McGinn jumpstarts the waterfront seawall debate

The new mayor is moving fast and not checking with the other key players. Some worry that more time is needed to make sure there will be an exciting design, along with places for fish, the environment, and the public along the waterfront.
Melbourne's striking design for a seawall on the Yarra River

Melbourne's striking design for a seawall on the Yarra River Mithun Architects/John Golling

Seattle's crumbling seawall has raised alarms for 25 years.

Seattle's crumbling seawall has raised alarms for 25 years. WSDOT

Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal to immediately ask Seattle voters to tax themselves for the reconstruction of the downtown seawall has what some fear could be a curiously grab-and-go aspect. The new mayor has decided to ask for funding without waiting for new designs on the seawall replacement, raising questions about how well the waterfront will work for people, business, sea life, and the environment generally for decades to come. Another set of questions: How well will the new mayor work with his partners on this key project?

The mayor said that safety concerns are so large that speed is paramount. In his press conference on Thursday morning, he spoke about a 1-in-10 chance of seawall failure in the next 10 years, and the likelihood that a seawall failure would bring down the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"It would be irresponsible to not address this basic issue of public safety immediately,” the mayor said in a statement about his plan to put a $241-million bond issue for the seawall replacement on the ballot in May. On Friday, McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus said the administration is confident voters will approve a bond issue, which requires 60 percent approval. The alternative would be a levy measure, requiring only a majority of voters to say yes. A bond is preferable, he said, because it is paid off over 30 years, meaning the yearly taxes would be much lower than for a levy, which would be collected over nine years.

The administration believes it can explain "that this is a very basic public safety need," Pickus said.

While the media are busy watching to see if the new mayor will try to derail the agreed-upon plan to replace the viaduct with a tunnel, that doesn’t seem to be part of the proposal. For a mayor who used his inauguration to say he wanted to engage the citizens, the immediate resort to the ballot box probably fits, perhaps in a way city residents won’t soon forget. But the comments about the proposal also made clear that he is moving quickly enough to have engaged in little or no serious outside consultations, even with city council.

From a key tunnel support group, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the mayor’s proposal drew a guarded but positive comment. Charles Knutson, a chamber vice president for policy, said, “Generally speaking, we are pleased that Mayor McGinn is taking a step to secure funding.”

Knutson noted that the chamber had just learned of the mayor’s ballot proposal and will examine it. There seemed to be a lot of that going around Tuesday. As Publicola reported, city council members had received essentially perfunctory notifications.

Cary Moon of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which has raised tunnel concerns while advocating strongly for more public spaces along the shore of Elliott Bay, said she had received a call the night before, with no opportunity to offer advice. She said she was “of two minds” about what she had seen of the proposal. The city is right to reassert that the waterfront and the seawall replacement are Seattle’s business, she said. But she added that there are “some huge risks with trying to do it quickly.”

So far, the city's designs for rebuilding the seawall have been “1950s-style,” primarily involving tons of concrete, Moon said. A better design would provide more public access to the water’s edge in significant segments, while adding at least some naturally sloped beaches, tidepools, and other environmental features to let sea life thrive. “That is hard to do,” Moon said in touting a fish- and people-friendly replacement. “That takes some creative engineering, and it takes time, because we are inventing something.”

Former mayor Charles Royer, a co-chair of a city-established Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee, also expressed concern about the speed. Both he and Moon spoke of the importance of a design that is a “100-year” opportunity to create the city’s future on the waterfront.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 6:44 a.m. Inappropriate

"U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have a large role in the replacement process."

After watching the meeting between the legistlatute and the Feds (on tvw, last Fall) this part is bigger than I ever thought. The creative new design is subject to federal approval.
Bringing them in before too much imagineering happens could save time and money. Creating a new wildlife habitat invites other federal agencies in, too.

I agree with Mr. Royer, that the seawall is of interest of the Port.

I think the mayor could have done well by making the safety case and the need to complete this sooner. Facts help support arguments, right, McLawyer?

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 7:11 a.m. Inappropriate

This quote from Mayor McGinn is a keeper:

"It would be irresponsible to not address this basic issue of public safety immediately,” Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. That's a good policy.

I remember another politician saying a lot about the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 bridge being "our levies" and pushing for early action. That was years ago.

Will McGinn apply his public safety policy, and be as bold, on 520 and the Viaduct?

If not, he may not get much support for his waterfront bonds.

Jan

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

My guess is that he is forcing the timeline inside of the tunnel replacement goal (to be open by 2015).

The mitigation plan would be the defacto surface option.

He has no idea how long the seawall will really take.

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Before one asks for the citizens of Seattle to fix the Seawall with a tax increase, the Mayor/city have to resolve the cost-overrun issue for the Tunnel. If the Tunnel is dropped due to this issue, the State will have to come back with a new alternative which they probably have studied already. If a new scheme meets Seattle's standards, most likely WSDOT would pay for the Seawall repair, avoiding a properety tax increase.

The Mayor is correct in wanting to start fixing things. But he should not go to the voters before other alternatives have been vetted.

Art

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Forgive me gaia... but is downtown Seattle really the right place to worry about fish habitat? It's a seawall, it will still be a seawall.

I think it is obvious that this needs action and McGinn is right to kick things off with a reasonable plan.

For fish habitat it would be good to do something to ameliorate the railroad tracks which systematically replace the natural shore all the way up the sound.

spock

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Well for fish habitat, it's currently a mixed blessing. We have squid coming in every winter to mate under the lights down by pier 55. We have octopi living under the aquarium.

