Below the open windows of the Glen Hotel Apartments on Seattle’s Third Avenue, near where one of the building’s residents was beaten to death in August, nearly 300 buses rattle by an hour.
The street-level storefronts that once housed Steak ‘n Shake, an IGA grocery store, Gyro Stop and others are covered with black-painted plywood. Absent any reason to visit this block — save for Wild Ginger on its southern end — most visitors between Pike and Union are only there to catch a ride to someplace else.
Seattle’s Third Avenue is known primarily for two things: transit and disorder. After years — decades, even — of effort to control the latter, city leaders have begun to wonder whether rethinking the former might help.
On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council will vote to begin what will likely be a very long and possibly expensive shift in strategy toward Third — one that, as Councilmember Andrew Lewis put it, focuses less on how to exclude the bad and more on how to welcome the good.
Of particular interest is how Third functions as the city’s main transit thoroughfare. The street, which became transit-only for most of the day in 2018, is among the busiest for buses in the country and acts as the connective tissue for transit between downtown and the rest of the city.
But while the stretch is effective at moving people out, what’s left behind are narrow sidewalks, scarce commerce and a persistent underground economy built around addiction and poverty. Unlike popular transit malls in other cities, the environment, defined by empty storefronts and long stretches of blank walls, is not conducive to leisure.
As the future of downtown remains in limbo, it’s a good time to look under the hood of the downtown street, said Lewis — to analyze traffic patterns, transit volumes, return to office, the possible effect of future light rail and streetcar lines, and what it would take to transform it into a street with uses beyond waiting for a bus.
“Third Avenue should be treated as the front door to the city,” said Lewis. “It’s the first thing you see … We aren’t setting a good impression as a city.”
How the corridor might change is unclear. Tuesday’s vote is a nonbinding endorsement of a “vision” for Third Avenue written by the Downtown Seattle Association in 2019, which includes several options for the street’s future, including going to three lanes from four, building a median in the middle, running a single shuttle up and down the street or allowing cars back on Third. Each option comes with wider sidewalks.
The council is not yet backing any one approach, but instead the idea of stripping Third to its studs — a monumental effort on par with the city’s new waterfront currently under construction, said Lewis.
“We need to treat it like a public asset,” he said.
Loud and crowded
Momentum behind the Downtown Seattle Association’s pitch for Third Avenue stalled with the arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020.
Now, as City Hall dares to look past the pandemic, its leaders are dusting off the vision with new interest. It’s resonating among progressive council members in part because it uses the language of urbanism rather than enforcement — that creating an inviting space will deliver longer-term benefits than the sugar highs of more police.
But achieving that as the street’s currently built and used will be difficult, said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
“Making it a really inclusive, inviting space is, in some ways, hindered by the level of vehicle traffic and bus traffic and the particularly loud buses and a lot of people without a lot of dedicated space that are waiting for those buses,” he said.
Third moves more people on transit than almost any other corridor in the country. But it does so with less efficiency than other cities. Before the pandemic, Denver’s 16th Avenue Mall moved about 13% fewer people per peak hour than Seattle’s Third Avenue — 45,000 compared to Seattle’s 52,400 — but with just a quarter the number of buses. At the same time, sidewalks on transit corridors in Denver, Vancouver and Minneapolis are all greater than 30 feet wide, compared to Third Avenue’s 19 feet.
The effect of Third’s nearly 300 vehicles per peak hour is a “wall of buses,” said Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, which runs a building for low-income people on Pine Street and Third. Residents have raised concerns about how the noise and movement, combined with cramped sidewalks, gives cover to activity that makes them scared to leave their homes.
“When you see that wall of buses, it’s very hard to see what’s what,” she said. “And I think there is a lot of taking advantage of this sort of chaos.”
For the Low Income Housing Institute, which manages the Glen Hotel Apartments, the urgency to change Third reared its head earlier in the summer, when a resident was killed near the building’s entrance. His downstairs neighbor, who asked that his name not be used out of safety concerns, said he used to hear the man clomping upstairs until one day, it stopped.
“This area, everyone’s drawn to this block,” said the resident, standing outside of his room. Living there, the drugs and violence become almost normal. “It’s like people change the second they hit the block,” he said.
The area has become a “no man’s land,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. Their residents live in fear.
“I’m trying to create a safe place for our residents, and it’s impossible to do,” she said.
Pluses and minuses
A prerequisite for the changes is that the transit capacity must remain the same, the Seattle City Council said in its resolution.
“There are good things about Third Avenue and the main good thing is transit,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “We’d definitely want to make sure that whatever changes are made, it doesn’t lose that awesomeness as a transit corridor.”
In the Downtown Seattle Association’s vision, Third remains a transit corridor. But in some scenarios, its current load would shared by Second and Fourth avenues. Scholes, of DSA, also said the street could run something like a dedicated shuttle between Pioneer Square and Seattle Center, with riders transferring at either end. Either scenario results in a quieter street that needs less space for buses and therefore provides more for people.
Paul Roybal, transportation planner with King County Metro, said the agency is excited about the conversation, but that some of the DSA’s ideas present significant logistical hurdles. Third is very convenient for transfers, in a way that splitting buses among three streets would not be, he said. And while the idea of a shuttle is interesting, it would add a transfer to many routes that currently don’t exist.
Another of the DSA’s ideas, to have a median where transit users can wait, presents one clear hurdle: the bus doors are on the wrong side.
“It’s not to say that any of the concepts are fatally flawed, but there’s pluses and minuses to all of them,” he said.
Transforming Third Avenue will take more than the city snapping its fingers and making it so. Long stretches of the corridor are dominated by contiguous walls or loading docks that are privately owned.
Scholes acknowledged the uninviting concrete, and the DSA points to the challenges of the built environment in its report. But Scholes said that environment would change naturally if the city acts first — an “if you build it, they will come” approach.
“When you make an investment to change the public realm, often the private sector then responds,” he said.
When a second light rail tunnel cuts through downtown, the pressure on Third will likely ease as train trips replace some by bus.
But for Lee, of LIHI, all this talk feels too distant. Her residents feel unsafe now, which is why she’s pushing the city to take over the former Steak ‘n Shake as a permanent police outpost.
“We are not waiting around for major sidewalk and infrastructure work to be done,” she said. “The safety issues have to be addressed immediately.”