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Melrose Avenue Re-Envisioning Project Brings Changes to Capitol Hill As Part of Growing City

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Seattle, Berger Partnership, Schemata Workshop, Seattle Department of Transportation, Downtown Seattle Association, Sound Transit
Rendering courtesy of Melrose Promenade Advisory Committee

By Jack Stubbs

Redevelopment and adaptive reuse projects are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout Seattle, a city in transition, and another in-the-works project is set to bring changes to the city’s continually-evolving Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The Melrose Promenade project, a community-driven effort, is one such project that aims to transform Melrose Avenue and surrounding public spaces from an underutilized freeway frontage into a revitalized, more active pedestrian thoroughfare. The adaptive reuse project, initiated by the community-led Melrose Promenade Advisory Committee (MPAC), is a collaborative effort that also includes various architectural firms such as Berger Partnership, Schemata Workshop and Weinstein A+U.

The main goals of the undertaking are to improve pedestrian safety and connections at intersections, enhance connections to nearby transit corridors—particularly Interstate Highway 5, which runs adjacent to the site—activate underutilized street right-of-ways and parking areas and add pedestrian-oriented green spaces along a one-mile stretch of Melrose Ave., according to the project’s web site. Another of the main objectives with the project is to take better advantage of the vantage point from the site, which offers panoramic views of Lake Union, the Cascade Mountains and downtown Seattle.

The Melrose Avenue site has a long history that spans more than than a century. In 1910, the Republican Street Hillclimb was completed between Eastlake Avenue and the alley east of Melrose Avenue, a series of stairways that connected pedestrians to Capitol Hill and South Lake Union. In 1967, the adjacent neighborhoods were drastically altered with the construction of I-5. Only a small portion of the Republican Steps remain, and I-5 is still a significant barrier between Melrose and the adjacent neighborhoods.

The most recent redevelopment project was initially conceived in 2010—a more thorough conceptual plan was devised in 2013—and has since become refined through engagement and interaction with neighborhood residents, property owners, community organizations and stakeholder agencies.

Most recently, on Tuesday, April 3rd, an open house took place signalling the first city-led public event held for the project, at which representatives from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) presented the current project vision to members of the community. According to Dan Anderson, project development manager at SDOT, robust participation at the event reflected the community’s continued interest in the ongoing process. “There were over 60 people there, which exceeded my expectations for attendance and shows how much people who live and travel around Melrose care about this project,” he said. “We were really encouraged to keep talking with people, and that there is still work to be done introducing this project to the neighborhood.”

The open house was attended by a wide array of community members and local community organizations from Capitol Hill, and SDOT presented initial data and information about various circulation and traffic-related safety issues around Melrose Avenue to get the public’s input. “There was a lot of interest from residents, from the people who live in apartments, condos, co-ops, public housing facilities…we heard from a real diversity of people who live there,” Anderson said. “We have some initial data about what’s happening on the street, which includes traffic volume on the street, locations where people are getting in accidents, specifically people walking and biking who are especially vulnerable to serious injury.”

The project site, which sits on the westernmost edge of Capitol Hill, encompasses a one-mile stretch of street bounded by Pike Street on the south and Lakeview Boulevard to the north. Melrose avenue occupies a prominent transportation corridor that is a popular walking and biking destination for neighborhood residents and surrounding community members.

Currently, 37 percent of households in the Melrose Promenade corridor are car-free, according to the project description on the city of Seattle’s web site. Constrained on-street parking supply, expensive off-street parking, nearby mass transit, and the density of housing and jobs in the neighborhood can make owning a car expensive and inconvenient, a difficulty that the Melrose project hopes to mitigate.

In terms of wider community engagement, members of MPAC are also working in conjunction representatives from the Pike/Pine Renaissance project—which is a joint effort between the city of Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront and Downtown Seattle Association—to further streamline the planning and design process. Ultimately, the goals of the two projects are to improve the prominent transit corridors for the betterment of the surrounding community, according to Anderson. “We’re working with Pike-Pine Renaissance to make sure that our designs line up and we also had the Melrose Promenade Community Group that is looking at the block between Pike and Pine on Melrose to understand what could be done there to increase safety and traffic operations and revitalize the corridor for businesses and social activity,” he said.

Along these lines, on April 3rd, the city of Seattle released the near-term action plan for One Center City, a public-private partnership—between the city, King County, Sound Transit and the Downtown Seattle Association—that envisions a 20-year plan for how to improve circulation, transportation and accessibility throughout the city.

According to Michael Kent, project manager for MPAC, the initial vision for the project sprung in part from a personal interest in the area along Melrose Ave. “At the time [in 2010], I was an urban planner with a lot of time on my hands to go jogging around the city; I’d go running up and down Melrose Ave., which is close to where I was living. I noticed just how spectacular the views were; you could look out and see the Space Needle, Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound and all of downtown,” he said.

