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Four challenges to a great waterfront park

Our designers may be over-reaching, and they may be forgetting how we locals will use the park, year-round.
Southpoint Park, on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan.

Southpoint Park, on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan. Roosevelt Islander

The Portland Aerial Tram links Oregon Health and Science University with the city's South Waterfront. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett)

The Portland Aerial Tram links Oregon Health and Science University with the city's South Waterfront. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett) None

Editor's note: This is part two of the author's discussion of design concepts for Seattle's central waterfront park. The first story ran on July 24.

Seattle's downtown waterfront, as lovable or rather potentially lovable as it is, has at least four strikes against it. These are demography, topography, climate, and tourists. In our effort to match if not exceed the other great waterfront cities of the world, we seem to wish away these major drawbacks, rather than seriously coping with them.

Now it is certainly true that many great cities such as New York, Vancouver, London, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, to name a few, are in the midst of a tremendous waterfront renaissance. Ribbons are being cut on wonderful new parks, promenades, and other public spaces almost every week. These cities are recapturing space that had been for decades locked up by break-bulk cargo operations, factories, shipyards, and smoke-stack-topped power plants. All of these have bitten the dust with changes in technology and transport.  That has cleared the way for redevelopment. 

Demography, the first challenge. Most of these cities have spent decades and lots of money to encourage thousands of people to live close to the water’s edge. Shorelines are now packed with apartments and condominiums, as well as hotels. By contrast, we in Washington state have passed laws to prevent residential development from occurring near the water. Our long-standing populist attitude views that as elitist – “walling off” the water for only those who can afford it, or pushing aside historic maritime uses. Never mind that most of those cities require public access through and around such development. In Seattle, we are bothered by the mere thought of wealthier people getting front-row views.

We are fond of taking trips to enjoy the grand new spaces in cities like New York, such as Battery Park and the High Line. The recently opened first phase of Brooklyn Bridge Park is a stunning new place; Bob Royer eloquently wrote about it in Crosscut recently.  But Manhattan has 1.5 million people living within a 15-minute walk of the water’s edge, producing lots of folks to activate and animate those spaces on a daily basis.

It should come as no surprise that many of those people are wealthy. Indeed, some of them write big checks to maintain the non-profit corporations that operate and maintain the parks. But no, if wealthy folks are part of the picture, or perceived to be cashing in on taxpayer dollars, we in Seattle want none of it.

Topography, the second challenge. All of the cities we like to compare ourselves to — the ones I listed above plus throw in Stockholm and Copenhagen for good measure — have one thing in common. They are flat, or nearly flat. San Francisco is the one exception that proves the rule.

Flatness is simply conducive to walking. Just look at streets in downtown Seattle today. The ones that are flat are the most active, containing shops, restaurants, and people walking. Comparatively, the steeply sloping streets are dead. For most people, it's just daunting to walk up and down hills. I’m sure we can all imagine a leisurely stroll down to the waterfront. Then we remember that we will have to trudge back up that same hillside. We think again.

Or maybe not. That's why the designers are considering some big architectural moves to ease the hillside trudge. Portland installed an aerial tram that has become a dramatic landmark. It's not a tourist ride. People use this electric bus in the sky for commuting.

Climate, the third challenge. Unpredictable and idiosyncratic it is. Hey, I’ve lived here long enough to love it. (That is, when I don’t hate it.) But it really truly works against public spaces that are exposed to wind, rain, and drizzle. Covered walkways, as shown in the James Corner design, are fine, but are there other things we can do to entice people year-round? Residents, not sunshine visitors.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks. A very good article and so well thought out, too.

Missing from the list is Brisbane and "Brett's Wharf". An old dock I moored at when sailing with the Blue Star Line. Now a grand linear park along the river. By the way, that's the place our former "George Benson" waterfront street cars came from.

And then there is Sydney with its "Circular Quay" but, good heavens, it has a viaduct over it that provides a nice shady retreat on a hot day where you can have a latte. Alas, we can't have that kind of an abomination, can we?

seebee

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

About the weather: doesn't seem like a big problem to me if the waterfront is developed the correct way. You just need to look at Vancouver to see the evidence. Their waterfronts are used year round.

