Opinion: 10 alternatives to a parking lot at El Centro

I am completely sympathetic to El Centro’s need to produce income for their programs while we wait out the zoning process, and I’m excited to see what the long term development will bring to the community. However, I don’t think that a parking lot will add much of anything other than traffic, and it seems like El Centro could develop something, even temporarily, that would coincide better with their values of building the community and serving low income families. Here are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling, with hopes that we can think of more.

A mercado booth. Photo by Victor Ramiro via Creative Commons.
  1. A mercado or traditional Mexican market. Stalls are rented for low prices and merchants offer a variety of goods. Mercados in Mexico are crowded, noisy, and kind of amazing. They are full of people shopping and offer choices for low income merchants and buyers to get their foot in the door.
  2. A community garden. Although it wouldn’t be a big money maker, it could directly produce food for low-income people. There are plenty of crops that can be grown year round here with a little help, and classes could be offered. Plots could be given to low-income people and rented to others.
  3. Food carts. How much fun would it be to have a choice between a variety of food carts for any given meal? Food carts can be very minimal, sometimes just a cooler strapped to a bicycle or a lemonade stand. Again, giving low-income people a chance to get their foot in the door of our economy.
  4. Farmers’ markets tend to be seasonal, but I still love them. Even if it were only one day a week, it would leave the space open for other activities the rest of the week while bringing locally grown produce to the community and generating income.
  5. I know that we are already getting a skate park, but I would love to offer up a place for young people in the community to gather. Probably not a big money maker, but still a good idea. Bring back the basketball court?
  6. I know that mini-golf sounds like a weird idea. But think about it. A great family activity, and with a little shelter, it could be a year-round destination. Build some kind of giant Godzilla statue eating the Eiffel Tower and this could put Beacon Hill on the map and employ a lot of people.
  7. We don’t really need a bookmobile since the library is so close, but as a kid this was a highlight of my youth. What other social services or small companies could be brought to the community by truck? Flower shop? Kite shop? Toy store?
  8. Everyone loves a flea market, right? A slightly less-permanent version of the market, it offers a chance to socialize and meet neighbors while you sell your old junk and obtain new junk. Another good foot in the door of the economy.
  9. There has been a lot of talk about creating an outdoor cinema, but it’s hard to imagine a better area than next to the light rail station. It could become a destination for people all along the light rail line and could be in conjunction with many other uses.
  10. What about a mini amusement park? Many rides are designed to be portable and could be cleared out when the time comes to build more permanent structures. Lets be honest, if we had a giant Ferris wheel I would ride it every day. Wouldn’t you?

(Do you have an opinion? We welcome opinion articles on topics related to Beacon Hill. Please email us your ideas.)

24 thoughts on “Opinion: 10 alternatives to a parking lot at El Centro”

  1. There are some good ideas here. But imho, most of the more realistic ones would make more sense on the Festival Street, with the proposed El Centro lot serving as parking for the people who might be drawn to food carts, flea/farmer’s markets, etc.

    There are very few farmer’s markets I’ve been to in Seattle that don’t have good parking options attached to them. To the extent that there are some markets that seem to have limited parking options, they are happening in neighborhoods that already have a lot more density than we do (e.g., the parking at the Ballard Farmer’s market has become more and more difficult, but that is a hugely popular market of almost theme park proportions that seems to draw people from all over the city).

    IMHO, the first goal needs to be finding ways to encourage more people to come to the neighborhood by creating compelling businesses/events, and making it convenient for people to come to them. Once these events are popular/successful, then people may be inclined to keep coming, even if it is harder to come by car.

    It’s a noble ideal, but most people aren’t going to put their 6 and 8 year old kids on bikes and ride any significant distance to an event like a farmer’s market. The same goes for transit. This is compounded by the fact that the light rail only goes as far north as downtown. Are people from Columbia City and south likely to ride light rail north to BEHI for a farmer’s market, when they already have a great farmer’s market closer to their own neighborhood? (maybe if they can’t make one in the middle of the week–otherwise, I think not).

