Urban Politics #216: Downtown Public Spaces

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.






A lot of attention has been given to the Council’s recent passage of the Downtown rezone legislation which encourages the development of taller denser buildings in the city’s core, additional affordable housing units and a more livable downtown. There is another, more obscure but important, part of this legislation that I’ll tell you about here.



Since 1966, the City of Seattle has offered developers the right to build a larger and thus more profitable development in return for providing certain amenities including low-income housing, public restrooms, sculptured rooftops, and public open space of different sorts. In general, this is a good program and everyone wins.

The City is able to ensure that certain public amenities are provided without having to pay for them out of the budget, and developers are able to reap higher profits and are given greater flexibility. The Washington Mutual 2nd Ave plaza, Wells Fargo 2nd Ave plaza, and 1001 4th Ave plaza across from the library are three better known examples of public open space created this way. (Contact my office if you’d like a list of all 18 buildings providing zoning bonus public open space.)

Unfortunately, this program had failed to create spaces that are public in a full sense. The laws describing how these public open spaces should function were not fully thought through. Seattle’s rules explained that public space created as a bonus should be “accessible to the public at all times.” This vague definition leaves us wondering what uses accessibility allows. Clearly building owners must maintain the right to exclude people who are behaving violently, harassing other members of the public, or damaging property, for example. After all, they have the responsibility to keep their public spaces safe and pleasant.

But how far does this power of exclusion go? My office has spoken to Seattleites who have been told they were trespassing on these “public spaces” because they were distributing political literature or associated with a nearby protest. I am also concerned that Seattleites who are homeless may not have the same rights to public space as other people do.



The Downtown rezone legislation corrects this long-standing problem in the City’s “zoning bonus public open space” program. I recommended inclusion of a section in the new “Downtown Amenity Standards” that will protect the public’s rights of use in privately-owned-public-spaces built through this program.

I firmly believe that political speech and diversity belong in public space. If the City is giving developers a bonus to provide “public open space,” those plazas must be open to both political and social use by everyone.

To insure that Seattle’s future bonused plazas will be true public space, I worked with the City’s land use and law experts, and we included the following passage in the new “Downtown Amenity Standards”:

“Bonused public spaces are provided for public use and enjoyment. They should be easily recognized as available for use by the general public, and they generally should be as accessible to the public as publicly provided open space. Within these spaces, property owners, tenants and their agents shall allow individuals to engage in activities allowed in the public sidewalk environment, except that those activities that would require a street use permit if conducted on the sidewalk may be excluded or restricted.

Free speech activities such as hand billing, signature gathering, and holding signs, all without obstructing access to the space, the building, or other adjacent features, and without unreasonably interfering with the enjoyment of the space by others, shall be allowed. While engaged in allowed activities members of the public may not be asked to leave for any reason other than conduct that unreasonably interferes with the enjoyment of the space by others.” (Ordinance #122054)

, Downtown Amenity Standards, I: General Eligibility Conditions for Amenity Features, B. Public Access and Hours of Operation.)



Now that height limits have been increased, we will see substantial redevelopment Downtown. In the “zoning bonus public spaces” of those new buildings, free speech activities will be explicitly protected. The requirement that, “while engaged in allowed activities members of the public may not be asked to leave for any reason other than conduct…” means that homelessness or appearance cannot be the basis for exclusion. The public’s rights of use in the existing bonused public open spaces remain vague, but I am working with the Department of Planning and Development to protect them as best we can. Our first step will be to clearly mark those plazas with signs to inform the public that they do indeed have a right to use the space.

Ultimately, my goal is to make the city of Seattle work as well for the public as we encourage our downtown to develop.

Keep in touch…

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