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The Value of Open Spaces in a Densifying City: Opening of the New and Improved McGraw Square

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Seattle, Framework, Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Department of Transportation, Praxis Builders, DCI Engineers, McGraw Square
Rendering courtesy of Framework

By Jack Stubbs

As the city of Seattle continues to change and evolve, and new commercial and residential developments coming online mean that densification continues to occur citywide, open spaces in the downtown core continue to be valuable assets.

“With the qualities of people moving to Seattle, our public spaces are doing a lot more heavy lifting than they’ve needed to in the past. There are elements of these projects that are very unique and tied to their location,” said Mackenzie Waller of design firm Framework, who helped design McGraw Square, a plaza located at the intersections of Westlake Avenue, Stewart Street and Olive Street in the heart of downtown Seattle.

On May 31st, Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) celebrated the grand opening of a new-look McGraw Square—a collaboration between Framework, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Praxis Builders and DCI Engineers—which has a long-standing history as a rain garden. As part of the improvements to the square, which now has a “rain theme,” the existing shelter for bicycle racks was converted to cover two custom-made chairs, and a variety of seating, benches and tabletop games were incorporated into the space.

The newer elements that were integrated into the plaza reflected the overall goal of creating a more welcoming open space in the city’s downtown core, according to Waller. “Although there are some off-the-shelf items used, there are also some fabricated elements that reflect pieces of identity that are hyper-local. It’s really important in the context of the direction that I hope Seattle can go, which is that we continue to be a welcoming city and that we continue to create opportunities for local craftspeople to be making high-quality work.”

Seattle, Framework, Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Department of Transportation, Praxis Builders, DCI Engineers, McGraw Square
Image courtesy of Downtown Seattle Association

As part of the new-and-improved space, DSA worked with SDOT—who owns the square—to get a street use permit to make changes to the plaza. Preliminary plans for the project began several years ago, according to Jennifer Casillas, vice president of Public Space Operations and Events at DSA. “We identified it as a priority public space years ago when we started light-level activation of the space. About a year ago, we saw that it was becoming a hub. With the growth of the city in the different neighborhoods, people are walking through McGraw Square to get through to the waterfront and the retail core and South Lake Union.”

The work being done to McGraw Square follows a template that was set with DSA’s successful revitalization of other open spaces in the city. DSA’s Parks and Public Space team also manages Westlake Park in downtown Seattle and Occidental Square (originally established in 1971) in Pioneer Square through an agreement with the city of Seattle. The goal with all of the projects was to better utilize the open spaces in the city, according to Casillas. “We wanted to turn these spaces from liabilities into assets for the city. There’s not a lot of public open space in downtown Seattle; what we do have we’re trying to capitalize on, and we’re using this model with other parks and public plazas in the downtown core.”

The improvements to the square mark the latest chapter for an area that has a long-standing history. The plaza was acquired by the city in 1911 as a public square and designated as a Landmark in 1985. The plaza is named after John H. McGraw, who served as the second Governor of the State of Washington, and a statue of McGraw overlooks the plaza.

The plaza occupies a prominent location in the city’s downtown core—sitting within two blocks of the Convention Center and Westlake Station—and as such experiences a significant amount of foot traffic, according to Waller. “The site is really exciting [now] because it gets so much traffic, [but] it had started to become a place where people were moving through but didn’t want to stay and spend much time,” she said.

Seattle, Framework, Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Department of Transportation, Praxis Builders, DCI Engineers, McGraw Square
Image courtesy of Framework

One of the main challenges with how to repurpose the space was how to respect the existing site elements. “We were directed to not cover any of the in-ground lighting and also needed to keep certain areas clear. Maintaining that activation and programming was critical,” Waller added. And the recent improvements to the plaza go beyond improving the practical programming of the space—one of the primary objectives throughout was to improve accessibility and circulation around the site. “There’s a high degree of care, maintenance and stewardship that goes into creating public spaces; it’s not just about physical improvements but also a sense of community and people feeling welcome and safe [there],” Waller added.

Externally, DSA conducted public outreach throughout the planning process to ensure that the new-and-improved square would fit into the surrounding downtown neighborhood context, according to Casillas. DSA conducted outreach to adjacent neighbors, business and business owners to get their input on the project.

Throughout, one of the main challenges was how to convey the more intangible benefits that an improved open space could represent for the community, according to Casillas. “One of the challenges is that [the project is] a ‘soft benefit.’ It’s hard to put a ROI or metrics on this project; so sometimes the challenge is to make people aware that projects like this will help their businesses…it’s the ‘all boats rise’ kind of mentality,” she said.

In the wider context, the hope is that projects like McGraw Square will contribute to a new understanding about the value of open spaces in an evolving city. “With all of the growth and development in this city, we need these spaces for the betterment of the city…people are walking, biking, driving and taking public transportation…they’re not just inside these buildings, so we have to create a great experience to and through the city as well as to wherever their final destination may be,” Casillas added.

Moving forward, the intention is that areas like McGraw will serve as a link between the public and private realm, especially in the downtown core, according to Casillas. “[The project] is about connecting the public spaces to the private spaces,” she said. “Businesses are of course focused on their business and what’s going on inside the brick and mortar; but people need to interested in getting to their destinations also.”

In the longer-term as Seattle continues to densify, Waller thinks that open spaces that adaptively reused will serve as increasingly important role in terms of shaping the evolution of the city. “As we’re seeing intense growth in Seattle, there’s also an increase in pressure in terms of the ways we need to be using public space and an overall increase in our use of the public realm,” she said. “It’s not just about how quickly we can move people through downtown, but also making these places where people want to come and stay.”