    If you live downtown, are you going to travel by transit to go to our farmer’s market? Or would you just go to Pike Place Market? Open question I guess. Maybe people who live in Pioneer Square. Maybe when the Light Rail goes to Capitol Hill, some people will find it more convenient to come to a Farmer’s Market in BEHI, since you don’t have to walk far from the train station to get there (particularly if it’s on a better day for them than the Capitol Hill markets or they want to make it an outing and go to Jefferson Park too).

    On the other hand, if you live south of Jackson but north of Walden in Mt. Baker or Leschi, would you maybe drive your car to BEHI for a farmer’s market if it was the closest one to your house and you could easily park there? I think the answer is yes. Would you ride your bike up a big hill with your kids to get there? Probably not. Would you ride transit? Probably not, given the limited east/west options, unless you live near the one east/west bus.

    If you live in BEHI and aren’t near the 36 bus, would you ride transit? Probably not. Would you walk? Open question, particularly if you live south of Alaskan and are actually probably closer to the Columbia City Farmer’s Market. Might you drive there if it was easy to park and it happened on a good day for you (like Friday or Sunday)? More likely.

    We got in the habit of driving down to the farmer’s market in Georgetown, because it was on Saturday, it was relatively close, and it was easy to park down there. I saw a lot of other BEHI residents down there too, so I don’t think we were the only people to reason things through that way. If there was a farmer’s market on the festival street we would walk or bike there, because we live very close. But there are plenty of BEHI residents who don’t live that close.

    If things are going to succeed in the BEHI commercial area, these sorts of realities need to be considered. Development around the light rail stations is a long-term process. With luck, in the long-term, it will lead to a more bike and pedestrian friendly vibe at the top of BEHI. But in the near-term, I think we need to focus on making something compelling and convenient up there, even if that doesn’t immediately forward the bike/pedestrian/transt friendly agenda.

    I’d much rather compromise in the short-run and put up with the mediocre aesthetics of a temporary parking lot and more cars than see El Centro, out of a sense of financial duress, enter into an a mixed-use development plan that is good enough to overcome community opposition, but still mediocre and ugly. We’ll be living with that sort of ugliness for a much longer time.

    Even if the parking lot turned out to be permanent, it would still be better than an ugly mixed-use development on that site, particularly if the parking lot turned out to be an important part of the ecosystem of small business development at the top of Beacon Hill.

  2. Hi J-Lon, I don’t think that a parking lot will be the end of the world and it will certainly be helpful when events start happening on Festival Street (assuming the entrance won’t be ON Festival Street) but I think that you may have tapped into the irony of building a large parking lot at this location. It won’t really help local businesses until the areas around the station are developed, and when those areas are developed El Centro will also want this area to be developed. Until that happens a parking lot will only really serve commuters and game day traffic. Everyone wants El Centro to succeed in the long run, but I think with a little tweeking we can come up with a plan that provides parking AND some pedestrian friendly community building amenities to the neighborhood. Is that not being realistic? Food Trucks for example provide a community services AND income for El Centro.

  3. Too often these discussions seem to be based in an assumption that all Beacon Hill needs for a vibrant business district is for people to open businesses. In truth, people do open businesses pretty often and many of them fail. A few years ago there was a taco truck at the Valero. I went there a few times and it was pretty good. But it either didn’t make enough money to succeed or, if it closed for other reasons, it didn’t demonstrate that there was enough money to be made there for another truck to move in. Tasha’s Bistro didn’t make enough money (nor, it seems, have enough money to start with). Rockit Space didn’t make enough money to sustain itself.

    The problem is the market really isn’t very big. While parts of Beacon Hill are fairly dense, it’s no Capitol Hill. In my mind it’s been demonstrated that existing levels of foot traffic aren’t enough to grow a lot of new businesses.