Eel grass is what is needed for fish and it's notoriously hard to seed and plant.

I'd vote for just having more people access to the water. All those condos down by Lenora could use a walk in access for beach launching a kayak. I'd like to see walk down access at the foot of S. Washington. There used to be a dock that you could land and tie up to there for small boat access. Now there is just a bench under an old canopy with homeless people living there. It's just not well utilized by very many people.

It's still a working waterfront and that's ok, but just re-rip-raping it would be a disaster for the next 100 years.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Art, I'll guess that no matter what, with this mayor, Seattle will be on the hook for the seawall no matter what.

The state is obligated to relace its highway, anything beyond that I suspect the state will pull its arms in on.

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 10:09 a.m. Inappropriate

My take on the situation is that McGinn looked at all the capital needs identified in the future and came to the conclusion that we don't have enough revenue from City, State and Federal funds to complete them all. If the economy fails to recover, we'll need to defer or delay projects such as the tunnel, south Lake Union traffic projects, and 520 replacement.

So better to bypass the usual Seattle-process where we study things to the nth-degree and make a commitment.

By decoupling the Alaska Way Viaduct from the seawall replacement, we can make some progress on an important capital project and give us flexibility to balance out capital needs in other areas.

I'm sure that the Council isn't happy with being left out of the process but I'm willing to give McGinn a little leeway on this. The mayor's job is to set the agenda and that is what he is doeing.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Amen, GaryP. First and foremost the reconstruction of the seawall should be about safety, but if we can increase public access to the water, we should. I know that would get me to spend more time along Alaskan Way.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

By turning a safety issue into a land-use issue, tunnel supporters (and surface option supporters, for that matter) have up-ended what should have been a fairly clear-cut solution and made a mess of this whole thing. Perhaps this seawall proposal is an attempt to focus our thoughts back on safety. If so, I applaud it. If there are really urgent safety concerns here, then all these land-use desires should be put on the back burner.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

The seawall will be done a section at a time. It already has a design.
The money should come from the state, not Seattle.

padua

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

After having recently (2001) put in a new bulkhead (aka "seawall") on my property, I can tell you that the permitting process is a nightmare. Soil studies, erosion studies, satellite photos, topographical maps, Department of Fisheries, Corps of Engineers, Peninsula Advisory Committee, Health Department, etc. Each had their own fees, forms and hearings. The final stack of documents was as thick as a Seattle phone book. Funny thing, once the permitting fees I paid surpassed the fine I would have been assessed for bootlegging it in, the permitting sailed through (two years and over $10,000 later). And that was for a six foot by 100 foot rock wall. It will be interesting to see if Seattle's approval process turns out to be easier or more difficult than mine.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Leadership frightens some people. I have to give the mayor props so far for being willing to lead, this being one of several examples, though it's early and only a small start.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

That was "leadership"?
I thought he was undercutting a process already in motion. I think he could have lead those people with facts to the opinion he expressed.
He stood outside and had a press conference.

I think he is competing, not leading.

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I like Mike. He da man.

Wells

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Sour grapes, Baker.

Posted Sat, Jan 16, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Not sour grapes, the Nickels "style" was as a bomb thrower (at least early on). This is not any different, maybe worse, in that he did not make a factual case (other than claiming safety).
What authority says this has to happen sooner than the corrently published completion date?
The generalities lead to a declaring something because I told you so.

He is asking 60% of the Seattle voters to doing something sooner because he told us so.
Spend five minutes in this town and it become clear that doing anything sooner that involves a vote is doomed without a significant amount of communication.
He, as much as anybody, knows from he prior life as a lobbyist that he did not lobby support with that press conference.

Now he has 9 other mini mayors hair splitting his proposal, the timing of the vote, content of the project, and his respect for those that have been working on this already.
Read the story, read the quotes at Publicola, and tell me he started the city on a path to success for a 60% May vote.

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jan 16, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hos_uIKwC-c

This video should be included in the discussion. McGinn is right. The City Council had best not get their knickers in a bunch over this.

Wells

Posted Sat, Jan 16, 5:59 p.m. Inappropriate

McGinn has suggested a levy amount. It may provide latitude for a variety of design options. If it does not, the Council could chose to increase the amount during their discussion. It will take five votes just to get it to the spring ballot. Since the seawall is failing, it should be replaced. Nickels showed us the gribbles several years ago and they have probably continued to eat away the pilings.

eddiew

Posted Sun, Jan 17, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I think spock has raised a good point; namely that to provide the tidelands, fish habitat and eelgrass, etc., you give up the deep moorages that were the reason for the seawall in the first place. In addition to the ferries there are tour boats and the occasional navy vessel that benefit from the deep moorage. It would be a huge and, in my opinion, unwise transformation to attempt to "build" a tidelands on our central waterfront. The piers themselves are (I am told) in a bad state but if there is any historic value to the waterfront area it is in the piers and I believe them to be far more interesting than the pocket beach near the Sculpture Park.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jan 19, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

And there is basic geology. Our downtown waterfront did not have much beachhead in the first place. Carved by glaciers, the drop off was fast and deep. WE artifically created much of the slope at the waters edge so we could build docks where rail trestles once wove a confusing mass. The sea wall was built not only to keep the sea OUT, but to keep the land fill IN.

Posted Tue, Jan 19, 1:31 p.m. Inappropriate

No one will do anything because the city & state are broke. But the politicians have to keep bleating "we are doing something" because the voters need to hear it. If only the average voter could put 2 + 2 together...

Alex

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