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Seattle's billion-dollar waterfront

Worried about the risks of the SoDo arena plan? Just take a look at the bill for the new waterfront park.
Concept for the proposed waterfront park, with grand promenade/overlook rising to the Market.

Concept for the proposed waterfront park, with grand promenade/overlook rising to the Market. Waterfront Seattle

A conceptual view of the planned waterfront park.

A conceptual view of the planned waterfront park. Waterfront Seattle

Those who are exercised about the potential risk to the public of a new basketball and hockey arena in SoDo should wake up and smell the costs looming for a renewed waterfront. The new James Corner plan for the post-Alaskan Way Viaduct waterfront park has been unveiled, and a price tag of approximately $420 million dollars has been announced in the paper.

The Seattle City Council has also added a new seawall to the November ballot, cost estimated at another $290 million. And that's only part of the bill — it doesn't count another $60 million already committed to the seawall from the city and county. Even the extra $60 million doesn't cover all the costs.

According to the fiscal note attached to the city's Seawall bond issue ordinance, the project's total cost is estimated at $385 million, meaning another $35 million still needs to be found for it. (Without taking into account interest payments on the debt.) Six of that could come from commercial parking revenues, the city says, but the source of the remaining $29 million, not needed until 2016, is unknown. Theoretically it could be raised through additional councilmanic bonds (which don't require a citizen vote) or a Local Improvement District (LID), which allows property owners to put money toward public improvements that raise property values. 

According to the section on "Funding Sources" in the new waterfront strategic plan just released this month, the new waterfront budget includes projected funds of $200-$300 million from nearby waterfront property owners (LID), but also another $55-65 million from a citywide LID. It also estimates between $15-85 million more from the city's hard-pressed general fund and city debt. Plus another $80-$120 million from "philanthropy" and, presumably, corporate sponsorships. The estimated price tag "for all" (the seawall, tunnel and the new waterfront park) is over $1 billion.

And it will be more: The footnotes to the waterfront funding plan indicate that estimates do not include utility costs, aquarium rehabilitation, Railroad Way Improvements, etc. The costs of the deep-bore tunnel, of course, are not calculated either, but that project is intimately tied-in with this one. They do include $290 million from the state (WSDOT) for surface streets, Viaduct demolition, etc, but as Mayor Mike McGinn and others have pointed out, the provisions for surface street improvements are likely already inadequate given the volume of traffic that will be pushed out of the tunnel due to tolls and lack of downtown exits, etc. In other words, even the $1 billion tag is a low-ball estimate.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat says he spit out his latte when he realized that "Improvements to the area, which at 9 acres is only one-eighth the size of Seattle Center, are expected to top $1 billion."

Another concern is the ongoing costs. Seattle has shown that it can create parks, libraries, and community centers, but has trouble funding their operation over time. The plan for the waterfront really sounds more and more like a kind of Seattle-Center-on-the-Sea, civic space that is complex and will require "activation." That means public funding of events and amenities that will keep it humming. Some of this will be private — like the wonderful new Ferris Wheel that popped up as a glorious rebuke to Seattle process. Encore.

But when you start talking about floating salt water pools, fountains, misting machines, concerts, roller rinks, etc., you're talking about marketing, maintenance, and other operating funds to keep the large waterfront park lively. These things can become burdens over time; they didn't even want to continue the popular waterfront trolley. Is a floating saltwater pool going to stand the test of time and budgets? Can this space be policed, cleaned, and staffed on an ongoing basis? And are there enough people, tourists as well as city-dwellers, to fill the space year-round?

All this, like the arena, is for public benefit and private profit. The improvements will boost real estate values and development opportunities, and shore up (literally) a major tourism center. Yes, it will make the waterfront more lovely, but it's mostly about commerce: moving bodies and freight; the cruise ship hordes and Ivar's customers. The waterfront design tries to tie the Pike Place Market more closely to the waterfront (an escalator, walkways), seeking to move visitors between the Market and the aquarium to boost the latter's attendance.

