of street wall is completely blank save for a small length of sealed windows into the post office and the mammoth, gaping maw of a loading dock entrance.  The post office was recently given a face lift but it does little to improve the street-level pedestrian experience.

But listen:  there are those who believe that you have only to walk a block north to find as bad or worse.   There (photo below), only about half the block is blank facade.  But oh how radiantly barren and exposed that half-block is.  At least the post-office block has a few trees. 

Because it’s a bus corridor Third Ave gets a lot of pedestrian traffic, and these dead blocks are major missed opportunities for street-level businesses to captilize on that traffic.  Picture what it would be like with small-scale sidewalk produce stands like you find in some parts of New York City, or cafe tables spilling out onto the street.  The sidewalk news stand at 3rd and Pike—just re-vamped after 47 years in business at that site—is the right stuff, but it’s just so sad and lonely out there all by itself.

All this is not say there aren’t many other atrocious downtown Seattle streetscapes that deserve recognition.  First Ave between Columbia and Cherry, and  the west side of 4th Ave between Columbia and Cherry are two that come to mind.  Needless to say, one key ingredient is parking garages. 

So who’s your baddest Seattle streetscape?

26 Responses to “Who’s Your Baddest Streetscape?”

  1. spencer

    Dan, Great post to get people looking closer at their streets. I’ have to vote first for the Sinking Ship Garage block. Although it is small, it is very unfriendly to both pedestrians and, yes, cars a like. To pull out of that place is a pain and a great way to run over passer bys. It is also perfect for people to hide in to commit unsavory acts of lewd behavior.

    I do think your assessment of 3rd between Union and University is a little overstated. To be fair the post office consumes more than half the block. It’s need for controlled use does not allow it to be perforated like the best used buildings. The other portion of that block is underutilized by a parking garage, which, is a poor use of urban space for pedestrians but works much better for cars.

  2. wes kirkman

    “need for controlled use does not allow it to be perforated like the best used buildings”

    Are there gangsters out there that target post offices to steal post cards from Cincinnati I am not aware of?

    I am going to vote for just about anywhere on Madison from downtown up the Hill as I cross or use it every day. Awful. Narrow sidewalks, signs and other crap blocking most of what sidewalk there is, no activated spaces, and a wide roadway that rewards aggressive driving. Either that or just about any stretch of Boren.

    Speaking of Boren. Virginia Mason is doing an excellent job of making Boren between Seneca and Spring fit in with the rest: no windows or doors or anything but wall. A wonderful canyon devoid of anything that adds interest to the street so as to keep traffic moving at blazing speeds.

  3. ktstine

    wes, your description of boren makes it sound ripe for the first hill streetcar (since this is where VM wants it to go)! madison is awful, i agree, a terrible place for pedestrians.

  4. greg

    What you didn’t mention about the post office block is that big blank wall at the corner is a parking garage. Nothing can suck the life out of a streetscape more than garages. And Seattle, like many U.S. cities, is chock full of them. Prime redevelopment locations. On the other hand, look at the Columbia retail store that infills the ground level of the old Bon Marche garage at 3rd. & Pine. It really brightened up that corner.

    Oh, yeah, Seattle: plant more trees downtown! And paint the tired-looking streetlight poles!

  5. Seattle Resident

    Dan, you are not the only one who has noticed the joy that is Third Avenue. The City has a whole concept plan for it, complete with extra-nasty street images:


    Here’s the description:

    Third Avenue Streetscape Conceptual Design Plan
    CityDesign prepared a plan for Third Avenue to address the seven blocks in downtown Seattle spanning from Blanchard Street to University Street. The plan provides a comprehensive inventory and offers recommendations to establish a long term vision for Third Avenue, including improvements to the roadway, sidewalks, intersections, pedestrian amenities, transit facilities, landscape, signage, and lighting. Design plans and block by block recommendations are included.

    Who knows how old this plan is or what the status is, but it’s floating around DPD’s CityDesign somewhere.

  6. Chris

    East side of Second avenue between Union and Stewart …bleech. Hard to say what is worst of the three blocks:

    Union-Pike: Parking garage, vacant lot
    Pike-Pine: “sketchy” retail and parking lot
    Pine-Stewart: hole in ground

  7. dave

    Although I really wish the original post office were still on that site, I liked that mosaic tile they recently covered up on the current version. And the worst part is that they replaced the cool art deco metal letting of “US Post Office” with the dumb white-and-blue plastic sign that looks like a fast food chain sign.

  8. Regan

    I vote for the stretch of sidewalk at Mercer running underneath 99/Aurora. It’s got only enough sidewalk to allow 2 severely skinny pedestrians (or 1 plumpy). Add into the mix the bicycles that want to use it as a shortcut (and who wouldn’t want to) rather than ride all the way to Denny to get around 99 to Lake Union and it’s a total mess. Feels like you take your life into your hands just to walk it along side 4 roaring lanes of one-way traffic (or – shudder – 4 lanes of fume-spewing idle traffic).

