On a cheerful, sunny Friday evening this September, the Belltown Community Center opened its doors at 415 Bell Street. It was great to see several hundred residents touring the rooms, enjoying music in the alley behind the Center and food donated by Belltown restaurants, and finally feeling the love of City government for one of our most dynamic neighborhoods.
More than twenty years ago, the City rezoned Belltown, then a community of low-rise small commercial and apartment buildings, to encourage new housing. It was a while before development took off, but now the area is filled with new apartments, offices, and restaurants. Most recently, of course, Belltown has become famous for the Escala, the setting for “Fifty Shades of Grey”, the Northwest’s latest fictional setting to follow the Twilight series and Twin Peaks in achieving international renown (the Escala is now on the Ride the Duck tour!)
As development ramped up in the late 1990’s, Belltown, like 37 other Seattle communities, created a neighborhood plan. This was a transition time – when it began to sink into the Seattle consciousness that downtown was a neighborhood, with lots of residents, just like our other residential communities. Downtown had been the only part of the City not assigned a Neighborhood Service Center Coordinator and included in a Neighborhood District when those programs were first conceived – an oversight that was soon remedied thanks to the advocacy of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). Still, it raised lots of eyebrows when the head of the DSA was elected as the Chair of the City Neighborhood Council a few years later.
Like the other plans, the Belltown Neighborhood Plan included growth targets for housing and jobs along with a list of amenities and policy changes that would complement this development to ensure that Belltown worked as a community. As with the other plans, the Council agreed to move forward most of the Belltown requests and has implemented the majority of them over the years since the plan was approved in 1998.
But there was a lot of skepticism about Belltown’s request for a community center. In 1999, the Council put together the Seattle Center/Community Centers Levy package, which included a number of new and expanded community center facilities requested in neighborhood plans. But when I suggested that we should add a new community center for Belltown, there was resistance. Councilmembers did not see how the dense urban community of Belltown meshed with a traditional community center model, which included gyms and outdoor recreation space. They thought that it would be impossible to site a community center on expensive Belltown land, or to afford a brand new center as part of a fairly modest levy package.
Ultimately we agreed on a compromise. The Belltown Center would be a community gathering space, smaller than a traditional center and without a gym or outdoor space, would be sited as part of a larger development instead of being freestanding, and might be rented space rather than City-owned. Still, this scaled-back version was a great step forward for Belltown, and everyone was excited when the levy passed.
That was thirteen years ago… Not for want of trying! Parks looked at dozens of locations over the years, and at one point we even had a groundbreaking as part of one new development – which later fell through when the larger project could not be funded.
But ultimately perseverance paid off! A great old brick building with big wooden beams sat vacant for years, and the City was able to negotiate a seven year, 6000 square foot lease that allowed for modest remodeling and a grand opening. The long-term may still be uncertain, but, thanks to persistent City staff work and the continued advocacy of the Belltown Business Association and Belltown Community Council, the Center is open. Check it out!