Skip to main content

Seattle wants to revitalize Third Avenue. What will it take?

The Seattle City Council is getting behind plans to revitalize Third Avenue, downtown. The council passed a resolution Tuesday to explore the redevelopment of the city's busiest transit corridor. For years, Third Avenue has been a trouble spot for drugs, disorder, and violent crime.

KUOW’s Kim Malcolm talked to Seattle Times transportation reporter David Kroman about the city's ambitious goals, and how Third Avenue might change.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

David Kroman: It's not really any secret that Third Avenue has a fairly long history of troubles with street disorder, or low-level and then sometimes violent crime. This question of how you change the environment on Third Avenue has been one the city has struggled with for a long time. Up until recently, a lot of that has just focused on police enforcement and having more officers down there. This conversation, I think, is trying to broaden that out into what kind of structural or holistic changes could be made to that corridor to solve some of those problems.

Kim Malcolm: You write that Third Avenue is known primarily for two things, transit and disorder. The city now wants to rethink transit there in order to control crime and disorder, but what's the connection there?

I think it's a nuanced connection. A lot of city leaders are saying transit itself is not the cause of the disorder down there. They’re saying the space around the transit has been neglected over the years. They’re saying that when people go to Third Avenue to take a bus, there's not really much other incentive to stay and enjoy Third Avenue. This effort is an attempt to create an environment that functions in addition to the transit that is already there.

What are the ways that Third Avenue might change under this new vision?

The City Council in particular has said they have no interest in reducing bus service there or the number of riders who come in and out. Options include fewer lanes. There are four there now. Maybe you take that down to three in order to expand sidewalk space, so people feel more comfortable walking. The options are geared toward bigger sidewalks, more welcoming storefronts, more space for people to participate in recreation, or retail, or restaurants, or what have you, while also maintaining that space as a transit corridor.

Do leaders have examples of other places where it's been proven you can bring together a lot of transit and pedestrians in a way that works for everybody?

The city has really taken an interest in Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall. Unlike Third Avenue, it has a lot of open shops along the way, with outdoor seating, and a lot more planting. And interestingly, they move nearly the same number of people, but with fewer buses. People who like Denver's model say it leads to a quieter and less polluted environment that's more welcoming to pedestrians.

It sounds like there's quite a bit of political momentum to try to get to some changes on Third Avenue. What stands in the way?

There are a number of things that could get in the way of this. The first is money. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who has been spearheading this resolution, is equating the work he wants to see done here with some of the work being done on the waterfront park. That's a massive project, and that's the scale he's thinking of. That, of course, presents the question of how you fund that.

I think there are a lot of logistical challenges to achieving the kind of vision for Third that they're laying out here, and also maintaining the same level and reliability of transit service down there. And part of the issue on Third Avenue is unopen storefronts. That's all private property. The city can't just snap its fingers and have a bunch of businesses set up. It's all dependent on businesses and people wanting to actually come back to Third Avenue, which is not a guarantee. So, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome in order to actually realize this vision.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

Why you can trust KUOW