At the time, however, Melrose Avenue was severely under-maintained, according to Kent. “The street itself was in poor condition, with narrow sidewalks, barely any trees and lots of concrete; it was an underserved street. I felt that the ways to improve the public space were fairly straightforward improvements and basic design interventions, like granting more space to pedestrians, creating wider sidewalks, and adding public art and more lighting,” he said.

Starting in 2010, Kent starting bringing other organizations and community groups into the fold to conduct community outreach—and the project was given a significant financial boost two years later: in summer 2012, Central Seattle Greenways (CSG) and the Melrose Promenade Advisory Committee (MPAC) were awarded a $20,000 Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF) grant to conduct further community outreach, lead a community planning process and create the 2013 conceptual plan.

Since then, MPAC has continued to conduct community engagement and outreach events and has secured private sector support from stakeholder agencies (some of which include SDOT, Seattle Park and Recreation, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle City Council) and non-profits, some of which include Capitol Hill Community Council, Sustainable Capitol Hill and Bellwether Housing.

Ever since the project’s inception, the goal was to re-envision how an area like Melrose Ave. might become more of a community asset, according to Kent. “All the while on our end we were trying to convey the idea of better stewardship in our neighborhood, to reimagine what a street can be…this idea is now becoming a reality,” he said. Independently of MPAC, the city of Seattle sought a $3 million grant from the Puget Sound Regional Council using Federal Highway Administration dollars to further support the project.

From a financial perspective, the recent open house allowed MPAC to become better informed about how the city will specifically devote the $3 million grant towards the project, according to Kent. “As the project advances, we’re trying to get it more detailed to the point where we can begin to recommend to the city not only what could be built, but also what will be built.”

Kent thinks that the financial support—and the ongoing contribution from city agencies—leaves the project in good stead, and more broadly services to indicate the encouraging coming-together and collaboration of public and private agencies. “It’s extremely exciting to see these agencies taking it upon themselves to see this process through to completion, which leads us to where we are today,” Kent said. “Like everything, this project is a partnership. While it’s the city’s decision what it can or can’t do with the grant money, what they’re going to be doing is based upon the vision that we’ve been honing since 2010.”

To achieve this community-led vision as the most recent chapter in the multi-year process, the objective with the open house was was to solicit the public’s feedback on Melrose, which is ultimately intended to be a community asset, according to Jason Fialkoff, senior civil engineer with SDOT. “We presented Melrose Avenue as a blank canvas and gave people a toolbox of transportation improvements to work with, [to help them think about] where they want investments and what kind of investments those would be,” Fialkoff said.

There is a currently an online survey on SDOT’s web site—which will be available until April 29th—where community members can continue to provide their feedback and input about the project. SDOT will then return to the community in a few months’ time—with the online survey feedback, results from the open house and community documents created by MPAC—with more detailed project plans to work on further improving Melrose Ave, according to Fialkoff.

In the longer-term, the remainder of 2018 constitutes the planning phase; 2019 will be geared towards creating more specific design plans; and 2020 will be devoted towards the actual construction improvements along the corridor.

In terms of how the Melrose Ave. revitalization process fits into broader city-wide trends, Kent thinks growth throughout Seattle and the broader region means that more focused planning efforts are needed moving forward. “I think that the growth that Seattle and other cities is experiencing is ostensibly a good thing, and we should be so lucky that our challenges stem from economic growth and population growth in our city,” he said.

At the end of the day, though, transportation, accessibility and circulation improvements throughout the city—which are being tackled on the smaller scale with the Melrose Ave. project —are only one piece of the puzzle, according to Kent. “That being said, a city that is growing as rapidly as Seattle has a responsibility to ensure that that growth is coordinated side by side with a variety of improvements,” Kent said. “Not just public open space, but also investments in our schools, affordable housing and transportation.”

In terms of making strides in confronting the housing affordability crisis, the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) is a new initiative that is enacting neighborhood-by-neighborhood zoning changes throughout the city to ensure that new development includes affordable homes or contributes to a fund for affordable housing. Concerning transportation improvements, the Sound Transit Light Rail expansion project—set to begin in 2020 and be complete in 2041—includes a series of additions to the Light Rail system that will extend it north to Everett, south to Tacoma and east to Bellevue.

Projects like Melrose that proactively plan for extensive periods of growth—with the city-led affordable housing and transportation initiatives in place for the longer-term—are ultimately about how the improve quality of life for residents of the city, according to Kent. “Melrose is a major access point between Capitol Hill and Downtown. We have an opportunity, as more and more people will be traveling along it, to make it better,” he said. “It’s not only about how you bringing [growth] to the neighborhoods, but also how you make them safer and more enjoyable for people.”