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Posted Wed, Jul 18, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with a lot of what you say, but the differences between public space in the form of a waterfront park, and public space in the form of a sports arena weaken your article. One has no gates, doors, security, price of admission, limited number of events per year etc.

The accessibility of a waterfront for all, with ties to the Pike Place Market is so much more public, 24/7, that the comparison brought me into the meat of your article with some bias. All good, scrutiny and public vetting, considering alternative funding sources. I am also a fan of public spending for employment, so perhaps the tax revenues could help fund public/private partnerships that lead to jobs for 30 or 50 years to keep the place looking spiffy.

Posted Wed, Jul 18, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Humble Servant has it right. The new sports arena will be inaccessible to many who can't afford the price of admission. The waterfront plan will presumably result in private profit for businesses in the area, but will not directly funnel profits into the bank accounts of private investors in the improvement as the arena will.

It's is frankly nuts to think of investing $200 million in a new sports arena, with its negative impacts on manufacturing and industrial activity in Sodo, at a time when there are so many other real needs. And especially to invest in a facility that augments the fortunes of multimillionaires and billionaires who could afford to build a dozen arenas out of their own pockets and write off the costs as business expenses.

Posted Wed, Jul 18, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Somehow we need to be able to at least identify long term costs (operations and maintenance) and who will be paying these year-to-year costs when we dream these lovely dreams.

Several years ago the voters agreed to build more parks, but no one even thought of the costs associated with keeping them open and operating long term. So the voters will be asked to approve a parks operations and maintenance levy just for this purpose in 2015.

And horror of horrors, this August's Primary ballot will have a seven-year levy request to keep libraries open. Is this levy a slippery slope to separate library operations and maintenance from the city budget and ask homeowners to continue/increase library open hours?

I can't even imagine how much the long-term costs of the waterfront might be. But I expect there will be another levy request to do this.

What it comes down to is, "Kevin, we need to talk." That is, we need to talk about taxes (a levy is a tax), how we collect them, how we spend them, and whether there is enough money for everything we want to have.


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Ah yes, the magical "write-off".

Jerry: So, we're going to make the post office pay for my new stereo, now?
Kramer: It's a write-off for them.
Jerry: How is it a write-off?
Kramer: They just write it off.
Jerry: Write it off what?
Kramer: Jerry all these big companies they write off everything.
Jerry: You don't even know what a write-off is.
Kramer: Do you?
Jerry: No, I don't.
Kramer: But they do - and they are the ones writing it off


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

"Another alternative would be to find a funding model that could help remake the waterfront by bringing in outside investment. (An expo? An Olympics?)"

Ah yes, the magical "outside funding."


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

This project lacks anything to really hang your hat on, the designers are taking an easy "access to the water" approach. What I suggest is a 3 pronged "hat rack" consisting of Pioneer Square and the Sports Stadiums at one end, the Public market and Aquarium in the middle and the Sculpture Park/Seattle Center at the other end. Starting with the Seattle Center, why not include this well used public park by adding covered walkways and color defined pathways up from the Sculpture Park. Would temporary contemporary sculptures dotting the path be to much? At the other end covered walkways and historical markers could lead to the waterfront and in and out of Seattle's historic Pioneer Square. The key is to make this more than an afternoon's adventure.

Looking at the Public Market we see that it historically faces 1st Avenue and the Downtown Business District, not the nearby waterfront. It's time to create a new imaginative 21st century extension of the market that faces and embraces that waterfront and tourism. By jumping over Western Avenue and adding shops, exercise pathways, SRO housing, view spots, and natural habitats (bring back the raccoons) the market will create a natural flow to the waterfront all the while providing wold class views.
And vistors to the waterfront will see not a blank wall but a new giant neon sign and clock with a WELCOME TO THE PIKE PLACE MARKET message that will rival the Space Needle in usage as a publicity photo for Seattle.

