City of Seattle/James Corner Field Operations
As we watch big chunks of the viaduct being ground into dust, the prospect of remaking the Seattle waterfront seems to become more real, actually seeming with grasp. So we are all looking forward with eagerness, our interests piqued by a cascade of ideas coming from the Corner design team. Yet, questions abound and skepticism is pervasive.
My recent commentary on the need to pare back some of the rather frenetic and over-reaching aspects of James Corner’s ideas for the waterfront engendered more response from readers that I had imagined it would. Most were very thoughtful and expressed heartfelt concerns that the teams’ thinking to date was a bit off-track. Few comments were mean-spirited, but rather reflected a genuine desire to see this part of our community come alive in ways that have not previously been possible because of the overwhelming effect of the viaduct. I think most people can agree that once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is finally gone, we have enormous opportunities for making our connection with the water vastly more enhanced.
But there is also a frustration that the work to date doesn’t truly reflect a sense of finding the spirit of the place. Rather, a whole potpourri of things that have worked elsewhere are simply being piled on. Perhaps this is intentional; let’s think of every cool thing we can, throw it down, and see what sticks.
Certainly there are a number of important points being advanced. Connnecting to adjacent districts and neighborhoods is one. Restoring beaches and shallows for fish is another. And finding places for a wide range of artful expressions is important. But some ideas are simply all too obvious. Of course, we are centered on the bay. We always have been, despite urban expansion outward. We really don’t need a big circle on a map to tell us that. Anyone who has lived here for even a brief period of time knows we are a culture profoundly affected by water — in lots of different forms.
As a colleague has reminded me, there is still no proposal; things are in flux and the design process will benefit from continued discussion and debate. So here are observations about some key topics to toss into the stew of robust discussion.
Separation, Slope and Lack of Density
Most active urban waterfronts elsewhere in the world benefit from two things: level topography and the proximity to many people living within a short distance of the shoreline. We have neither condition. So it takes quite an effort to trek the sheer distance and then contemplate climbing back up the slope. To many people, it just seems like too much of an effort compared with other places. Sure, an occasional event can attract a crowd, but on a daily basis, probably not. That in itself makes it very difficult for certain types of retail business to survive, much less thrive.
It might be possible to nurture a few places to be frequent destinations, but a totally, continuously active and animated waterfront would be unlikely. Its simply too spread out. We need to concentrate not disperse our initial efforts and let other places evolve slowly over time.
We in the Pacific Northwest treasure sun and good weather considerably more than other places in the world, precisely because we don’t get much of it. In fact, we go a bit crazy when the sun decides to come out in mid-winter and the temperature rises a bit. Out come the flipflops and short sleeves, as if we were suddenly in the Bahamas. But we also know that most of the winter, the unpredictable winds and precipitation works against plans to do things out of doors. Consequently, we have nurtured a whole host of splendid indoor venues: concert halls, libraries, exhibition halls, community centers, museums, and many live theaters. I believe this also accounts for our long-standing, solid support for films and a host of quirky movie theaters as well. They provide collective experiences that enliven us and lift our spirits. We are not likely to turn to the water’s edge for this in those nasty, dreary winter months.
Could the waterfront have more indoor venues? Perhaps. We already have the Aquarium, of course. And the Bell Harbor conference center hosts a lot of activities and events. Making a stronger link between Pike Place Market and the Aquarium is one idea advanced by Corner’s team that could have legs. I’m not convinced by shops on a lid or a fish tank over the roadway, but let’s not quibble the details quite yet. Clearly, this would be a great place to focus our limited resources.
Accretion and Accumulation of Quirky Places
One thing that is certain about Seattle is that it has never embraced big sweeping ideas. For well more than a century, every time someone brings one up, it's not too long before it gets shot down. The Bogue Plan? Nope. Massive freeway network? Nope. Urban renewal at Pike Place? Nope. Big park in South Lake Union? Nope. We just don’t like plans pushed by government. Perhaps its our populist roots showing, but we just don’t like big. A lot of people who have spent time elsewhere, where such things are common, are probably baffled.
After all, we keep making the top 10 lists, it must be because of big, ambitious plans, right? Not necessarily.
A good part of the distinct charm of Seattle is that it’s a collection of many, many smaller things that are good, if not great. Public parks, greenbelts, civic buildings, the Market, Seattle Center, oddball neighborhoods. It all adds up to this fabulous mash-up of technology, topography, trees, and hills that are laced with waterways and waterbodies. It's lots and lots of modest but well-done efforts accomplished by thousands of people and organizations. And we seem to like that. A lot.
So how can we translate that homegrown adoration of the small and beautiful to the water’s edge?
Reconsidering the Categories
The most recent presentation by the design team addressed three categories of subjects: Habitat, Program and Art. While there is nothing terribly wrong about this, this method might be building in some unfortunate limitations. For example, certainly the objective of creating habitat for marine life is a noble one. But it asks people to place an emphasis of that specific issue such that other values might be compromised. Perhaps a broader term like “Living Systems” would enlarge the perspective. How can we make the waterfront work better for a wide range of plant and animal species, including humans?
“Art” as a category can easily lead to the conclusion that what the waterfront needs to have is a collection of commissioned objects, whether temporary or permanent, as if the Olympic Sculpture Garden were to make a sharp left turn on Alaskan Way and slide along the entire length of the shoreline, depositing fine works for people to look at. It suggests lots of objects done by artists. Instead, should we be looking for many different types of Creative Expressions?
This might involve other realms such as lighting, technology, information, interpretation, and education. Without a doubt, artists have much to contribute in expressing the soul of the place, but a collaboration of talents and skills could be truly amazing. Fortunately, we have not only a huge cadre of artists experienced in working with the public realm but also a host of other creative professions as well. It's not really necessary for a group of artists from elsewhere to jumpstart this. Plenty of people here are champing at the bit.
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