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U-District, UW disagree about open space

Architect Anne Gantt presents the open plaza model. The proposed plaza features a large interactive backboard on the back of Neptune Theatre along with space for community events.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

*Correction: This article originally said the Greater University Chamber of Commerce supported the open space proposal. However, the Greater University Chamber of Commerce has actually chosen to remain nuetral on the issue. The article also originally said the station opened in 2014 when actually it opens in 2021.

In the dense and growing U-District neighborhood, open spaces are few and far-between.

With the University Link light-rail station set to open in 2021, members of the U-District community are lobbying for the lot above to become an open plaza. 

However, Sound Transit currently owns the space on the 4300 Block of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and is in discussions with the UW to fill the lot with a building. UW Professor Emeritus and architect Phillip Thiel has actively advocated against this since the proposal last January.

“That location is literally at the heart of the district,” Thiel said. “This will never happen again — that much open space at the very heart where it can be the best civic, human place available. It would a crime to jam another building in there.”

Thiel and the Northeast District Council have gathered support from various community groups including the University District Community Council. The groups are pushing the UW to support the plan for an open plaza rather than another building.

Theresa Doherty, assistant vice president for the UW Office of Regional Affairs, said the university has been talking with the community about the project. However, Doherty said the UW wants to establish “transit-orientated communities” that rely on residential buildings near transit centers.

Doherty said one option the UW is considering is a residential building with an open plaza below.

“We certainly understand the need for more open space in the district but we also see a need for more housing,” Doherty said.

Thiel, however, said this is not a solution to the lack of open space in the U-District.

“That wouldn’t be an open space, that would be a basement-like thing and it’s pathetic,” he said.

In a model several architects designed, a large open space would provide a connection between UW Tower and the Ave. The model plaza features a large interactive billboard on the back of the Neptune Theatre along with space for community events. Thiel spoke recently with the University District Farmers Market about opening a second location in the space.

“There’s a green deficit, which is a lack of open space and a lack of parks in the neighborhood,” said UW graduate and architect Anne Gantt. “This would seek to help amend that and be a real amenity for neighbors for businesses.”

The idea of transforming that lot into an open plaza is not new. Thiel cited a proposal 40 years ago by a group of architects that suggested the place be opened to the public. Additionally, in her final UW thesis, Gantt proposed a similar use for the space.

“It would be small it would be locally owned it would be opened to everyone in the neighborhood,” Gantt said.

The architects, however, are not oblivious to the opposition. Gantt said one of the main concerns they’ve received is that the space would not be maintained properly, and instead become a homeless camp. The solution Gantt proposed is that the UW manages the space. She said an open space would be beneficial to the UW because it would make the area more appealing to potential students and faculty.

“We support density; we’re excited about the growth that’s going to happen and the buildings that are going to bring in new businesses and new residents,” Gannt said. “But to have that quality of life, you need that open space.”

Doherty said the UW is exploring other options for open space beyond this lot. She said, realistically, the space would be ideal for housing whereas there are plenty of other lots that could be used for open space. 

Thiel said the UW has argued that the campus serves as an open space. However, he said the campus is on the edge of the U-District as opposed to in the center, as this lot would be.

Thiel said the resistance from the UW and Sound Transit does not surprise him.

“If you get involved with any type of public activity proposing new things the objections rise up like a fog from the swamp,” he said.

Reach News Editor Jillian Stampher at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Jillian Stampher

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