Amping up the East West walkways guarantees that this will be a circular pedestrian pathway that allows visitor and resident alike to visit all the key elements of Downtown Seattle and its waterfront. The missing link is a walkway from Seattle center to Westlake Mall. Simply add rigid awnings to the cement Monorail supports that extend over to the 5th Avenue sidewalk and you will have a covered walkway that could rival Barcelona's Ramblas. Instant people mover.

This is a historic opportunity. Think big or go home as they say. Really the key parts are already in place. The energy and some of the cash form a new waterfront can be put to a greater use; uniting Pioneer Square, Seattle Center the Public Market and Downtown with the new Waterfront. Now is the time to connect the dots.


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen. We're long overdue in asking questions about seemingly cool ideas which cannot easily be financed---or which rank low in priority
behind delivery of essential city services. No circuses without the bread.

Posted Wed, Jul 18, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

And yet, Ted endorses the new arena for NBA basketball. Do you put a new arena for NBA basketball ahead of essential city services?


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

"Some of this will be private — like the wonderful new Ferris Wheel that popped up as a glorious rebuke to Seattle process. Encore."

How about a new NBA arena as an "encore." Completely privately financed, like that Ferris Wheel. The Ferris Wheel collects City of Seattle admission tax on the tickets it sells, and that admission tax revenue goes to the City of Seattle -- it does not go to help pay for the Ferris Wheel. Just like the admission tax revenue on tickets at the Space Needle, EMP, KeyArena, new Husky Stadium, movie theaters, etc., go to the City of Seattle. Those admission tax revenues are not used to pay for those buildings.

If the admission tax, and other city taxes, collected at a new SODO arena go to help pay for that arena, instead of going to the City of Seattle, that is an obvious tax subsidy from the City of Seattle to the owners of the pro sports teams that will play in the new arena. And Seattle voters, by a large majority, voted AGAINST tax subsidies for pro sports when they passed I-91 a few years ago.

Why can't the new arena be financed like new Husky Stadium, the Space Needle, the EMP, the new Ferris Wheel, etc.? If a new NBA arena does not "pencil out" without tax subsidies, then it should not be built.


Posted Wed, Jul 18, 6:24 p.m. Inappropriate

No worries, more magic will solve everything.

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the conceptual views of the planned waterfront park shows people roller-blading on dead grass...


Posted Thu, Jul 19, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

After carrying so much water for the tunnel hobbyists, does Crosscut mean to say now that they’re surprised and concerned about the expensive mess that is soon to be "Seattle's Front Door?" You would think that projects like the viaduct and the 520 bridge would make anyone with a journalistic bone in their body moist. You guys teased us several years ago with a Brewster story about why we’re spending so many extra billions on marginal solutions for these mega-projects. Here it is again:


Thanks...still waiting for the next installment.


Posted Thu, Jul 19, 9:35 p.m. Inappropriate

jmrolls: Not sure what you mean about "you guys" at Crosscut, since we've run articles from almost every perspective. There is no official Crosscut position on that or anything else. I was against the tunnel as well as the 520 expansion. Both are moving ahead, so the issue becomes mitigating the harm, and making the best of it. There's no inconsistency with my questioning the cost of the waterfront makeover.

Posted Fri, Jul 20, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry I was unclear Knute. I should have said "you journalists" to encourage reporting on the sub-optimization that occurs on our mega-projects. I would assume that it would be red meat for news professionals which you and Brewster and others clearly are. That's the reason for repeated references to the earlier article...it was terrific...it’s what’s happening…where's the rest of it?

I accept that the projects are grinding ahead and that we are left with “making the best of it.” But we’re not building bird houses…perspectives are not facts. We’re spending billions on mediocre solutions benefitting some of us, rather than all of us. In a culture where influence is based on whoever applies the most force to the object, often in the dark, the press is the only key to understanding that many citizens have.

Think of it as encouragement rather than criticism.



Posted Fri, Jul 20, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Re: What's Wrong with the Hill Climb?


