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    The waterfront: keep kitsch alive

    Here's hoping the waterfront makeover resists attempts to sanitize. Another concern: not turning it into a second Seattle Center.

    A sketch of the Seattle waterfront, minus the Viaduct.

    A sketch of the Seattle waterfront, minus the Viaduct. WSDOT

    Sylvester the mummy at home in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

    Sylvester the mummy at home in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

    I've been concerned that the grand waterfront makeover might have a major casualty: kitsch.

    One of the best things about the waterfront is that it's a tourist destination, with lots of fun and corn ball stuff, like Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe and the carousel. Much has been made about keeping Seattle's blue-collar port jobs safe from gentrification, but what about the jobs of people who have to wear candy-striped shirts and paper hats? 

    It's a genuine worry because when Seattle makes big plans, it often does so with the intent to "clean up" grassroots tackiness. The removal of the waterfront trolley, for example, happened in part because it wasn't considered "serious" transit. I remember in the mid-1980s when the city wanted to, and I quote the Seattle Times here, "save the waterfront from being taken over by tacky businesses suitable only for trinket-seeking tourists." The key man behind that effort was then-Mayor, Charles Royer, who is very much involved with the remaking of the waterfront today. In 1986, he disdainfully said "I don't think our people want the waterfront to be wax museums and models of the Space Needle."

    Of course, "our people" have done everything possible to attract "those people" to town with cruise ships and Metronatural hype. It's also true that wax museums and fancy condos and hotels can coexist, as they do to some extent now, but also see places like Monterey. Seattle is now economically geared toward tourism; that is a foregone conclusion. If the waterfront is going to continue to be for everyone, it's going to need its touristy funk and junk, along with everything else. I hope Seattle resists its Scando-Asian tendency to clean everything up too much.

    I was relieved that the city approved a permit for a giant Ferris wheel on Pier 57. With the Fun Forest gone from Seattle Center, it's a bit of something we need, a taste of Chicago's Navy Pier. One of the great things about the Olympic Sculpture Park is the way it showcases art, but also plays off the neon kitsch around it, like the Old Spaghetti Factory or the P-I Globe. You need the high and the low, and the interaction between the two. Think how much First Avenue has been deflated by the disappearance of the Lusty Lady.

    Looking through some of the waterfront plan presentation materials, available online from James Corner, offers some reassurance on a couple of fronts. One is that the scheme to make multiple new connections between downtown and the waterfront seems really good. So too the pedestrian and bike access, and the habitat restoration plans for chunks of the shoreline.

    Another is that there is plenty of potentially tacky, populist stuff in these schemes, though it's the stuff most likely to to be opposed or unfunded in the end. The idea of public hot tubs on Elliott Bay (how Roman!), along with a public pool (possibly with an inflatable, retractable roof), and the addition of a funicular rail connection to take people up and down, are delightful. But the more I looked at the general approach to open space, plazas, etc. filled with pictures of happy people and jugglers in the sun, the more I was reminded of another problematic public experiment that is still, after 50 years, a major work in-progress: Seattle Center.

    There are a couple of threads worth pointing out. One is that the waterfront plan envisions a lot of stuff we already have at the Center, like fountains kids can play in, outdoor concerts and theater, Bumbershoot-type events. The Corner presentation envisions ways of "enlivening" the waterfront that seem a lot like stuff we're already doing elsewhere, duplicative. Will the new waterfront compete with the Center? Do we want it to?

    There is a long history of symbiosis between the two, or at the very least, a relationship that suggests they could be potentially more connected. Often if a feature or amenity has not worked in one place, it has been considered for the other. For example, the Fun Forest closes at the Center, but a Ferris Wheel crops up on a pier. An aquarium and skating were proposed for the Center, but one shifted to the waterfront and James Corner now proposes a rink there too.

    The world's fair planners wanted the Center grounds to connect with the waterfront. I've seen at least one early fair concept that envisioned pedestrian walkways and lids where the Sculpture Park is now, connecting the Sound and Center site. Another idea was to connect the two with a gondola ride. Yet another rejected fair idea, pitched in 1958, was to connect the fair grounds with Puget Sound via a man-made salmon spawning stream. That is echoed in Corner's plans for waterfront salmon habitat recovery. A number of architects and scientists wanted the '62 fair to emphasize our connection with the sea, a notion that was literally lost in space.

    Ideas flowed the other way too. The Center was seriously considered as a home for Namu the Killer Whale, who miserably inhabited a small pen along a waterfront pier. His new home was proposed to be a custom-built pool at the Center, located roughly where the Bagley Wright theater is today. It was scotched partly because of cost.

