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Originally published Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle proposal calls for a Belltown boulevard

Strolling along Bell Street last week, Bob Edgers sidles past the usual litter of cigarette butts, Styrofoam cups, a Top Ramen wrapper and...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Strolling along Bell Street last week, Bob Edgers sidles past the usual litter of cigarette butts, Styrofoam cups, a Top Ramen wrapper and more.

A 20-year resident of the downtown Seattle neighborhood, Edgers sees Bell Street not as it looks today, but what it could be if the City Council agrees to turn the four blocks between First and Fifth avenues into downtown's first park boulevard.

Although some Belltown residents are skeptical about the power of parks to reduce criminal activity, Edgers said he's confident the proposal would help clean up the area — of crime and trash: "We need more ways for people to enjoy the community, feel safe on the streets and have some natural beauty as well."

The City Council is scheduled to vote Monday whether to spend $2.5 million from the $146 million parks levy approved by voters last November.

The project would eliminate one lane of traffic on the one-way street, reduce parking and widen one of the sidewalks to about 26 feet. By next year, concrete would be replaced with swales and natural landscaping, perhaps tables and benches, and an area for children to play — creating a more pedestrian-friendly route from the central waterfront to the neighborhood.

Plans include increased street lighting and additional enforcement from the city's seven park rangers, who could ban people from the boulevard for repeated inappropriate behavior — such as public drunkenness. Officials hope such changes, as well as making the street more attractive to pedestrians, would discourage crime.

"Legitimate activity tends to displace illegitimate activity," said Donald Harris, the Parks and Recreation Department's property-acquisition manager.

City officials point to Regrade Park as an example of how creative thinking can bring positive change. The tiny park at Third Avenue and Bell Street was better known for drug dealing until the dogs took over in 2004. The city says criminal activity did drop as a result, although crime data was not immediately available from the Police Department.

Still, some residents are skeptical of whether a park boulevard would make Bell Street safer. David Carrigan, a computer programmer and Belltown resident for 10 years, said there's always going to be crime in the neighborhood because of its nightlife.

"Drug dealers go wherever the customers go," he said.

But city officials said transferring jurisdiction of the area from the city's Transportation Department to the Parks Department would help. "Parks will bring a much higher level of maintenance than [Transportation] is able to provide," said Gary Johnson center-city coordinator with the Department of Planning and Development.

Resident input

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At a committee meeting Tuesday, Johnson said the city would work closely with the community to design the park boulevard this fall, asking residents for advice on transforming every half-block.

"We want to make sure that every section of the park as it's developed works well with the adjacent business owners," Johnson said.

One half-block might become a children's play area, another could be used as a plaza with tables and umbrellas and another might be transformed into a gardenlike area with a fountain.

Some who work in the neighborhood aren't happy about the idea of losing more street parking, which is in short supply. Eileen Smith, a longtime employee at Mama's Mexican Kitchen at Second Avenue and Bell Street, said she's afraid people will drive around looking for parking, not find any until they're several blocks away and maybe decide to eat somewhere else.

"There's no parking in this part of the city anyway, so what little is taken away is a real disadvantage to us," Smith said.

But longtime resident Edgers said he thinks the trade-off is worth it. During the day, he rarely has problems parking, he said, and the green space gained in a park boulevard would more than compensate for lost parking. "You can't get something for nothing," he said, laughing.

Work on the park boulevard could piggyback on a current City Light project to replace utilities beneath the street — which requires tearing up the sidewalk anyway, said Norm Schwab, legislative analyst for the city. He said the proposal is a creative, inexpensive way to put in a downtown park, where land costs can run $300 to $350 a square foot.

A green street

Since the Bell Street section is already owned by the city, it wouldn't have to pay for the land. Instead, about $150 a square foot would go solely to developing the park, Schwab said.

Although Bell Street was designated a "green street" more than 20 years ago, Johnson said he doesn't think the street ever met the criteria of being pedestrian-friendly or well-landscaped. With the park boulevard, the street would go above and beyond the standards, he said.

"I like the idea of giving Belltown a little more of a neighborhood feel," said Frank Wojcik, a five-year resident of Belltown. "Right now it feels like it's just a lot of nightlife and not much else."

Aside from Regrade Park, there are only two other places in Belltown that might be considered parks: the statue of Chief Seattle, and a small but popular P-Patch.

For one of the densest downtown neighborhoods — more than 9,000 residents and growing — that's not a lot, said Richard Nordstrom, president of the Belltown Community Council.

"Most people would agree that Belltown has been underserved by the city of Seattle — and that's got to stop," Nordstrom said.

Jean Guerrero: 206-464-2311 or jguerrero@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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