Thank you for the great article.

In latest waterfront design proposal, it seems that James Corner & team have retained the large 'fold' between Pike Place Market and the Aquarium. This concept continues to puzzle me because:

1) We already have our perfectly good, charming, and more historic Hill Climb to connect these destinations! In fact, we just completed major upgrades to the Hill Climb as part of the $20 million Phase I upgrade of the Market

2) The views along the 'fold' would be no more stunning than those already available from Steinbrueck Park

3) The net elevation change for the fold will be the same as the Hill Climb; in fact, the fold will create a longer, more indirect route between the destinations (as somebody that lived in the Market neighborhood for 5+ years, I can tell you that for better or worse, most tourists actually prefer to take the elevator!)

4) The fold's proposed stairs actually direct people away from businesses and activities along our existing piers; people exiting the fold will instead be sent towards some speculative and seasonal activities on Piers 62 & 63

So, on the whole, it's unclear what additional benefit we get from this 'fold' (aka: oversized pedestrian overpass). The designers seem to worry about 'activating space', but I worry that the fold's circuitous route and exposure to the elements will actually make it very INACTIVE - especially on rainy days. Attempts to provide glass covered walkways to lure people onto the fold during inclement weather are simply laughable - I jokingly refer to the glass awnings as the waterfront's monument to seagull poop (see Knute Berger's column on waterfront maintenance costs)

I'd suggest that we drop the fold concept and save the hassle and expense. Instead, we should focus our investments on a design that focuses on pedestrian safety for street-level crossings, better incorporates existing assets (e.g. the Pike Place Hill Climb, the under-appreciated and existing Waterfront Park), and as you say - avoids trying to recreate things that we already have (i.e. Seattle Center and Olympic Sculpture Park).


Posted Fri, Jul 20, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

watsi raises some interesting issues. I don't know just what businesses are isolated by the Fold but it has been an article of planning faith in Seattle for several decades that pedestrian overpasses are counterproductive. Exceptions have been made but generally the preferred model here is pedestrians (customers) walking at or very close to ground level. At the same time the City encourages storefronts wherever there is even the remotest possibility of successful retail, also at sidewalk level. This may be right, may be wrong but at least it is consistent. The Fold appears to bring up an old argument that seemed to be resolved.


Posted Fri, Jul 20, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Good thoughts about the fold; looks to me somewhat like a traffic lid, and I think lids often mean mean bad design down below. Also seems odd when we're de-Viaducting the waterfront. I'd like to read someone's more detailed analysis of the evolving fold/lid.

Posted Sat, Jul 21, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I was down on Alaskan Way last weekend for the first time in over a year, walking from Colman Dock to a Mariners game. The place looks like a construction zone. Alaskan Way is closed, traffic is weaving at a snail's pace under the Viaduct, and barricades and chain-link fences are everywhere. I assumed that the seawall reconstruction was in full swing, but this article says that only a tiny portion of the money has been raised. So, besides making the whole area an extremely hostile place for visitors, what in the proverbial hell are they doing down there? They've even paved over the trolley tracks. Looks like that easy and friendly mode of transportation is now literally dead and buried.


Posted Sat, Jul 21, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Wsdot is making a mess out of Seattle. Once the bored tunnel is completed, historic Pioneer Square buildings will be razed one by one as their foundations are disrupted and damage is beyond repair. Say good bye to the Underground as it too will become unsafe. Picture the bore tunnel rising the same way rail in a street rises and breaks the surface. No doubt Seattle developers are awaiting the boom for cheap modern redevelopment and history revisionism. PR hacks will be paid handsomely to teach the next generation how the previous generation fully approved of this disaster. Meanwhile, traffic will be more horrendous than it is already.


Posted Sat, Jul 21, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you saying that the reason traffic and sidewalks are blocked on Alaskan Way is because of tunnel construction?