  9. wes kirkman

    More on VM awesome project.

    “The hospital’s Web site promises that the building design will marry the hospital’s need for efficiency with the public’s desire for a safe, pleasant pedestrian experience. The accompanying images indicate a transparent base, blank façades limited to the second and third floors, and a band of large windows wrapping the fourth floor.

    However, the building rising on the west side of Boren Avenue between Spring and Seneca streets is almost solid concrete. At pedestrian level, the Boren façade is 76 percent blank, the Seneca façade 100 percent blank, both departing from code requirements.”


    My thoughts exactly.

  10. ktstine

    wes, that is insane. i just went by there to check it out and it is quite possibly the worst facade i have seen ever. VM must have a wimpy Citizens Advisory Committee to let that happen..another reason why major institutions should have to go through design review!

  11. alexjonlin

    Well that downtown post office has been recommended by the Postal Service for closure, so hopefully it will get replaced in the next several years by something nice!
    Meanwhile, is there anyway to rehabilitate the ground-level of a parking garage into retail?

  12. squid

    Agree with Regan @8 !!

    I almost got myself killed on that Mercer sidewalk under 99…
    I was biking west and there was no room to pass a jogger so I dropped off the sidewalk into the lane… kinda forgot the road was one-way going east.

  13. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    To me the saddest places are the empty surface lots where buildings once were, such as the blocks south of NE 47th from Brooklyn to Roosevelt (the walking route to Trader Joe’s).

  14. Wheretobegin

    A special place in the list belongs to the Polyclinic building on Broadway between E. Union and Harvard. In that block they give us not just massive gaping parking garage entrances (four, I think) but also a surface parking lot. But, not only that, at the west end of the block, for the last, what — fifteen years? — after tearing down a historic building of some charm they’ve maintained a litter-filled lot surrounded by a very hostile looking fence. Stand on the east side of Broadway at about Union and look to the Southwest toward the Baptist Church and try to imagine how good that view could have been.

  15. Joe G

    @5 I think the city is actually acting on that plan now. I just found this plan a week ago and noticed that they have started putting up the information polls and such as drawn out in this plan. Also, the replacement of the new stand was on this plan. I just hope that maybe they can transform the street scape of pike and pine between first and fourth like they planned to do.

  16. Matt the Engineer

    My vote is for everywhere on Denny and Aurora. But as far as downtown, I think Dan and Chris @6 are spot on. Oh, but add Western. This street starts out in the beautiful Pike’s Market… then becomes a windowless parking strip for most of the way down the hill.

    I’d also nominate most anything near the freeway, although the Freeway Park softens this quite a bit. And although the Convention Center had the potential for blocks upon blocks of dead space they did a reasonably good job of keeping retail at street level (with notable exceptions being 7th and 8th).

  17. SpoilSport

    @16 — The name is Pike Place Market, not “Pike’s” Market. Arghh!

  18. Andrew Smith

    @17 I hate that shit too. A “New York” deli opened in the UD and I asked the lady where it came from and she said “this is the second one, there’s been one at pike’s for a couple of years”. I was like “WTF are you talking about?”

  19. marc

    I agree with Matt @16 about Western Ave. Check out the new Seattle Steam Works building going up below the Four Seasons on Western. The siding is that crappy corrugated plexiglass you see at trailer parks. It is a fresh wart on Western Avenue. (And contrast what Seattle Steam builds today with the beautiful brick plant they built a century ago down the street at the corner of Western and Yesler. Very sad.)

  20. Alex

    Rainier from about Genesee to Jackson is largely a pedestrian nightmare, complete with lots of vacant lots/parking lots; uses pulled far back from the street, narrow sidewalks, traffic that regularly goes 10-20 mph faster than the speed limit, very little housing (and thus few eyes on the street and a feeling of danger at night), a bunch of marginal businesses and warehouses, and to top it all off, the I-90 overpass/Dearborn which is downright pedestrian hostile for about a quarter of a mile.

    Turning Rainier back into a neighborhood street ought to be one of the city’s top priorities.

  21. jon

    -norton building has solid blank wall on 2 sides typical of the 1950s mentality when it came to building on slopes.

    -also macys garage, i realize it has been improved a great deal but thats not saying much.


  22. Obi Wan

    There is a stiff competition here for worst street vibe. I nominate 3rd avenue between Seneca and Spring. Google Streetview does not capture its horror, but hides the ugliest public “art” I’ve seen, evah, with Metro Buses.

    On the occasions that I have the misfortune of riding the bus (normally I bike), I shudder at having to decide between waiting here or at the drug-mart between Pike(‘s) and Pine on 3rd.

    The Horror.

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  24. John West

    It’s amazing how little neighborhood business identity and charm is found here in Seattle. There are successful models like the Fremont and Ballard districts but no true Design District or “furniture row” for that matter!

    We are working on western and union to invigorate and renovate this area with great potential but meeting resistance.

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