    It’s fine to have a vision of a ongoing market or street food fair, but the reality is that every stand is going to be competing for the same dollar. For these ideas to succeed, the density of customers needs to be significantly increased. Permanently increasing density by building new homes is going to take a long time. El Centro’s proposal holds out is the promise of temporarily increasing density by making the area more accessible to people who travel by car. And that’s what could make some of these ideas actually work from a business point of view.

    As a hypothetical scenario, picture the parking lot providing a place for car shoppers coming to spend money at a mercado with street food on the festival street. As businesses reap the advantages of the temporary density increases, the business district becomes more attractive as a destination, bringing in more people. The increase in traffic makes a case for improved transit service, encouraging more drivers to switch. The increase in business makes business property values go up, encouraging more development and making it easier for El Centro to secure funding for its own building project. If this scenario comes to pass, the challenge would be to maintain business momentum after the parking lot goes away. But that’s a theoretical bridge that could be crossed if we get to it.

  4. While I agree that the idea of a parking lot is neither glamorous nor does it appeal to my desire to see our community be less car reliant, I have to agree with the majority of what Brook and J-Lon seem to be getting at. Joel, I appreciate what you are getting at, but I also think that it is worth mention that about half of what you are suggesting (mercado, food carts, farmers market, flea market, outdoor cinema or mini-amusement park) could all be stage in that parking lot, or on the adjacent festival street. The presence of the parking lot wouldn’t necessarily negate the potential for that space to be used for other purposes. I’d love to see that space developed and used in some sort of thoughtful, forward-thinking manner. But, if -until then- the choice is between having it be an unused dirt lot or a parking lot, I’d pick parking lot.

  5. @ Brook, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that density is a key ingredient in the crazy gumbo that makes up a successful business district, but I wouldn’t put all of my eggs in that one basket. Beacon Hill has a higher population density than Columbia City or Georgetown and yet both of those neighborhoods have managed to figure out successful business formulas. We need to figure out our own formula and I have no doubt that a big part of that success will come from tenacity, thoughtfulness and creativity.

    @Tyler, I hope we are not talking about an either/or situation. I’m sure we will see some sort of use of that space and I will certainly give El Centro my support if they really feel like a parking lot is their only choice. But we may be living with the choices they make now for longer than we think and I hope that we can all move forward thoughtfully.

  6. Georgetown is the least dense neighborhood in Seattle, but Columbia City has a higher density than Beacon Hill:

    At any rate, I’m not sure you got my point about density. By “temporary density,” I just mean enough people spending money in one spot to support and grow businesses. Tukwila has very few residents, but it has an enormous amount of retail and an infrastructure that supports the temporary density of people shopping there. Beacon Hill doesn’t. The number of people in an area is directly related to the amount of business transactions that will happen. If you bring in a bunch of food trucks, but don’t bring in a bunch of people, then you’re making it so the existing businesses make less money and the food trucks may not make enough.

  7. It’s great to see this kind of conversation about our neighborhood! I just wanted to throw in another layer to consider – income.

    Median Household Income for Beacon Hill is $45,965.
    Median Household Income for Capitol Hill is $58,707
    (stats via zillow.com)

    There may be more density on Capitol Hill, but there is also more income and one could assume that because their are more single people there, that it is also more disposable income. We have more working families on Beacon Hill than some of our neighbors. Just something to consider when we knock ourselves for not better sustaining our small businesses.

    Thanks to Joel and all commenters for giving a damn!

  8. Ditto the thanks to everyone for giving a damn. I don’t see Brook’s comments about supporting small businesses as a knock against BH residents, more musing about how to get folks from other places to come spend their money here. If they have to come by car at first, so be it.

    It always takes time to train people to take new transit, drive a different way, try new places. How many of us have had visitors mention that they thought BH was ‘farther away’ or be surprised by ‘how much is up here’?

