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Waterfront park design: getting better, but...

The design has been scaled back as budget realities impinge. Is the one remaining "big move" too disruptive and expensive?
The ferris wheel on Seattle's waterfront: Is the future looking brighter?

The ferris wheel on Seattle's waterfront: Is the future looking brighter? Michael Brunk/nwlens.com via Flickr

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

The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south.

The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south. City of Seattle/James Corner Field Operations

A colleague has a saying about managing client expectations. “Always under-promise and over-deliver.” I feared at one time that the opposite might be happening with the current planning of Seattle’s central waterfront.

The last time we saw the planning concepts, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape architect James Corner and his team, they were piled high with elaborate and even extravagant ideas. Soaring, grassy rooftops so immense they seemed like the deck of aircraft carriers. Big sandy beaches. Many public spaces with every square foot packed with some sort of human activity from bicycling to concerts to hotubbing. Big sweeping ideas. Breathtaking perhaps, but budget-busting too.

I wrote about the need for editing the design. This appears to have been done. Many of the more dramatic and costly items have been deferred to future phases. More attention has been paid to connecting the waterfront back into downtown through some pleasant streetscapes. A big architectural move has been reserved for a grand sloped and terraced connection from the Pike Place Market to the pier occupied by the Seattle Aquarium.

The Aquarium would be surrounded by a sea of new public spaces. To the north, Piers 62/63 (formerly used for Summer Nights at the Pier), are transformed into a great viewing deck, replete with a floating saltwater pool that recalls the century-old natatoriums that used to dot the bay. The idea of a public pool is not farfetched, and has already been done elsewhere in the country, such as the temporary “pop-up pools” in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Still, one wonders how the daily 10-12 foot tidal differential will be gracefully addressed, particularly to meet the needs of handicapped users. (When natatoria were in fashion, those federal laws were not yet in place.)

To the south of the Aquarium lies the current Waterfront Park, little used and dysfunctional for decades. The concept scheme replaces this park entirely with a much simpler space that re-orients visitors to the angled direction of the piers. The recently installed Great Wheel is used as a sort of circular campanile for the space. Future Aquarium expansion would occur on the northern edge of this open waterway, perhaps in a floating structure. Imagine a big barge such as one sees along the Seine moored against the wharf. Could be great.

One element that seems totally at odds with the notion of attracting people to linger and meander safely is the inclusion of wide bicycle lanes right though the middle of the linear park along the waterfront. I cannot imagine a family from Wallingford enjoying gelato while being constantly mindful of the fast-moving bikes along this potential speedway.

Back to that big move: the broad promenade connecting the waterfront with Pike Place  Market. This structure zigzags up the hill, vaulting over a reconfigured junction of Alaskan Way with the street that will snake up the hill to Belltown. This sloping porch would include some glassy covered walkways with seating and landscaping. If one looks carefully, it’s also possible to see a slender mid-rise building containing a block of residential units spread across the newly exposed face of the existing parking garage.

Yep. New housing. Facing the park and the bay.  I can already hear the cries of “elitism.” Granting the political problem of introducing housing, keep in mind that there is nothing better than having places where people live to overlook public space and provide “eyes on the street.” The plan also calls for major modifications to the north end of the Market.

In some ways, the big canted and splayed deck stepping down from the Pike Place Market high on the bluff above Alaskan way seems extravagant.  Certainly there are simpler, less disruptive, and less costly ways to get people up and down a slope. Many cities, from Barcelona to Paris and Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, have funicular trams that are fun and functional. And they take up a fraction of the space. Some are quaint trolleys, while others are high tech, resembling sleek, tilted subway trains. Even little Langley (pop. 1035) on Whidbey Island is eyeing one for its bluff.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

East West pedestrian connections are essential to making the waterfront plans flow and generally these paths already in place. They just need be enlarged and unified in appearance with banners, street furniture, and signage. All paths eventually lead to the Public Market which has begun to suffer from tourist gridlock even with traffic removed from Pike Place. An expanded dynamic connection to the Seattle Waterfront is exactly what's needed to make the visit to the Pacific Northwest's #1 tourist destination a multiple venue/location event. By expanding the Waterfront plan to include exciting pedestrian paths to Pioneer Square and Seattle Center the City itself becomes the star. A fixed canopy attached to the Monorail columns would create a covered walkway from Seattle Center to Westlake to essentially complete the tight circle that would go from Pioneer Square to the the Aquarium and Public Market, from the Sculpture Park to the Seattle Center and from Seattle Center to Westlake. For walking impaired some $1 fare circulating buses on that route would be good. Buses could complete the circle by passing into Chinatown/ID before reaching Pioneer Square. Or maybe private enterprise would see the value of such a route and run regular tours with guides. To expand the vision would cost hardly anything, just a bigger map of the project and a greater understanding of the goals; revitalize the Waterfront and Pioneer Square; reduce gridlock in the Public Market; connect the Sculpture Park to Seattle Center to Downtown; bring Chinatown/ID to the party.

