The UpGarden P-Patch was created in 2012 to provide more community garden space in Seattle and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.
The UpGarden P-Patch was created in 2012 to provide more community garden space in Seattle and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.

Jim Medalia moved from New Jersey to Seattle with his wife five years ago. While they love living in Uptown, what they missed was having a garden, Medalia said.

Then they learned about the UpGarden P-Patch, a rooftop garden uniquely situated on top of the Mercer Street Garage. The country’s first large-scale community rooftop garden open to the public, UpGarden took the top award from the Washington Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2014.

“And all of a sudden we had a garden, and it was great,” Medalia said, “and we’re able to live 3-4 months a year on what we grow.”

In the 2 1/2 years since the Medalias started working their plot at UpGarden, no one ever told them it would all go away someday, he said.

They learned last week that the rooftop garden experiment would end in fall 2020 and, after eight years, the 30,000 square feet of community space would become parking spaces again.

“It was literally an eviction,” Medalia said.

While many of the gardeners using the 86 plots on top of the Mercer Garage were surprised by the Oct. 21 announcement, Seattle Center and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods contend the urban P-Patch always had an expiration date.

The Mercer Garage was constructed at the same time as Seattle Center, and for the same purpose — the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Through a memorandum of agreement reached in 2011 between Seattle Center and Neighborhoods, the UpGarden was created as an environmental experiment and opened the following year in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair.

“The 1962 World’s Fair was definitely about space exploration, and it was the era of the automobile, and we were experiencing an era that was more about valuing the resources that we have on Earth and wanting to do better, right, and kind of recentering not around automobiles but what we could build as a community,” said artist and designer Nicole Kistler.

Kistler designed the UpGarden with landscape architect Eric Higbee, which involved a robust community process.

“That garden is a respite for the community, for sure,” Kistler said, “and as a designer it was an incredible opportunity to work on something that has so much potential for innovation.”

Its development — using 80 parking spaces on top of the Mercer Garage — was funded through the 2008 Parks and Green Space levy.

The rooftop parking level was offered as a P-Patch site because it was rarely used, but the memorandum of agreement (MOA) states the Seattle Center Century 21 Master Plan envisions long-term redevelopment, and that the P-Patch was “short-term only, terminating upon redevelopment of the Mercer Garage site.”

“I think it was challenging to design something that would be temporary from the standpoint of it needing to be durable and kind of not temporary in a lot of ways,” Kistler said, “but something that could be disassembled and possibly reassembled somewhere else too.”

While UpGarden is going away, the Mercer Garage is being seismically retrofit to continue accommodating parking for Seattle Center and Uptown visitors long into the future.

“It was part of the arena agreement that they would take over management of the First Avenue North parking lot,” said Seattle Center spokesperson Deborah Daoust, “and it’s more to make sure there is parking available for all of the neighborhood and community organizations.”

Oak View Group, which is spending more than $900 million rebuilding the Seattle Center arena, takes over operation of the First Avenue North garage and its revenue under its development agreement with the City of Seattle. OVG also plans to construct 850 parking stalls under the new arena.

That increase in parking capacity in Uptown is one reason Medalia was surprised by Seattle Center’s decision to reclaim the Mercer Garage’s rooftop.

“We don’t need anymore parking,” he said. “They’re going to get 80 more spaces for what? They’re already building extra parking to accommodate KeyArena.”

The Mercer Garage, First Avenue North and Fifth Avenue North garages provide nearly half of the public off-street parking spaces in Uptown.

The 2008 Century 21 Master Plan recommended the aging Mercer Garage be demolished and replaced with 1,300 parking spaces under Memorial Stadium. The garage site would then be used for a mixed-use development.

“We knew that the possibility was out there that they would shut it down,” said Uptown resident Robert Grubbs, who took over as lead coordinator for UpGarden a year ago; he’s had a plot there for four. “The understanding was they would only do that when they tore down the garage, and we were kind of surprised when they made this announcement because they were not tearing down the garage.”

Kistler said she is also disappointed that UpGarden is having to close for parking, and not for the redevelopment that had originally been proposed for the site.

“The garden wasn’t designed to last forever, although it could probably live a little longer,” she said.

Seattle Public Schools and the City of Seattle entered a public process partnership agreement in late 2017, which anticipated school-related uses at Fort Lawton and Seattle Center. The school district had considered rebuilding Memorial Stadium and constructing a new high school at Seattle Center.

SPS did not seek funding for the project in the latest capital improvements levy, and Lincoln High School in Wallingford reopened this fall to serve freshmen and sophomores in the Queen Anne area.