Posted Sat, Jul 21, 3:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course. Depaving Alaskan Way -plus- RAILROAD WAY - (an historic original streetway) requires redirecting traffic beneath the AWV and be done before the screw starts to turn. Original design is for TWO thoroughfares, NOT merely the ONE AlaskanWay design which I, I've explained the rationale for its rejection all too often, as you all know, Thankyewverymuch.

You can put my moniker on that cliche: TheScrewStartstoTurn, right now, because that is EXACTLY what this is, yewidiotprogressive-types. There is such a THING as too much edumacashun. Hear me now?


Posted Sat, Jul 21, 8:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Fine. Somebody will work to debate my newest claim somewhere that: "Solid-Seawall-Solid-PlazaWay Protection from worst-case quake scenario is the most prudent arrangement after all, period, end of story."


President Obama programs like these
come with more than 3 letters.

So Sorreee about your terrible psuedo-engineers there that don't mind everyone taking a huge risk. The ramp could be filled, or, lead to a similar arrangement Cut/cover 1 mile shorter & straighter, the most commercial route rather than most residential, I'm not kidding Queenie dearest. Talk 20,000 more cars/big rigs daily. You Arent scared? Leave the main thoroughfare e/w and truck connection where it is but improved. The DBT is NOT a good design. Minority vehemont opposition nationally more than locally. Wsdot is the worst, people.


Posted Sat, Jul 21, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Why is general fund money involved in this at all?
Do we need to have some minor professional sports league involved just to keep this thing from turning into the example of why the state capped its contribution to the AWV project, run away layers of bells and whistles?
Seriously, a $60 million dollar swing in what might be required from the general fund.

Commentors are right, this is nothing like the arena. You'd have your heads explode if Charlie Royer were saying the new arena might take $15 to $85 million dollars in general fund money. But, by golly, no sports = your brains fall out, quick, form a non-profit, so Richard Conlin can split the "public benefit" hair.
But, of course Charlie works for the Mariners, and is unused to concerning himself with public costs.

Why will we have to have a city operating budget line item for "programming" a space if "all" will be rollerblading on dead grass down there?
And what about Hempfest, is there a designated spin-dancing area with views of west Seattle?

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jul 21, 6:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Waterfront plan? How about the Jimi Corner Experience Landscape Project, or for simplicity, the Jimmy Regrade.

Posted Sat, Jul 21, 7:55 p.m. Inappropriate

"Wells" writes: "You can put my moniker on that cliche: TheScrewStartstoTurn, right now, because that is EXACTLY what this is, yewidiotprogressive-types. There is such a THING as too much edumacashun. Hear me now?"

I hear you, but the signal to noise ratio is a little low. Why would "depaving" Alaskan Way be necessary to boring the tunnel, which runs several blocks to the east?

I'm still searching for the relevancy of your reply to my original post.


Posted Sun, Jul 22, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

What is very sad is the lack of enthusiasm for reinstating the Benson Waterfront Streetcar. Although there was a "gesture" toward transit, it was nowhere to be seen on the renderings of the project.

The retail decline of Pioneer Square can be dated in part from the closure of the Waterfront Streetcar which once brought pedestrians/patrons from the cruise ship terminal at the north into Pioneer Square and to the doorstep of the I.D.

When the Streetcar was closed in 2007, promises were made that it would re-open. Now the Waterfront will be re-made and the Streetcar should be part of any plan. It provides linear connectivity and needed links to Pioneer Square and the ID.

Posted Mon, Jul 23, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

OK I'll bite; what do the RailRoads and the Port of Seattle have to say about the waterfront redevelopment? I remember that when Boeing moved their headquarters to Chicago they purported to have said in reference to the sports stadiums... "thanks for blocking the entrance to our facilities". Are the politics shunning railroad and Port privately seething? What is being for the RailRoad yards. And my big question is where does the northbound traffic in the new tunnel exit? Please don't say Mercer Street.


Posted Mon, Jul 23, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

"what is being DONE for the Railroads" correction.


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