Clearly there is a vocal element advocating for a return of the Waterfront trolley. Bike riders want their place too. By thinking bigger I believe we can satisfy just about all visions for the waterfront at no greater cost.

chapala21

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Agree.

Sea Wolf

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

The main issue I see with the park is the choice of trees. This is the northwest. Home of the conifer. Yet none of the trees depicted are conifers. They would thrive in this space and there is plenty of room for them. We will certainly need full-time green down here.

Simply adding in a large number of conifers in place of the typical deciduous street trees would be a huge improvement.

David

ddmiller

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 12:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Some of the original conceptual artwork showed Ponderosa pines!

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Chappal posts fine example for rational discussion.
Park design:
A constructed overpass should create minimal darkened underpass.
Artificial lighting cannot suffice during Brown/Black-out.
Minimize escalator(uphill only) WIDTH & design historic/modern awning.
Imagine the south view: Industrial crane behind glasswall borders?
Other views barren/unshaded in direct sunlight?
Will follow-up later to common idiocy. It's yor sittae to ruin.

Wells

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

David's comment is right on. This seems to be a common problem with landscape architecture everywhere. People are similar everywhere but landscape is not. Even when the Olmsted's did their work in Seattle decades ago, they certainly voiced thier opinion that "our trees" we're too big for a civilized park. Thus the rush to east coast natives and English preferences for non conifer trees. I'm certain this native fabric will find its way into the plan, but why isn't it touted as an essential element of the master planning stage. I think Jim Corner should answer that! If he has and I missed it, it would be better that it be obvious in this work. This is exciting but not yet unique to this place. There's still time but landscape isn't just the clothing, it is the bones and the clothing for any real place based design. I hope to see that more evident as this moves forward...

chuck

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't count on it. Seattle doesn't do landscaping so well.
Lawn & bricka-brack sculpture oddities is their current rage.
Fine work in collision surrealism to match Seattle traffic mayhem.

Wells

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't count on it. Seattle doesn't do landscaping so well.
Lawn & bricka-brack sculpture oddities is their current rage.
Fine work in collision surrealism to match Seattle traffic mayhem.

Wells

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 8:32 p.m. Inappropriate

The trees are a distraction to take you eyes away from what appears to be a 6 or 8 lane expressway bisecting the waterfront. Views are essential to all aspects of the waterfront project. The trees block views but also HIDE THE EXPRESSWAY. Why else would they be there? I just don't feel there is anybody working on this design who lives in the PNW or ever has.

chapala21

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 8:32 a.m. Inappropriate

In the big picture, I am enthusiastic about what the waterfront can be, and concerned about what it actually will become. The good news is that the viaduct will be gone and we can have a true shoreline connection to the city. However, I feel the current plan is timid in its execution of that connection. If the waterfront is going to cost however many billions of dollars Knute Burger says it will, not withstanding that most of those costs are going to public safety and infrastructure engineering, then we should really re-imagine a waterfront that serves the current purposes of a modern urban center of a region that runs on technology, intellectual property, international trade, and tourism, not shipping logs to San Francisco and flour to Alaska aboard sailing ships.

In case you miss my point, I am talking about the old downtown waterfront piers. Seattle still has active modern port and light industry (and sports complex) areas, but they are now located a mile to the south and north of downtown. So why in an era when it is almost illegal to build over the water for any purpose, are we insisting on preserving – at extreme maintenance costs – nineteenth century structures that block our collective views and relationship to the water. A modern pier used as a ferry landing? Useful. A pier for a gift shop, restaurant and faded photos of former Klondike "glory", a hotel, or even the Port of Seattle Administrative offices, all kept from falling into the Bay as historic icons – much less useful in my opinion. How many of these odes to the past are necessary, and at what long term expense and opportunity costs? The functions and uses of these buildings can be moved to some of the space opened up by removing the viaduct or the existing buildings on Western, and put BEHIND the water, rather than in front of it. I am for historic preservation when it makes sense. In this case, I think it definitely does not make sense.

If we want to re-imagine a new Seattle waterfront while we are ripping out a freeway and ripping apart a sea wall, let’s use some real imagination. If we miss this chance, it will be at least 50 years before we get another chance.

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