Also, I don't understand the height restrictions on our waterfront. Seems most other cities allow sky scrapers by the water, in trade for public amenities and ground floor retail/entertainment. This fear of rich/developers is the major problem here, and it is an irrational one coming from the left-wing. This one really bugs me since the lefties (of which I consider myself one) are contributing to gentrification and the exclusion of lower income people by reducing the housing supply downtown with these irrational height restrictions.

andy

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Naturally no mention of managing traffic, safe pedestrian crossings and transit use uphill perhaps? Flowery entertaining plaza spaces beside historic hulks of maritime commerce will be another testiment to Seattle schitzophrenia and Are-we-having-fun-yet isolationism.

Wells

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

The problem with central planning is central planning. It invariably produces a sterile environment. Why not take all that land that will become available where Alaskan Way is, and "homestead" it? Give private citizens a plot of land and let them put whatever kind of business there they want (with certain restrictions, like no franchises, office buildings or condos). If they can make enough to pay their property taxes after five years, it's theirs to keep. If not, award it by lottery to someone else. Many of the really good draws on the waterfront today, like Ivar's and the Curiosity Shoppe, are there because the abandoned wharves were cheap and the business owners inventive. Same holds true for the businesses at the Pike Place Market. You can't plan that kind of stuff at a committee meeting. It needs to grow up organically.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

"The problem with central planning is central planning." I'm not sure I agree with dbreneman's solution, but he has clearly identified the problem. I think of Albert Speer and Germania when I look at the waterfront plan.

DTNelson

Posted Wed, Jul 25, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

This piece is of two minds: 1) let's stop worrying about catching up with anywhere else and just be our selves, pensive or otherwise, and 2) we really really need to be more accommodating to swells (and their architects), prompting the usual trickle-down theory:
'" This fear of rich/developers is the major problem here, and it is an irrational one coming from the left-wing. This one really bugs me since the lefties (of which I consider myself one) are contributing to gentrification and the exclusion of lower income people by reducing the housing supply downtown with these irrational height restrictions."

No complaint— short of Wells' feared schitzophrenia—being of two minds is the beginning of wisdom. At least, it set me to hunting up what Roger Sale reported (1976) about Seattle's "First Climax:"

"Four million dollars in bonds were sold between 1905 and 1912 to develop the [donated and acquired] parks and build the boulevards designed by the Olmsteds to connect them. ...Here is a passage invaluable in understanding certain qualities of the early twentieth-century Seattle....Chadwick...of the weekly Argus.. is referring to Madison Park, which very definitely was not one of the new parks but a public carnival easily reached by streetcar from downtown: 'We have a Coney Island now, a playground for the Industrials, a breathing spot for the Employed...It is all cosmopolitan to a degree, mixed, unexclusive' ...

The newly rich needed ways of establishing themselves...What the parks would add was something close to unique: refined retirement along with a sense of a beautiful and unmanufactured landscape open without ever being wild, civilized without being urban, showy. If other cities could offer this, they probably could not do so in such profusion. Seattle became a city with hundreds of vistas, turns in path or road that offers views in every direction, each slightly different from the one just before or just after...

To repeat, what the parks and parkways created is similar to what was created in the new affluent houses and neighborhoods and analogous to the new downtown office blocks, and in each case it was done with a grace and a charm that later ages must cherish and seek to retain.... Put most simply, the legacy of this decade is the idea and the fact that Seattle is a wonderful city in which to lead a quiet and comfortable private life. The sense of the frontier town is replaced by a blending of houses and roads with evergreen landscape and soft climate that is perhaps the major reason people have loved to live in Seattle....

It may seem contradictory to describe a stagnant city as a wonderful place in which to grow up....We can begin with two observations... The first is that a great many of the people who delight in describing how Seattle was wonderful for them as children also admit that their parents' experience was very different, much less happy. ... The second observation to make is that a great deal that the older, the decisive generation built seemed good and right to the children who grow up nearby. The expensive and settled neighborhoods, the parks and boulevards, became part of the inheritance... and not the inheritance of something bygone...but an inheritance that could be enjoyed by the living as part of their lives."

