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.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!