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Squire Park’s First Woonerf Project Completes a Street – O’Brien & Company’s Nora Daley-Peng ASLA, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, Interviews Bill Zosel

NoraDaleyPeng-web I recently reconnected with William (Bill) Zosel, a long-time resident of Squire Park who has been active in the neighborhood’s planning efforts for decades. We met for coffee at the newly opened Ba Bar restaurant, which is immediately adjacent to the soon-to-be constructed E. James Court woonerf and Woonerf Park.

I first met Bill five years ago when I provided urban designer services on Squire Park Reclaiming the Streets for the People Project. That project emphasized ‘street reclaiming’ as a way of expanding the sense of place beyond the walls of buildings into neighborhood sidewalks and streets. The goal of ‘street reclaiming’ is to connect neighbors and build community vitality. Among the list of community-generated ideas of how to make Squire Park’s neighborhood streets greener, friendlier, and safer was the concept of creating a collection of three woonerfs within the south-end of 12th Avenue. Through the dedicated efforts of neighborhood leaders and combined funding through Seattle Parks and Green Spaces Levy and Pro Parks Levy Opportunity Funds that idea is becoming a reality.

Q. Please tell me more about the E. James Court woonerf and the Woonerf Park project.

A. The concept is to convert E. James Court into a woonerf and to flank the entrance of the woonerf with a community park. This is a modest, one-block woonerf, so co-locating it with the park helps anchor it to 12th Avenue and visually-expands its presence.Woonerf-JamesCourt_Page_1

Q. What makes this project a woonerf?

A. It is a street that gives priority to pedestrians and cyclists over cars. It is really about transforming the street into a social gathering place rather than a through way for travel. Cars can still snake through the street and even park on the street. On-street parking is actually a device to slow down traffic.

Q. I understand the competition for funding was pretty stiff. What set this project apart?
Image Credit: Design by Hewitt for Seattle Parks and Recreation

A. First off, the project met all three of the Parks’ criteria for funding – the project is in an area that is rapidly growing, that lacks parks, and has an underserved population. Beyond this, it is about maintaining a healthy diversity of community residents along the edge of Seattle University’s campus. It is great to have Seattle University in our neighborhood but we also want to retain the existing single-family homes that add so much character this neighborhood.

Q. What is the main design concept for the woonerf and park?

A. The big idea is to create a community gathering place that is flexible enough to accommodate two people meeting for coffee up to 500 people assembling for an outdoor concert. On an ordinary day, the park provides a variety of seating options for individuals and groups. During a special event, the woonerf can be temporarily closed to create a large venue for a festival. The design allows access for food trucks and a plaza area that is big enough to double as a performance stage.

Q. What about the edges of the project?

A. Creating active edges is very important in making this project a success. The Douglas at Seattle University is being constructed on the north side of the E. James Court. This is a mixed-use development with retail on the first floor and student apartments above. We are fortunate to have the same design team – led by Hewitt – to seamlessly join The Douglas and woonerf projects. Immediately to the south of the park is the newly opened Ba Bar restaurant. The hope is that students, residents, employees, and restaurant patrons will all use this park.

Q. What is the paving design for the woonerf and park?

A. The concept is to use the crisp edges of the adjacent streets and sidewalks to frame the softer, rounded landscape forms. Parts of E. James Court’s existing concrete will be saw-cut, removed, and repurposed as paving for a runnel that conveys stormwater through the park and woonerf to a storm drain on 13th Avenue. The paving in the park will have aripple pattern that will look different from different perspectives. From some vantage points, it will appear ordered and from other angles it will look free-flowing. The ripple paving pattern will also help channel stormwater to the runnel.                            

Q. Can you elaborate on some of the other sustainable design features?

A. Our neighborhood is working on a Pollinator Pathway project along Columbia Street from 12th Avenue to 29th Avenue. The intent is to create a pathway for pollinating insects through a series of native gardens in sidewalk planting strips. The woonerf and park project is including plants from the Pollinator Pathway plant palette to assist in this effort.

Q. What types of furniture will be in the park?

Woonerf-JamesCourt_Page_6 A. We would like to provide a moveable and fixed seating options. Moveable furniture allows park users to manipulate their environment such as arranging furniture to be in or out of the sun. Another neat concept is to provide community table where neighbors could gather for a potluck.
Image Credit: Design by Hewitt for Seattle Parks and Recreation

Q. What will make this park special?

A. We want this place to be intriguing. The design includes a variety of elements that keep people interested in what is going on overhead and underfoot. The design team includes public artist Ellen Sollod . Through a collaborative process, the team developed ways to bring light, movement, and texture into the space. The Cloud is an overhead canopy that reflects color and light. The canopy is a metaphor for the sky and is composed of off-the-shelf stainless steel convex mirrors of varying sizes. These are the same mirrors used in parking garage applications. The Pillow is a spongy blue seating/climbing area directly underneath The Cloud. The Pillow is a metaphor for water. It is made of the same spongy material used in playgrounds. Using these ordinary materials in non-traditional ways creates another layer of intrigue.

Q. What would you have done differently?

A. We weren’t able to completely eliminate the curb separation between the sidewalks and the street. Woonerfs use other ways to protect pedestrian-only zones from auto traffic such as plantings, street furniture, and public art. Our project masks the curbs with rounded landscape forms. The design does eliminate curbs for the portion of the woonerf that runs through the park, making it a level plane for pedestrian movement.

Q. What makes a street complete?

A. It is an open invitation for people to use the street to meet and mingle. I think we can’t stop at the street. We need to make complete neighborhoods.

Q. What’s next?

A. The goal is to make woonerfs a hallmark of this neighborhood. We have two more nearby streets – E. Barclay Court and E. Remington Court – that make excellent candidates for woonerfs. We want to take what we learned from E. James Court woonerf and replicate it. Maybe even push the boundaries of what is possible further.

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