Lately, everyone's got ideas for making downtown feel safer and welcoming. More cops on foot patrol: yes. Twenty million dollars in streetscape improvements: sure. A playground for the kiddies: you bet. But how about something that makes adults want to hang out downtown? How about a bar in Westlake Park?
That's right: Put an outdoor restaurant right on that cold, unwelcoming granite tundra.
Set out a few dozen tables. Roll out those big-ass gas heat lamps. Install giant umbrellas. (Place some fire extinguishers nearby in case those big-ass heat lamps set fire to the giant umbrellas.) And then put a rope around the whole bazaar and let the public sit outside for a whiskey or a beer, a coffee or a sandwich. Make Seattle's central plaza a town square enjoyable for chatting, people-watching, or just reading the paper. Far from kicking out the homeless, it would make them safer. Everyone's safer when public spaces are active, with many eyes on the street, rather than empty spaces that create anonymity.
I floated this idea on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, and surprisingly, my friends raved. And stunningly, so did Jon Scholes, the vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association, who disagrees with me on most stuff.
"I think people would be thrilled to get a coffee or wine or beer on a July afternoon and enjoy a public space in the heart of downtown," he said on the phone. He thinks pop-up restaurants anchored by modified cargo containers built by Boxman Studios could be one model. Scholes also says—and I also strongly agree—that any such arrangement must be modular or movable enough to make room for other park uses (such as protests). Several public spaces, like Bryant Park in New York City, have installed cafes in public spaces with great results. Scholes explains, "We need a reason for people to stay and enjoy a public space in the heart of downtown."
But right now, the hot-dog vendor and generic tourist-catering businesses down there provide no reason to linger. That's part of what makes the space so lifeless. Which is why we need a restaurant there that's good, not touristy garbage, and that attracts locals. We'd also need a tenant to pay fair rent.
It would boost nearby businesses, too. More people hanging out downtown means more people spending money. And if, as we're told, the mere perception of a downtown crime wave is as damaging as a crime wave itself, what could do more to improve our sense of public safety than the sight of Seattleites safely enjoying our city streets?