Save Our Parking Lots
A Tour of Seattle’s Most Endangered Open Spaces
Our region is famous for its natural beauty. We are envied the world over for our forests and beaches, mountains and streams, flora and fauna. And while few might think to look inside the Seattle city limits for wild open spaces, they can be found amid the hustle and bustle of our city. All across Seattle, cherished opens spaces offer residents a bucolic respite—places where hearts, minds, and spirits can soar. But Seattle’s parking lots are threatened. Seattle—formerly home to several square miles of pristine asphalt—has been losing its parking lots at an alarming rate. Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), says that in 2006, Seattle was home to approximately 670 pay parking lots. But in 2007, only 530 were left. At this rate of eradication, every pay lot in Seattle will be gone within four years. Now, however, citizens are beginning to recognize the damage being done to their city and the cry has gone up: Save our parking lots!
When a developer in the Madrona neighborhood threatened to replace a parking lot with a three-story brick building containing an artist’s loft and a restaurant, citizens stepped forward to speak for a parking lot that could not speak for itself. “Many of us in Madrona fear that this development will negatively impact the open spaces and vintage character of Madrona and set a precedent,” neighborhood activist Michael Leavitt wrote in a Madrona News cover story. Contacted by phone, Leavitt says he is not alone in trying to save Madrona’s threatened parking lot and its wide-open spaces. “I was trying to represent what others had been saying,” said Leavitt. Indeed, Leavitt’s neighbors sent 50 letters of protest to the city in an effort to save Madrona’s threatened parking lot.
Martin Tobias, the developer seeking to destroy Madrona’s beloved parking lot, dismisses the neighborhood concerns. “An asphalt parking lot is not worth saving,” argues Tobias. “There’s nothing to save. Nothing.”
It’s thanks to attitudes like Tobias’s that photographs are all that remain of most of Ballard’s beloved parking lots and Belltown’s historic parking lots; they may be all that remain of the parking lots in your neighborhood one day, too. Unless we take action now, your future grandchildren may point to a photograph in a book and ask, “Grandma, what’s that a picture of?” And you will have to answer, “That’s a parking lot, sweetheart. The city used to be covered with them. But they’re all gone now.”
Downtown: Jake Alexander, 63, lives with his friend Larry in this parking lot on the corner First Avenue and Stewart Street. "We just love this parking lot," he says, after awakening from a nap next to several indigenous gray doves nibbling on bread crumbs. But Alexander's haven is not long for this world. This glorious parking lot will soon be replaced by a hotel and apartment building. Alexander is resigned to the loss. "We drink anywhere we want to drink," he shrugs.
Belltown: This lot may look barren, but a closer examination reveals a squat jungle, rich with flora. Thickets of moss burst from crevices. A riot of mildew and fungi cling to the pay box. Near the fence, hedges of native grasses thrive; young shoots grow from dead leaves, like baby sequoias springing from elder nurse logs. An economic downturn may have temporarily suspended plans for luxury towers for the rich on other Belltown parking lots, but the recession will not save this lot of life. Plymouth Housing Group is planning to build seven stories of housing for the homeless; not an inch of this greenery will survive the jackhammer.
University District: This open space at Northeast 45th Street and 12th Avenue is one of the few locations in the city where you can be sure that no cornices, bricks, or building debris will fall on you during an earthquake. But this wildlife and earthquake refuge is threatened by corruption at the highest levels of government. An eight-story hotel has been approved for this spot by the DPD—a major conflict of interest. The city department derives 80 percent of its $61.7 million annual budget from application fees paid by the same developers who are gobbling up Seattle's precious parking lots. There is money to be made allowing more invasive buildings into our pristine urban areas—but not a penny can be made from saving our native parking lots.
International District: This sanctuary exists at Fourth Avenue South and Main Street—but for how long? Wedged between the grotesque historic buildings of Pioneer Square to the west and the floridly embellished monstrosities of the International District to the south, this open space welcomes pedestrians and commuters alike. But will Seattleites of tomorrow be able to enjoy this stunning view? Seattle development and architecture firm Pb Elemental has proposed a 24-story tower on this spot. But one man stands taller: Art Skolnik, a giant among Seattle's historic preservationists, fights the good fight. "You have to have a buffer zone [between neighborhoods]," says Skolnik, who is working to save this beautifully paved prairie for future generations.
West Seattle: This open space enjoys a rich history. Located at the former Huling Brothers car dealership at 38th Avenue Southwest and Fauntleroy Way, this parking lot marks the spot where in 2006 a trio of car salesmen sold a mentally disabled customer a $30,000 truck he didn't need. They then raided the man's subsidized apartment, stealing his life savings from a dresser drawer. Harbor Properties marketing director Emmi Baldwin, however, cares not a whit for local history. "With parking lots there, [the neighborhood] is really not walkable," Baldwin insists. A presumably "walkable" six-story building is planned for this site.
South Lake Union: A neighborhood that once served as a habitat for the city's most robust population of lots and cars, South Lake Union has been overrun lately with dense development, new residents, and a streetcar line. This all comes at the expense of the open spaces that made this area so inviting in the first place. While streets and sidewalks are frequently swept by sanitation workers and business owners, parking lots are the Galapagos Islands of urban refuse. Here rests a natural latex prophylactic that, like the old neighborhood itself, once teemed with life. And only in parking lots do the most exotic butts of Turkish and American cigarettes mingle in the asphalt cracks to create the most exquisite blends of tobacco and tar. Real tar. The Blume Company plans to stamp out this natural preserve with four four-story buildings.
Capitol Hill: We had hoped to end with a little good news. On the former site of a half-dozen local businesses—including some recently demolished bars once patronized by the writers and editors of this newspaper—now rests this glorious block-long gravel parking lot. Capitol Hill resident Dennis Saxman sued the developer who sought to replace this newly created open space, this Sahara of Seattle, with a six-story apartment building. When the developer tried to move up the court date—a ploy to destroy this parking lot sooner rather than later—Saxman filed a brief with the court to keep the later hearing date. "It's already an expedited process," Saxman says. "The developer's concerns are not mine." But Saxman's efforts were for naught: A superior court judge ruled in July that developers could build here. So Seattle's newest sanctuary for automobiles, used condoms, cigarette butts, and bums—this precious open space—will soon be lost to us.