Seattle’s woonerfs inspires Portland development

HEWITT Senior Associate Jake Woland – landscape architect and “woonerf designer” – was recently interviewed by the Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce for an insightful look at the concept of the woonerf (or “complete street”), how HEWITT has created woonerfs for several projects in Seattle, and how woonerfs might benefit new, upcoming developments in Portland.

Some of the HEWITT projects mentioned in the article (reprinted below) are Lakefront Blocks (aka Block 31) and Arbor Blocks (aka Facebook office) in South Lake Union; Bell Street Park in Belltown; and James Court Woonerf in Capitol Hill.

The wonderful world of woonerfs
By Chuck Slothower in Architecture and Engineering
Originally published September 18, 2018 2:10 pm

If only Portland urban planners and developers could latch onto a concept that would further deter drivers while providing ample space for pedestrians and bicyclists to move through the city.

If only Seattle could have done it first, repeatedly and well.

If only it could originate in the Netherlands, lending the concept a sheen of Dutch good-government cool and a funny name.

Enter the woonerf.

At some point this year, Portland urbanists began talking about woonerfs – a shared-street concept popular in the Netherlands. They’ve hardly stopped since.

The word, pronounced “voo-nerf,” has injected itself into plans for two major developments. The concept is unfamiliar enough that planners and designers still say it with uncertainty. Woonerf, pronounced with an American accent, sticks out like a stroopwafel at a donut shop.

Woonerfs slow vehicle drivers and provide room for bicyclists, pedestrians and even riders of Portland’s proliferating fleets of scooters. Woonerfs, typically narrow streets with park-like amenities, tend to activate adjacent spaces; ideal placement would be beside food markets or other high-traffic retail spaces, or open spaces.

“It’s really a roadway that shifts the priority off the use of that space for cars or vehicles to pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Jake Woland, a woonerf designer with HEWITT in Seattle. “So cars are allowed on the woonerf, but (drivers) are meant to understand that they’re subordinate in that space and it’s for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Woonerfs align with many of Portland’s stated goals, from cutting carbon emissions to reducing the number of drivers commuting into the central city. Woonerfs also are a piece of Portland’s efforts to make itself less car-centric.

The Portland Design Commission has been ground zero for the woonerf discussions. So far, two woonerfs are on the drawing boards in Portland.

Seattle developer Security Properties plans to build a woonerf at the Pepsi Blocks redevelopment along Sandy Boulevard. The woonerf would cut through the four-block site, continuing Pacific Street westbound with a slow-speed, one-way route. It would run adjacent to an open lawn. The large, flexible lawn could “spill into” the woonerf, with the goal of activating both spaces, Dorothy Faris, a landscape architect with Mithun of Seattle, told the Design Commission.

The woonerf would form the circulatory system for the 4.7-acre site, which is expected to have five buildings, beginning with two multifamily structures totaling 335 units and 28,500 square feet of retail space.

The second woonerf planned in Portland would be built downtown on Southwest Ninth Avenue between Washington and Alder streets. Part of the city’s Green Loop, the woonerf would run past the proposed 35-story Block 216 mixed- use tower and the newly renovated Woodlark Hotel.

The Block 216 project includes a planned food hall that would open onto the woonerf along Ninth Avenue, replacing existing food carts. The development team is led by Walt Bowen of BPM Real Estate Group.

The onset of the woonerf era has developers and city planners scrambling to figure out how to adapt the concept to local streets and regulations.

Woonerfs can be closed to auto traffic for festivals and other special events. But typically, they are open to auto traffic. Curves and narrow lanes provide visual cues that discourage drivers from entering.

“We do that for a couple of reasons – so that any cars on the cross streets get the sense that at the very least they need to slow down, but if they have another option that feels more direct, they need to take that,” Woland said.

Don Vallaster, a member of the Design Commission, indicated he would support keeping the Pepsi Blocks woonerf open to auto traffic.

“I don’t think you want to get rid of cars on the woonerf,” he said during the Sept. 6 meeting. “I think that’s part of the urban context also.”

So far, the woonerf concept has attracted enthusiastic support from city planners, developers and advocates of non-motorized transportation.

“They are a really good way to go where there’s a low volume of auto traffic and high volumes of other users,” said Jillian Detwiler, executive director of The Street Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for bicyclists and other nonmotorized road users. “It makes for a very flexible space for people.”

Plantings, seating areas and low curbs are commonly used to provide a welcoming atmosphere for pedestrians.

“It really becomes a place for congregation as well for people on the street,” said Lori Mason Curran, spokeswoman for Vulcan Real Estate, a Seattle developer that is building two woonerfs.

One of Vulcan’s woonerf projects is for Facebook in the South Lake Union neighborhood. The woonerf will be on Eighth Avenue North between Thomas and Harrison streets.

Eighth Avenue North woonerf at Arbor Blocks (Facebook offices)

“It is a street, so there will be cars, but they won’t be able to go very fast,” Curran said.

The woonerf will be pinched by twin buildings with 390,000 square feet of office space and ground-floor retail space amid a canopy of mature sweetgum trees.

Google will also have a woonerf in Seattle between two office buildings at Block 31, located at 625 Boren Ave. N. in Seattle. The through-block woonerf will connect Terry Avenue North and Boren Avenue North.

Mid-block connector at Lakefront Blocks (Block 31)

Mid-block connector at Lakefront Blocks (Block 31)

Tech clients are supporting the woonerf concept, Curran said.

“It is a design feature that Vulcan is very keen on,” she said. “As we sit down with these tenants on build-to-suit projects, it doesn’t take any time to get clients on board and to see the benefits for them and their employees.”

Another Seattle woonerf is Bell Street Park, which opened in 2014 in the Belltown neighborhood. Bell Street Park is an example of taking a street from cars and creating a park-like public space, Woland said.

Bell Street Park Woonerf, photo by SvR

Bell Street Park Woonerf (photo by SvR)

“Where real estate is really expensive, the city always owns the roadway, and you may find a place where a woonerf is appropriate,” he said.

Seattle University also has a small woonerf situated between ballfields.

James Court Woonerf adjacent to The Douglas student housing

James Court Woonerf adjacent to The Douglas student housing

Pike Place, along the world-famous market, has one-way traffic over cobblestones, with cars proceeding at a crawl as pedestrians freely stroll in the street. The historic thoroughfare has all the characteristics of a woonerf, Woland said.

Meanwhile, Portland, ever sensitive to preserving its reputation as a leading city for urban planning, is sending a delegation of transportation officials to Seattle to learn more.

So as the trend catches on, is Portland about to become a series of intersecting woonerfs? Not likely.

Wide streets, for one, do not make appropriate woonerfs, experts said. A Portland street such as Broadway or Burnside is unlikely to ever go Dutch.

The other major stumbling block is that the infrastructure of American cities was not built with woonerfs in mind. Streets are designed so buses and fire trucks, with their wide turning radiuses, are able to enter them.

Designers must also be mindful of the maze of utilities that lies underground.

“The other challenge that we had pretty consistently is utilities are installed in roadbeds early in a city’s life and they have a rigorous logic that expects a rectilinear road grid,” Woland said. “If there’s a water main problem, the utility has to be able to get to that water main no matter what.”

Portland planners are working through the issues. The Design Commission devoted an entire meeting to the proposed Green Loop woonerf adjacent to Block 216. Then at another Design Commission meeting on Sept. 6, the Pepsi Blocks woonerf was discussed in passing. Some planners were hoping for more.

Kurt Krueger, development review manager for the Bureau of Transportation, left the hearing table as commissioners moved onto other topics.

“I was more interested in the woonerf,” Krueger said as he decamped.