    We have family that drives up from Olympia uses our guest pass to park on the street during games. It’s not often, but it’s a couple of times/year. They spend money on BH (buying us dinner for the favor) and ride the train. I’d love to send them to El Centro instead…as long as they still buy us dinner.

  9. @ Brook, I get what you are saying…I just don’t think it is that clear cut. Density statistics are difficult to pin down, on the map you reference Columbia City isn’t what I would call Columbia City, its a little closer to the Seward Park side and Gtown has a lot of ‘artificial’ density due to workers, but I’m getting off track. Beacon Hill is on the cusp of many changes and El Centro is going to be a major player. Oh sheez, maybe we should just sit down over coffee and talk about this more some time? I have too much to say than is going to fit in the comments section.

    @Heather, thanks! I always try to keep in mind that everyone that posts here cares, even if I disagree with them.

    @Melissa, I’m actually surprised that more people have not figured out how easy it is to park here and go to the stadiums. I suspect this will change dramatically when El Centro opens this lot. If its open for long term parking I can imagine people using this for the airport also.

  10. The main issue with the business district on Beacon Hill is the lousy building stock. Both Georgetown and Columbia City have many quality old buildings that small businesses are willing to invest in. Many of the storefronts on Beacon Hill have suffered terrible remodels and lack of maintenance over the years, and were not very high quality to begin with. The act of getting the spaces up to attractive or even funky would be quite an investment. There also seems to be a lack of intrest/motivation by the building owners to improve their properties. I am sure they were paid off long ago and why increase expenses and taxes. If a more vibrant business district is what we desire, then we will have to build it.

    I really do not like the idea of a parking lot, they always seems to hang around much longer than intended, but if it creates a multi-function public space for a while then I grudgingly support it. Anything is better than the South Bronx fencing catching wind blown trash.

  11. Thanks Joel and everyone for thoughtful discussion. It’s true, nearly anything is better than a fenced vacant lot, but i think there are ways that a parking lot could be designed that would enhance it’s usability for other things as well. Of all the ideas presented, the most practical to me seem to be food carts and outdoor cinema. Imagine a corner, perhaps the one facing Beacon Av, being gravel with six or eight picnic tables. Around those picnic tables could be four or five mobile food vendors–the kind that would be paying rent for their space. The city says they want this kind of activity (and tax revenue source). Here’s a chance to make it happen. It provides steady income to El Centro, enhances street life, and involves minimal infrastructure investment (perhaps new electrical hookup). I think a mercado type use would be difficult to permit properly; and i hope El Centro includes something like that in their long term plan. A farmers market itself could be on the Festival St, but the parking lot could be important for customers and vendors vehicles. I still think 80 is too many spots, and that it would be very unusual for that many to fill up. The basketball court should come back, and that could be a spot for outdoor cinema! And keeping the area from being fenced off completely would be essential to making the whole area feel open, and, in my opinion, safe.

  12. @joel, I’d be more than happy to have a cup of coffee with you sometime. I will warn you that between work, school, and family my schedule is insane. That’s one of the reasons I really appreciate the blog — it gives me an opportunity to stay at least somewhat in tune with what’s going on in the neighborhood.

  13. My problem with El Centro’s proposal is that they are asking for too many “variances” that compound the negatives. They want to allow a use that isn’t currently allowed at a facility that doesn’t meet code for a larger area than is normally allowed for a duration that is longer than comparable plans. Whew, that is a long wish list! I think El Centro needs to compromise on this and come up with a better plan. ST is required to resurface the entire lot, which I would expect would also include bringing it up to code for a parking lot. How about this: ST constructs a paved parking lot built to code to accomodate 40-50 paid spaces plus several large vehicle spaces for vendors on the east side of the south lot; the west side of the south lot is surfaced in gravel, or ideally topsoil and grass, with some plantings, benches, tables, etc. constructed by volunteers; the west corner remains unfenced and open to the public. Since the parking lot is built to code, rather than using an erodable surface with no drainage features, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the development is delayed for years and the parking lot stays. Vendors/food trucks could pay El Centro to park in the lot and there would also be a place to sit and eat. This would have been nice on those evenings last summer when the Sweet Treets truck was parked on 16th and there was no place to sit down. I think that something like this is a reasonable compromise. In particular, since ST is already committed to resurfacing the lot anyway and El Centro won’t commit to a duration, any parking area should be paved and built to code.