A fine read for those steeped in Seattle. For the less steeped there is his 1994 self-guided walking tour. SPL has multiple copies.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Our long-standing populist attitude views that as elitist – “walling off” the water for only those who can afford it

Oh really? Then explain Lake Union. McGinn and the City Council are deeding it over to use as a gigantic corporate office park, piece by piece.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Mark Hinshaw makes some good points. In particular, his argument about residential density likely has validity. When James Corner was hired, many looked to the success of the High Line and hoped it could be repeated here. However, the High Line is surrounded by high-density residential on two sides, and many of those older New York apartments lack air conditioning, so it's no surprise the High Line is filled with users in the summer.

Mark points out that access to Seattle's Waterfront is from one side only, and Seattle's downtown slopes making it less pedestrian-friendly than many cities.

To enhance the likelihood of success, the Seattle's Waterfront needs enhanced connectivity. That's why the absence of streetcars in the designs shown so far is so disappointing. Reinstatement of the Benson Waterfront Streetcar line should be part of any approved scheme for Seattle's Waterfront. Not only would this keep promises made in 2007 when the Art Museum shut down the Streetcar, it would also provide the kind of connectivity that is now lacking (as evidenced by the retail decline of Pioneer Square).

In addition, the Streetcar had an element that I can only describe as "fun" -- something that is much needed.

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

It is clear that the 20th century city and vertical density are obsolete.

Downtown Seattle should be completely razed and restored closer to its natural beauty.

So instead of a sliver of "park" and lots of ugly condos...it should all be a park.

jabailo

Posted Tue, Jul 31, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Thought provoking article but I think it's a bit unfair to portray the people of Seattle as isolationists who don't enjoy socializing. That's pretty harsh. Living in NYC, I see many people using the parks sit "alone or with just a few companions." While the tourist trade may bring in larger groups to some of the parks, using park space is generally a small group experience. For many, it's the only place they can be truly alone in a urban setting for a hour or 2 on a weekend or evening after work.

Compared to a park like the Hudson River Parkway that extends from Battery Park all the way up north to the George Washington bridge, what Seattle Waterfront Park planners lack is vision. Or maybe I should say, vision, vision, vision. The Hudson River Parkway has been under continual construction for over 12 years. There are markers near 42nd St, near the Intrepid Museum that date back to 1995.

All the conversations about the Seattle waterfront talk about a 'great waterfront park', as it says in the title of this article.

But like a city, a great waterfront park doesn't occur in one grand stroke. It's a series of small, incremental gestures that, over time, create a series of spaces and places that offer something for almost everyone.

Posted Tue, Jul 31, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

One issue Mark Hinshaw rightfully addresses is condos and apartments near the waterfront. But his article is a bit inaccurate in suggesting that parks in NYC have shorelines packed with apartments and condominiums. That's not at all true. For all of the length of the Hudson River Park on the West side of Manhattan there is not a single residential building built right on the shoreline. None. The waterfront has piers and open spaces in various configurations. Next to that is a walking trail, then a biking trail. Next to that is the West side highway. Then, on the other side of the highway is where the residential buildings begin.

This article seems to suggest that putting buildings right on the waterfront is somehow a good thing. That is what the people of Seattle rightfully fear. Namely, that architects and developers will gain access to building near the waterfront and then do a bait and switch and put buildings all the way up to the waterfront.

Posted Thu, Aug 2, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Some interesting, provocative thoughts but I would suggest that a wise first step would be to consider what we keep before imposing new design ideas. Mark skips over a new waterfront that builds on a more open and direct connection with Pioneer Square and Pike Street Market. The High Line in New York must be the most cited public amenity in North America yet the most inventive thing about it is that it was already there!
Seattle's waterfront is exposed to prevailing winds from the Southwest, typically warm rains drawn from the Japanese currents and a temperate climate. That's why the market is open on the east, mostly covered and not heated (or air conditioned). Maybe a close look at the historic buildings, piers and patterns should be the place to begin thinking about the future.

Artifacts

Posted Thu, Aug 2, 9:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Artifacts. Good point about the highline, which is now in the 3rd phase of development. It's going to make it's way toward 34th st, site of a huge new construction site called the Hudson yards.

Another interesting point about the Highline is that it was an elevated railway specifically used to bring food into the city. It used to be at street level but so many people were getting killed they called it the death train, so they raised it into the air. It's part of New York's history and rather than tear it down and put up more highrises, they are building around it.

If only Seattle had a bit more vision than to just turn everything over to developers looking to make the most money the quickest way possible.

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