Residents of First Hill are happy about the neighborhood’s easy access to Capitol Hill, downtown, and other parts of the city. The First Hill Improvement Association, however, wants the area to be more than a convenient pass-through; it wants First Hill to be a destination. Last Saturday at Town Hall, FHIA hosted a community meeting that presented the non-profit’s ideas to make this a reality, and invited the community to do the same.
Affectionately known as “Pill Hill,” since it’s where the city’s main hospitals and medical clinics are located, First Hill’s boundaries (though they differ depending on the map that you’re looking at) are generally accepted as East Alder Street from the south, I-5 from the west, Pike and East Pike Street from the north, and 12th Avenue from the east.
Unlike Capitol Hill and many Seattle neighborhoods, First Hill isn’t represented by a community council or chamber of commerce. That’s where FHIA comes in.
FHIA was established in 1958 as a response to a city plan that, because of I-5, would isolate First Hill from downtown. The city had planned for one overpass to connect the two, but FHIA was able to increase that number to five.
“Today, I think that First Hill and FHIA face almost as serious of challenges in terms of what’s coming down the pike,” FHIA President Mary Ellen Hudgins said. “We have seen not only planned development in terms of high-rise density coming to us, but we’re feeling the impacts of that growth and density from Capitol Hill, from downtown.”
FHIA explained to meeting attendees that as it updates its vision, strategic plan, and organizational structure in 2014, it will consider sidewalk repair and pedestrian safety, population growth and density, the need for more retail and safe, clean open spaces and parks, as well as Metro bus cuts (Route 2, for example, is endangered because of the $75 million funding gap), and other public transit, like the First Hill Streetcar.
The results of a recent survey conducted by FHIA showed that people who live or work in First Hill were concerned about the same things (at the time of the meeting there were nearly 400 responses; 45 percent of responders lived in First Hill, and 78 percent worked in the area). Brian Scott of BDS – Planning & Urban Design said that main concerns regarding First Hill’s future have been the ever-increasing lack of parking, that the overdevelopment of high-rises will take away the neighborhood’s community feel, that it’s becoming too dense, that crime and drug use are increasing, and that the large hospitals’ and institutions’ (Harborview, Swedish, Virginia Mason, Seattle University) redevelopments will overrun the neighborhood.
Here are a few other comments voiced by various attendees at the meeting:
“I like the fact that we’re here for people in need who come to the hospitals or to the various social services. My fear is that it’s just going to turn into high-rises for the rich and wealthy, then there goes the neighborhood.”
“I’m concerned about pedestrian safety. Walking, we kind of take our lives in our hands [when] trying to get across intersections… if we could slow down traffic in our area, I’d appreciate that.”
“I realized that a piece of the diversity that’s missing… is children. We don’t see little kids in my building. The only couple who had a baby moved out recently and bought a house; it’s logical, we can’t offer much to keep them here.”
“That Metro adds bus stops on First Hill that are convenient to both the major housing areas as well as to the employers, such as Virginia Mason.”
Added to these is a desire to increase the number of restaurants and small businesses around First Hill, since, for the time being, most venture to Capitol Hill and other surrounding neighborhoods to dine out. And though Stockbox exists on the corner of 9th Avenue and James Street, more grocery stores spread across the neighborhood are needed for it to be “self-sufficient.”
Then there are the parks. “When we talk about the future of First Hill, we also need to talk about the future of Freeway Park.” Said Riisa Conklin, Program Director of Freeway Park Association and guest speaker at Saturday’s meeting.
“We have been devoted to enhancing, building, and preserving the treasure of Freeway Park for the whole city,” FPA President Bob Anderson said. “For First Hill, it’s the largest open space in the city of Seattle… but Freeway Park is still kind of secret, it’s not as well known as it could be, and I think that we all can be part of that – making it available, known, nurtured, and raised up to the broader community.”
Freeway Park, which houses five acres of open plazas, grassy knolls, and wandering pathways, is First Hill’s largest public space. June to October the park offers gardening and fitness classes, games of giant chess, book carts brought by Friends of The Seattle Public Library, barbeques, open air concerts for kids and adults, and outdoor dance with live musicians and DJs.
FPA wants the park to be vibrant during off-seasons, too, in addition to the one winter day where there’s a holiday lighting celebration with caroling and s’mores. To shape the development of new programs, FPA launched a survey on its site (freewayparkassociation.org) where the community can voice what it would like to see at the park, be it café, children’s playground, or adult exercise equipment, etc.
“They say in politics and community action it’s all about showing up,” Anderson said, which is exactly how FHIA has addressed its community concerns.
Thus far, FHIA has already made progress by teaming up with different city departments to communicate its vision, and securing money through community, matching, and special city funds, like the Neighborhood Park and Street Fund, where, in 2013, FHIA member Jim Erickson won First Hill money to repair sidewalks along Madison.
Much of what FHIA gets done is through its membership, which allows a community member access to a network of likeminded people who seek First Hill’s betterment, and provides a forum for communication between neighbors and the city on issues of local importance. Membership also gains you voting privileges within FHIA. Anyone can become a member, alone or with an organization, and the annual dues that allow the non-profit to function, are minimal. For individuals, the cost is $20 per year; condo associations cost $125 per year; businesses, depending on the number of employees, range in cost from $50 to $400 per year. Non-profits are welcome, too.
FHIA general meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m. at Virginia Mason’s Lindeman Pavilion. For more information about, or to become a member of, the First Hill Improvement association visit www.firsthill.org.