A sunny plaza where tables are tastefully distant; a ping-pong table keeping players six feet apart; a no-cash food truck; and a plenty of open air to ventilate the virus away. These are the amenities of Capitol Hill’s newly refurbished Pac-Man Plaza (officially known as the Arcade Plaza, but who calls it that?), a first-of-its-kind partnership between the city and nearby businesses.
The plaza, located at Denny and Olive across from The Reef, was converted from a mostly-unused strip of pavement into a cute Pac-Man-themed sitting area a few years ago. Over time, budget cuts meant that street furniture, landscaping, and trash cans gradually vanished.
But now The Reef is stepping up to pay for a facelift, with the design tweaked to accommodate outdoor socializing in the weird pandemic life we now lead — with plans for more in the future.
“Initially we were going to do this for 4/20, have a block party here,” said Jesse Codling, The Reef’s marketing director, at the plaza’s unveiling last week.
Of course, we all know what happened to everyone’s best-laid plans in April … and May … and June. The plaza’s revamp, which had been in the works for almost a year at that point, had to slow down and make some adjustments to layout and amenities, but now it’s ready for showtime.
Throughout the summer, they're planning to bring in food trucks, artists, and live music. (And just to put a bug in their ear: In 2016, there was a one-day pop-up petting zoo in the Boylston Place plaza a few blocks away. Bring that back! Once it's safe to do so.)
Surveying the scene with a mask over his mouth, a neighbor named Anthony nodded with approval. “This is beautiful. It’s wonderful,” he said.
The last few months have seen encampments in the plaza, but now the tents seem to have migrated to the campus of Seattle Community College, clearing a space for food trucks, live music, art installations, and miscellaneous hanging-out.
The city can't afford to maintain plazas like these right now (although maybe some of that SPD budget could be used here?) and The Reef is just the first business to step up and invest in a pavement-to-park project. Tax revenue might be down, but at least some local businesses have a margin for giving back to the community. With The Reef setting a template, it might be time to shame some larger entities into finally giving back.
As a crowd gathered (in distanced clumps) on Friday afternoon, green reefy ping-pong balls appeared at exactly 4:20 pm, and players busied themselves at the extremely sturdy concrete ping-pong table.
Off to the side, a painter worked on some canvasses, and Steven Dorsch from urban agriculture nonprofit The Common Acre checked on the mint, echinacea, thyme, and sedge in the freshly-updated planters.
The area still isn’t exactly the most charming place for a hangout — the streets are too wide to comfortably cross, and with 13 lanes of traffic converging at the intersection, there are way too many cars. The city calmed traffic ever so slightly two years ago by adding a bus bulb and a crosswalk, but what's truly needed is a widening of sidewalks throughout the area.
But until that happens — the view! Ignore the traffic and stoplights and you’ve got a lovely panorama of the city, and it doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of to-go food options nearby.
“This is the gateway to Capitol Hill,” said Adam Simon, owner of The Reef, gesturing to the plaza.
As we spoke, cars streamed up the hill from the freeway and pedestrians hiked past the row of shops and bars toward the gay Starbucks. “It tells a story of what Capitol Hill is in a second.”