    I do like the idea of bringing back the basketball court. Maybe the paving could extend a little further beyond the parking. There aren’t any more courts at Jefferson Park now than there were when the El Centro court was still around and it was well used back then.

  14. @Matt, go check out the building at 3210 Beacon, its one of the many hidden gems of buildings hiding out on Beacon Hill. An old 1920’s storefront and the owner is going through a major remodel right now. I suspect there are more gems hiding in plain sight.

    @Chris and Robert, all good ideas. It seems that a little tweaking could go a long way into making this a more usable space and I will personally spend gobs of money on any taco truck that would park there.

    @Brook, I appreciate your crazy schedule and I will be in touch.

  15. @Joel: I was just looking at 3210 this afternoon. Man it would be nice to see some food or something like that go in there. I didn’t realize they were remodeling it. I just saw a for lease sign and figured it would be the tenant’s job to build it out.

    @Matt: I don’t know how long you’ve lived in Seattle, but in the early 1990s, Columbia City wasn’t looking so hot. You could see the potential, but it looked a lot more like BEHI. You might be surprised what creative people can do. That being said, I agree that it seems like many LLs on Beacon who own the commercial spaces aren’t super motivated to make improvements, etc. So it definitely makes it more challenging to move this sort of thing along.

    @Robert: I don’t think food carts on El Centro is really a viable idea on a day to day basis. Not enough foot traffic. Probably not the sort of thing that is going motivate people to come to BEHI to experience it. Maybe I’m wrong. Just seems like a really cool restaurant is more likely to do that. Moreover, if the food carts are taco trucks, that just doesn’t seem like a cuisine we really need more of up here. We’ve already got like 3-4 solid options.

    But in the context of a weekly summer event, like a farmer’s market, outdoor cinema, or flea market on a Sat or Sunday, it could be pretty cool and might help to make BEHI more of an outing destination. To me, that’s really what’s needed. Something that draws a fairly large mass of people to the neighborhood all at once.

  16. I love this conversation!

    Just a quick comment — Joel, you said “I’m actually surprised that more people have not figured out how easy it is to park here and go to the stadiums.” I think some Sounders fans have figured it out, at least… I got blocked into my own driveway twice last year by folks wearing green scarves. 😉 (Seriously, folks… how hard is it to avoid blocking a driveway?)

    We don’t get a ton of sports fans parking here, but we do get a substantial number. And the zone parking doesn’t apply at night or on weekends, so it’s wide open for them. But I don’t think it’s been a problem so far (except when they block my driveway!).

  17. @matt, @J-lon, @Joel: I lived in Columbia City in ’92, when most of the business district was vacant (and we got so used to gunshots we quit calling 911 about them). Georgetown was the same. It was the mass vacancy that made it possible for these neighborhoods to be revitalized. Beacon Hill doesn’t fit that formula at all. Most of our buildings actually are occupied, so there can’t be a mass influx of small entrepreneurs. The way forward seems to be to help the existing businesses make more money, thereby increasing the demand for more business space. It’s the slow and steady route, which may not be as noticeable or as much fun.

    @Wendi, we get some stadium parkers over here by El Centro, but not as many as I’d expect. I think people unfamiliar with the neighborhood might not realized there’s so much empty street so close to the Light Rail.