Seattle Center also released a parking study in 2017 that looked at future conditions in 2035, assuming redevelopment of the Mercer Garage. Single-occupancy vehicles were expected to make up 37 percent of Uptown transportation under existing conditions, and dropped to 23.9 percent when assuming there would be added light rail by that time through Sound Transit 3 expansion.

“The adjacent neighborhood would be affected by parking congestion during Event Evenings more frequently, as all events drawing approximately 10,000 or more attendees would generate parking congestion without Link Light Rail and with Link Light Rail events drawing more than 12,000 attendees would generate congestion,” the study states of the assumed loss of 1,300 parking spaces through Mercer Garage redevelopment.

Oak View Group’s own parking assessment documents 11,350 off-street parking spaces within a 15-minute walk to the arena, and 13,750 within one block of Westlake Station. Initial parking demand at the new arena is expected to be 6,100 spaces, and then decrease by 5,100 spaces after light rail service is expanded to Uptown.

Grubbs said he doesn’t understand then why a community P-Patch needs to make way for just 80 parking spaces.

“I’m wondering why,” he said. “This just doesn’t make sense, so maybe they’re not telling us something.”

The agreement between Seattle Center and the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) does call for ending the P-Patch prior to demolition and redevelopment, but it also leaves open the option for Seattle Center to reclaim the space for its needs. Once the new arena opens, the Mercer Garage’s capacity is expected to be at 85-95 percent four or more days per week.

The agreement was part of a larger directive by the city council through a resolution that DON identify additional community garden locations, especially in underserved neighborhoods and for the benefit of area food banks.

Grubbs said UpGarden’s Giving Garden provides around 1,000 pounds of produce to the Queen Anne Food Bank and other organizations every year.

“And I think our P-Patch represents our community,” Grubbs said of the people who use it. “We have a mix of everything.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2020 budget proposes using $3 million in Sweetened Beverage Tax revenue for garden relocation assistance and maintenance. The Ballard P-Patch, which is in jeopardy of closing due to redevelopment, is attempting to raise $2 million in funds to save its space.

Even if there were funds available to relocate the UpGarden, there does not seem to be an ideal site for the P-Patch to move to, Grubbs said.

“I’ve looked around, and I’m not sure there’s any place,” he said. “The Broad Street area, which is available when they closed it off, I guess that might be a possibility.”

Kistler said a lot of developers approached her about the potential for replicating such a project in other parts of the city once UpGarden was completed, but the challenge is that new parking garages don’t have the same loading capacity that older garages like Mercer do. New garages are designed for lighter cars, she said, and a rooftop garden would need to be taken into account in the design process.

The Mercer Garage is undergoing a seismic upgrade to accommodate the anticipated increase in demand when the Seattle Center arena reopens in 2021.

Grubbs and Medalia said they’re seeking community and political support to preserve the UpGarden.

“We’re going to look to try to put together petitions to either keep this or make sure something in-kind is given to this area in the same zipcode of the Uptown area,” Medalia said.

Kistler joins Medalia and Grubbs in hoping that the revisions to Seattle Center that are being designed in conjunction with the arena redevelopment could include space for relocating UpGarden.

“It is one of the few spaces in that Uptown area that is made for the people who live there,” she said. “UpGarden was a place that, when you do go there, you do see your neighbors there. That has been my experience whenever I go there.”

The Department of Neighborhoods is offering Uptown gardeners the opportunity to apply to be transferred to other P-Patches its operates.

“Staff will honor requests based on the gardener’s original sign-up date and the availability of plots at another site,” a DON news release states. “Their ability to get a new plot is based on whether there are openings at another P-Patch and the gardener’s good standing and seniority within the P-Patch Program.”

Both Grubbs and Medalia said they live within walking distance of UpGarden, and do not think the next nearest P-Patches in Queen Anne or Interbay will work for them. It would be very difficult to move plants, tools and harvests on a bus between Uptown and Interbay, for example, Grubbs said.

“I could drive over, but again that’s against the whole idea of this being in your neighborhood,” he said.

The UpGarden is also used by the people in the neighborhood for gatherings and area schools for learning about gardening, and families bring their children, who offer to help other gardeners with their plots, Medalia said.

“For a lot of us, it functions as a communal backyard,” Grubbs said, “so we go there and I’ve made many friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise met.”

UpGarden's official closure is set for Nov. 1, 2020, and the community will be included in the process of deciding how the materials will be reused through a survey to be put out in February.