Natural Home Earth Mover: Carolyn Geise

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Photo By Jim Bryant

Carolyn Geise thinks the City of Seattle could use a good dictionary.

Nearly a decade ago, the architect discovered city planners had designated Vine Street, an eight-block stretch of Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, a “Green Street.” Only problem? No one could tell Geise exactly what that meant.

Geise’s firm, Geise Architects, had already renovated a 1914 factory at 81 Vine into a thriving structure that houses condominiums along with retail and office space. So she decided to serve as catalyst, pitchwoman, and mother hen, defining just what “Green Street” should mean. Through her organization, Growing Vine Street, she’s engaged the community in dialogue, conferences, fundraising ($2.7 million to date), open houses, and more. “Vine Street ends at Elliott Bay, so it seems logical to treat it as a watershed,” she explains. “Our community wants to collect rainwater in cisterns for fountains and use it to water plants. Why send precious water into storm drains? Instead, we want to connect all of Vine into a runnel with water filtered before it goes back into the bay.” Neighbors, local artists, designers, and architects have all gotten caught up in the project.

Their goal is to develop a design concept for the street, a series of guidelines that allow individual property owners to tap into their creativity. One of the main objectives is recycling rainwater, and Giese’s roof is a prime example. Rain is channeled through an artificial rooftop wetland contained in large, galvanized half-pipes. Other plans include a cascade of concrete cisterns down the street to direct water toward Elliott Bay, a series of steps and landings installed in the sidewalks to help people navigate a steep 15 percent slope, expansion of the P-Patch (a Seattle term for community garden), and integrated artwork including four water spouts.

Giese’s dreams for Vine Street are now taking baby steps toward reality. This spring, “Beckoning Cistern”–a galvanized aluminum collection system resembling an outstretched hand that was created by environmental sculptor Buster Simpson–made its debut at 81 Vine Street. Awaiting final funding is the Cistern Steps, a marshy, terraced walkway and watercourse. A half-block demonstration will run from the P-Patch, giving residents and skeptics a chance to eyeball the design. “It will help people get a grasp of what Vine Street can be,” Geise says. “The street should have an identity.”

It may take another decade before Vine Street takes on a true personality, but Geise believes change is inevitable. “Last night I brought in three big ferns from my home to the office and spent the evening in my front garden, digging, planting, watering, and trimming. Birds were chirping in the maple trees. Six people stopped by to talk to me,” she says. “It was heaven. We’ve created a habitat that wasn’t here before.”

And Seattle may finally have that elusive definition of a “Green Street.”

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