  18. @brook, @J-lon: Yes, I remember well. My point is that the buildings were there, the landlords were motivated and the rents were cheap. I helped a couple of the businesses in G-town get opened about 5-7 years ago. Creative types always see the potential and are willing to put in the sweat equity to see their vision through, but it also takes a cooperative landlord. Spaces are limited and occupied on Beacon Hill, there are too many offices that should be retail. I am glad to have businesses but they really do not create a street presence that attracts shoppers and activity. When development comes to BEHI, which it will, I hope all the first floor spaces are street facing retail with wide sidewalks. Build it and they will come, our role as a community is to oversee and deter bad development. Height is far less of an issue than what is happening right at the sidewalk.

  19. @Matt, @Brook:

    I hear you. Totally makes sense. I know that the LLs on Beacon are part of the difference here (and in some cases the difficulty). But right now there are at least 3 retail spaces for rent on Beacon (dry cleaners, Rockit Space, and the space next to ABC Market). And I wonder how long the current incarnation of Tasha’s will last.

    The Tasha’s Bistro space was open for a long time. Made me so sad to see that one not succeed. But I’m afraid it was flawed in its conception. I believe a restaurant/cafe can succeed in that space. But the person running it really needs to be somebody who “gets it,” the way the people at Full Tilt Ice Cream seemed to “get it” out in White Center.

    They opened a business that the neighborhood out there clearly wanted/needed. Then they didn’t stop there. They made something cool enough that once I found it, I willingly drove out there to get ice cream. Since they opened in June 2008, 4 other interesting places have opened on that street.

    I know BEHI is a different case for the reasons @Brook outlines. But it really only takes a couple of really cool things to inspire other people to do the same. Really keeping my fingers crossed on the Pizza place in the Beacon Pub spot.

  20. The lack of retail space is/was a problem on Beacon Hill, especially when we were looking for a space for our restaurant – we never wanted it anywhere else but in our nighborhood. We hope that when we open, it will bring more people to the Hill and help all the other businesses in the area. I think people will come out for our pizza and a cold beer! And the revitalization of Jefferson Park is really a good thing too. I think events that bring in a larger audience would be great – a summer kite festival to go along with our light-rail station logo! Outdoor movies at Jefferson Park would be awesome.

    J-lon: Thanks for the good thoughts. We’re working on it every day and our neighboring businesses have been supportive!

  21. ” there are too many offices that should be retail. I am glad to have businesses but they really do not create a street presence that attracts shoppers and activity.”

    Yup. Tax accountants, dentists, and even hair salons are the types of businesses that would usually be on the second floor and up in more densely-developed neighborhoods. It’s good to have businesses like that in the neighborhood, but not good to have them right on the street for the reason you mentioned. But we don’t have a ton of alternate locations for them at the moment.

    “But the person running it really needs to be somebody who ‘gets it,’ the way the people at Full Tilt Ice Cream seemed to ‘get it’ out in White Center.”

    Oh, what I wouldn’t do for an ice cream place like that up here. But at least we have a Full Tilt in Columbia City. (I have this dream of opening an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with fancy sundaes and ice cream sodas… sigh.)

  22. @J-Lon: I think you are totally spot on when you talk about how we need business that “get it” both in terms of what the neighborhood needs and what it can support. I’d say that the Station seems to “get it.” They are small, back of the main drag, but they always seems to be busy and have found a place in the neighborhood where they seem to be not only holding their own, but growing.

    I have similar hopes for the pizzeria. Best of luck with that, Gina!

  23. @J-lon, I disagree with your foot traffic assessment, I think there is plenty of foot traffic to support food carts near the station as is. I’ve seen them do well in areas with far less foot traffic.

    @Wendi, I’m down with your ice cream parlor, let’s make that happen? Thanks for the twitter shout out about the stilt house by the way.

    Many different neighborhoods have many different success stories and every neighborhood is different. We are going to have to come up with our own formula for success that is very different from what anyone else is done and I’m excited to see what is going to happen on Beacon Hill in the near future. Delridge for example has been able to carve out their own little business district out of thin air without the advantage of cool buildings.

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