    All this is to say that the two sites have historic links. But if the publicly-owned Center has never quite settled or jelled, the far more complex waterfront is also likely to prove troublesome and, it seems to me, will have distinctly different opportunities given its proximity to the downtown business district, the Port, commuter ferries, and the potential for residential development. Crosscut's Mark Hinshaw has wisely counseled that some of the "enlivening" ideas be dealt with via an editor's pencil (or delete key). The plans cry out for some greater kind of realism. The visuals, meant to be conceptual, suggest a vision that is a bit out of step with life on the ground.

    First, there are comical renderings of an eternally sunny Seattle of the Perry Como song; I saw only one that seemed to show what things would be like in inclement weather. One idea involves a water feature that would spray mist at people. Uh, you can get that 345 days a year in Seattle for free. Also, the accuracy of some of the montage illustrations is in doubt: Are we really going to plant Ponderosa pines along the waterfront? I hope not. Perhaps the climate is envisioned for an imaginary post-global warming time.

    Another problem: We see a lot of what is happening on top of the various "folds," but these are actually enormous lids and we rarely get a peak underneath at what could be dark and problematic spaces. I suspect they cover up problems that might be better day-lighted as a matter of both principle and design. Instead of hiding ugly traffic, let's deal with it. Another concern: The complexity of the design makes me wonder about the cost of policing it. It could be like a Freeway Park on steroids and require lots of manpower to keep it safe.

    Then too, some of the renderings of the ferry terminal would be humorous to anyone who commutes by boat. The mass of fast-walking bodies headed for the Bainbridge ferry at quitting time is a bit like the gray horde in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many..."). They march somberly and purposefully and are likely to run over sightseeing looky-loos who get in their way. Which is reminder that there are parts of the waterfront where people are going about their daily business, not enjoying an "amenity." The plan has to work for these people too.

    Hinshaw has also suggested that Seattle likes small and quirky, not big and organized, and I second this. The waterfront could be both over-planned and under-utilized. Residential and office development is one answer; another is to make some of it more like the Pike Place Market: a collection of stalls, places for start-ups, craftspeople, street services, etc. The James Corner restructuring plan could help seed a kind of urban wild-flower garden of entrepreneurial activity; but at this stage it also has the potential to be an over-sanitized urban dead zone requiring major public subsidy to keep it bubbling. Do we really need another one?

    Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    The best thing about the current waterfront is the row of piers with their restaurants and shops, and the shelter from wind and rain that they and their awnings provide from October to June. Rather than replace piers with goose latrines (waterfront lawns) why not use them to house more shops and restaurants? Like a mini Pike Place on the water? Foot traffic is contagious. People go out to places that people go out to. If you compare the atmosphere from Colman Dock to the Aquarium with that of Pier 63 to Pier 70, you find that people congregate in the first "kitschy" area, and talk through the second, "improved" area. The first area is organic; it grew up on its own. The second (with the exception of Pier 70 itself) is "planned" and sterile. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Don't plan the waterfront to death.


    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 10:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    "An over-sanitized urban dead zone requiring major public subsidy..."

    When I renewed my license tabs, I noticed a box on the receipt labeled "TBD" with a $20 charge which is added to the cost of the tabs. The clerk told me that TBD stands for "Transportation Benefit District." Given the deteriorating condition of the streets, I wondered what the extra 20 bucks is going towards? We are certainly not receiving any extra benefits to justify the extra charge. The TBD tax was passed by the city council while the rest of us were aspleep at the wheel. I envision that the death of kitsch at the Seattle waterfront will be hastened by similar revenue-raising schemes, regulations, and skyrocketing rents.

    Expect a new TBD (Tourism Benefit District) tax to be paid when waterfront businesses renew their business licenses, along with a "GSD" (Green Spaces Development) fee, and a "PA" (Public Access) fee, for fairness so that the waterfront can be accessible by everyone. Then there will be the endless new regulations - proper setbacks for entrances, standardized roof-heights and uniform lighting requirements, green energy impositions for new businesses, special restricted areas for sidewalk vendors, street musicians, etc.

    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    The Pike Place Public Market is the best model for the development of the Seattle Waterfront as a business and public space, not to mention a bit of high end residential. Certainly the design of the connection between the Market, currently Downtown's top tourist destination, and the Waterfront means much.

    The connection to Seattle Center should also be extended to South Lake Union, what SLU neighborhood business owners in the days of the ill-designed Commons project called the 'Potlach Trail'.

    And heaven knows we don't need yet another **FAILURE** on the Downtown Waterfront like with the Commons, the Seattle Monorail, and, quite possibly, the current Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project....

    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good piece, Knute. Sometimes what I read in Crosscut makes it sound as if Mr. Corner
    was just asked to come up with some ideas for a waterfront somewhere west of the Cascades (like Disney at Seattle Center). There must be a sober, thoughtful committee that has been tasked with programming this project... isn't there?


