Sandbox near Seattle street starts play debate

SEATTLE — When Paulo Nunes-Ueno moved with his family onto a residential street between Wallingford and Greenlake in June, he brought along an 8-by-4-foot wooden sandbox he’d built for his two young children at their previous home.

On the new block, where the number of kids is estimated at between 15 and 20, and where many of the front yards are postage-stamp size, the sandbox became an instant gathering place for youngsters and their parents.

But not everyone approved. The city received an anonymous complaint the sandbox, located at the end of the Nunes-Ueno driveway, violated city rules about play structures too close to the street.

The city sent him a warning he would be fined $500 a day if he didn’t remove the sandbox.

The city now has, if not a fight, at least a debate on its hands. Nunes-Ueno, a transportation and sustainability director for Seattle Children’s hospital, wants to nudge the city toward more varied uses of the street, planting strip and sidewalk. That means at least considering some streets could become as safe for kids to play on as for cars to drive.

He’s already had conversations with Seattle’s director of street use, two City Council members, and an urban sustainability group in hopes of changing the city prohibition against sandboxes on the planting strip, the area between the street and the sidewalk.

“I told them this is a silly rule. We should be encouraging neighbors to get together and children to play outside,” he said.

What’s particularly ironic to Nunes-Ueno is that his next-door neighbor has two planter boxes on the planting strip that look a lot like the sandbox, minus the corner seats.

In fact, neighbors along Northeast 52nd Street have suggested he tell the city his is also a planter box, one where the seeds have yet to sprout.

“It just seems ridiculous and totally contrary to everything this city is about,” said Nekole Shapiro, another neighbor. Aren’t we trying to create community?”

On Friday, after conversations with Nunes-Ueno and a call from The Seattle Times, the Transportation Department said it would put together an internal task force, to include the city traffic engineer and the legal department, to examine the issue.

“Given that we have never permitted a sandbox in the right of way before and we have questions about how to do so safely, we are going to allow this one to temporarily remain as we consider whether a change is needed to allow this sort of use,” said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the department.

The city says current law doesn’t permit play structures in the right of way and must allow access for people getting in and out of cars, said Barbara Gray, director of street use and urban forestry within the city Department of Transportation.

But Gray also notes that until 2008, the city didn’t allow planter boxes on the planting strip. They are now allowed if the homeowner gets a free permit from the city and meets the requirement for public access and car-door clearance, she said.

She said there has been a debate among pedestrian advocates and urban planners about the benefits of “front-yard” activities and whether they help activate neighborhood streets and make them more people-friendly.

“We want to be both innovative and prudent when making these decisions,” she said.

The Sightline Institute in Seattle, which advocates green public policy, sees the sandbox debate as an opening for the city to reconsider how it prioritizes street use, particularly away from major arterials.

Clark Williams-Derry, research director, points to Scandinavian countries where, on some designated streets, pedestrians and cyclists have equal right to the street and cars can’t go faster than walking speed.

He gives a local example, Pike Place, the brick road through the center of the Pike Place Market, where people wander and the cars move slowly to avoid them.