Big developments, tiny public spaces: Little open space in new buildings

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The “Zen garden” complete with stone benches near the entrance to Emerald City Smoothies in Island Market Square. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The “Zen garden” complete with stone benches near the entrance to Emerald City Smoothies in Island Market Square.
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When the two largest mixed-use developments opened in the Town Center last year, Islanders finally got to see what decades of urban planning and design review had wrought. But to some, promises to make the new buildings more people-friendly seemed forgotten. Only a few, very small public spaces have emerged along with these massive structures. The city has taken notice and is now seeking more control over future developments to ensure public spaces are provided after construction. The code currently in place allowed developers to create several small public features, such as one water fountain accompanied by some clocks, statues or art work.

So as the retailers begin to fill up the store fronts in Island Market Square and The Mercer, the Island’s first two large mix-use structures, city officials have taken another look at the design process and city codes that failed to bring large public plazas to the Town Center.

As a result, last Monday night City Council reviewed some recommendations made by an ad hoc committee and the planning commission in hopes of bringing more public amenities downtown. The changes will be formalized as amendments to the city’s building codes.

When the first proposals and models for Island Square and The Mercer became public during the design review and permit processes it appeared there would be more public benefit from the structures. The initial designs showed abundant spaces opened to the public, engaging them with the structures. Many of the proposals currently under review also display similar plazas and public amenities. Both The Mercer and Island Market Square lack the significant public spaces that were originally presented in the initial proposals.

Instead, a waterfall near the rental office that is still under construction and a “Zen” garden next to Emerald City Smoothie highlight the existing public plazas over at Island Market Square. And at The Mercer, there is a large stone and water fountain on the southeast corner of the sidewalk around the complex and some private outdoor seating next to Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro and Q’doba.

However, the early project designs showed the city was going to get more.

“Gated Communities” downtown

The original presentation of the Island Market Square proposal before the Design Commission in January 2001, indicated the above-street-level courtyard would be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., giving the city a large open public space. The space was to include benches, landscaping and a water feature.

Even with the time limitations on the courtyard proposed at that time, two design commissioners expressed concern over the lack of complete public access. Developers, however, argued the closure at 8 p.m. was necessary for the future residents’ privacy and security.

During that same design commission meeting, Paul Armistead, the Vice President of Seco Development said the intent was not to shut people out, but to create a secure environment at an appropriate time.

Today, however, the courtyard remains locked 24 hours a day.

By the time the design commission approved the final plans for Island Square later that year in November, the architects and developers had decided to make the courtyard 100 percent private. Island Market Square planners argued before the commission during this final approval session that the courtyard would be private because it was designed as a recreational space for future residents.

“The upper courtyard space has really always been viewed in the design from the outset as really a recreational amenity for the residents and office tenants,” one of the project planners, Bill Stolzer, told the Design Commission in November 2001. “Really this space is the backyard for the residents. It provides the opportunity for the residents to get out of their apartment into a quiet space that is removed from the hub-bub of the street and the urban environment in which they live. It’s important to have these places for residents to escape.”

In the end, the design commission narrowly approved Island Market Square’s final design with a 3-2 vote.

“That was a major mistake to let that happen,” the former Design Commission Vice Chair Fred Glick said in an interview last week. “My concern then, as it is today, was that this would create gated communities right in the heart of downtown. I understand the need for security and privacy but if you look at the large issue, the Town Center is supposed to reflect public virtues and public needs.”

News reports of Island Market Square indicated the building would have wide sidewalks with pocket parks, gardens, benches, a reflecting fountain and four large plazas to encourage public gatherings. However, Mark Hinshaw, an urban planner now consulting the city with the Town Center code amendments, criticized the public spaces built at Island Market Square because they don’t attract public gatherings.

“Part of the Zen Plaza in Island Square, which is almost directly across from Tully’s, is covered with a sky bridge, which doesn’t’ make it very inviting. It looks like your going into a tunnel,” Hinshaw said at a recent city meeting. “And the seating is rocks with indentations, which may be aesthetically pleasing, but we want something that isn’t ice cold. Something that has wood on it or something like that.”

The four, 1,000-square-foot pocket parks (that got built) dress up the building and street front but discourage public use because they are also the entry points to the elevated (and gated courtyard) and the parking garage, he added.

Hinshaw told the planning commission that one large plaza would attract the public better than numerous small ones.

“Four or five small plazas is not the same as having one large one,” Hinshaw said. “You can still allow more than one plaza but they should be at least two percent of the gross square feet and be larger than 1,500 square feet.”

No “paseo”

Town Center’s other recent development, The Mercer, also cut out a public amenity in the time between the original design and the completed building. In July 2002, the project was introduced to the city with plans for a pedestrian plaza, called a “paseo,” a pathway that would bisect the L-shaped property and serve as the entrance to the parking garage and loading area.

However, the only plaza constructed at the moment is elevated with a locked gate and there is no paseo near the garage’s entrance.

While the paseo was included in the final design of The Mercer, which was approved by the design commission in November of 2002, a subsequent neighboring development cut the original project in half. As a result, the paseo was scratched from the project.

Plans for the new Starbucks on S.E. 27th Street stirred up a controversy in 2003, bringing a lawsuit against the city from The Mercer’s developers and a public request made by Starbucks that a city councilmember recuse himself from any review of the project.

In the end, only one of the two originally planned structures were built and the paseo between them was forgotten.

“The paseo was a pedestrian link through the property that may now be a part of a future phase,” former design commissioner Fred Glick said, “ I think the lawsuit with the city put it on hold for a while.”

Regardless of the reasons for not building the paseo, Glick said the city needs to make such pedestrian pathways mandatory for all new, large developments.

“It’s time for the city to step up to the plate,” Glick said. “These pedestrian connections should be made mandatory because there is no second chance. Once the buildings are constructed, the opportunity to create these pedestrian links becomes severely limited.”

Glick also wanted the public-turned-private courtyard at Island Market Square to remain open as a public pedestrian pathway through the structure so people wouldn’t have to circle the perimeter.

“We’re talking about making someone walk 1,200 feet just to go 300,” he said.

The city officials are now working to change Town Center codes to ensure useful public open space.

If the city doesn’t require them, the city will not succeed in creating the ultimate goal of making the downtown neighborhood a vibrant urban center, Glick added.

“In essence, what all these new developments are creating is a whole new neighborhood and you want to make sure those residents get the benefits of a neighborhood. They should enjoy being able to walk around their neighborhood or it becomes a less desirable place to live and they’ll realize it’s not as convenient living there as they once thought.”

Island Market Square

Original plans:

83,000 square feet of retail, (46,000 office space, 27,000 retail).

200,000 residential square footage, 205 apartments.

Current uses:

42,000 square feet of retail (11,000 office space, 31,000 retail)

251,342 square feet of residential space, 210 units.

The Mercer

Original plans:

15,000 square feet of retail.

247 apartments.

Current uses:

18,000 square feet of retail

210 apartments, or 209,225 square feet of residential space.

Avellino Apartments

Original plans:

2,600 square feet of retail.

23 apartments.

Current uses:

2,600 square feet of retail

23 apartments.

Newell Court Apartments

Original plans:

3,786 square feet of retail.

40 apartments.

Current uses:

2,542 square feet of retail

40 apartments, or 39,277 square feet of residential space.

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