    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good piece, Knute. Sometimes what I read in Crosscut makes it sound as if Mr. Corner
    was just asked to come up with some ideas for a waterfront somewhere west of the Cascades (like Disney at Seattle Center). There must be a sober, thoughtful committee that has been tasked with programming this project... isn't there?


    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    Fish don't shop, so don't count on more retail there any time soon. Other than houseboats and office space, there are few kinds of real estate that will get more people into the area on a daily basis.

    Let's start with the assumption that this may simply be an un-peopled area and plan accordingly, or we might end up with the kind of vaguely threatening no-mans land (and no-woman's land) like Freeway park, whose "folds", corners and staircases are dark, wet and sometimes hold the unexpected.

    Do the man-made improvement here have to be hard and angular, or the High Line kind? How about something more Olmstedian from a different part of New York City, something more akin to Central Park or our own Arboretum and Lake Washington Blvd., on the salt water side of town?

    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 4:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    The best way to completely screw up the waterfront would be to turn it over to the Seattle Parks Foundation. Those guys spent over $20 million on Lake Union Park and actually managed to make it worse. On the other hand, if sterile spaces with zero public appeal are what you’re after, give them a call.


    Posted Wed, Nov 30, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    Where is the money for any of this going to come from? Because we're broke.

    Considering that, perhaps Chihuly and Tom Douglas could collaborate on something that celebrates their joint artistry. Tourists could throw coconut pies at giant ashtrays.


    Posted Sat, Dec 3, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

    The word 'ludicrous' comes to mind. The design elements are like the barren Sculpture and Lake Union parks where public use is 'intentionally' discouraged. I suspect JCF and cohorts are only following orders from Seattle's pompous elite whose planning for 'their' new waterfront is like ordering a custom Maserati. With the currently dysfunctional Alaskan Way transportation plan, the waterfront will be mostly deserted exactly as the elite prefer 'their' waterfront to become after Jesus returns and dispatches the unwashed masses off the planet, presumably to hell, finally ridding Seattle of its soup kitchen human clutter.


    Posted Sun, Dec 4, 4:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    McGinn is a great mayor defiantly against the dbt no matter his public statement. Our nation's worst traffic engineers are employed in Washington State. The bored tunnel machine will be useful elsewhere in more stable soil conditions. Don't waste the money.


    Posted Mon, Dec 5, 8:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    Kitsch? I'm worried about losing Seattle's basic core personality, which is reflected in every business, shop and commercial endeavor along the currently messy, and varied, waterfront. The only improvement I want is to fix the seawall, and make sure the piers are rehabbed.

    All the artists renderings are homogenous, and sinfully butt-ugly.

    Posted Thu, Dec 8, 5:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank-you for the historical perspective. It was interesting to learn that Seattle Center planners at different times considered connecting the Center to the Sound. Given a conception that relates the two, the potential “swapability” of features between the waterfront and the Center seems natural, as does the potential competition for visitors.

    Re.: the enlivening value of kitsch: “It’s impossible to overestimate the populist strain in Seattle”—that’s what the trolls under the bridge would tell anyone who asked. The Hammering Man would say the same thing, so would Broadway Dance Steps if they could speak, and so, probably, would those guys who crack jokes and throw fish around at the Pike Place Market. All of them will stand to have their “photo moment” with the public. In a way, the controversy over siting Chihuly at Seattle Center last year said it, too: Seattle Center’s “inner park” turned out not to be an urban version of pastoral trying to emerge but a Tivoli Gardens-style amusement park trying to carry on as usual but with a more secure funding base.

    Three points Knute makes bear repeating here—tourism is everyday economics in Seatttle now; high and low culture can co-exist and enhance each other; a waterfront for everyone will include both high and low. Kitsch might be corralled to the other side of the tracks at the waterfront, but if it were banished altogether, the waterfront would be much poorer in character, energy, and interest. The observation by dbreneman (above) makes the good point that on the current waterfront, the kitschy, “organic” home-grown areas between Colman dock and Pier 62/63 are livelier/more interesting than the “improved” areas to the north.

    Beyond the needed connections to downtown, the promenades, and the necessary seawall reconstruction, should the waterfront be a “show-stopper” to draw tourists? As the James Corner presentation in October makes clear, many spectacular things could be done. For locals, the question might be simpler—what would bring people to the waterfront again and again because they liked what was there?

    Many commentators mention a mix of retail, tourist, residential, and office uses as a way to round out and round up activity at the waterfront. The small-scale entrepreneurial activities Knute has in mind to help keep the waterfront busy and real—where would they go? A multi-purpose plaza at the foot of Union probably wouldn’t make it as Seattle’s long-lost downtown park but holds promise as a flexible, outdoor public space in the vicinity.


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