Four challenges to a great waterfront park

Portland Aerial Tram.

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

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.

What might we do to have concerts on the pier during December? Are there some things we can build or events we can hold to draw locals in? I hesitate to mention the trite notion of an ice skating rink but I could see taking a lunch break to do that. Maybe even in a light rain. Other cities with long periods of inclement weather have found ways to celebrate their climate. Surely we can as well. How about something quirky and low-tech, like a Seattle Slicker? (Made from recycled plastic,) of course. I’ll take one in SeaForest Green, please.

Tourists, the bete noire and the fourth challenge. We love ‘em for their money. But we hate ‘em for their Duck-riding, guidemap-upside-down and pleading for directions to “Pike’s Market.” There has been a recent uptick to almost 10 million visitors to Seattle in the last year, but this pales in comparison to cities like New York. Manhattan alone had five times that number of visitors last year, in a geographic area one quarter the size of Seattle. No wonder New York parks are packed.

We can’t design the waterfront for the seasonal travel trade, whether coming by cruise ships or SUV’s. We have to find a way to make it work for those of us who live here, year round. Which is a formidable challenge, give the Big Four limitations.

So how can we cope with these challenges better? In all the publicity over high profile (and high cost) parks like the High Line and Chicago's Millennium Park, its easy to overlook those that might have greater relevance for our situation. One that bears scrutiny is the soon-to-be-completed Southpoint Park in New York. Designed by internationally known landscape architects Sasaki Associates, it makes much more subtle design moves than the other, more highly stylized parks that frequently make the front cover of airline magazines. It has a simple handrail-lined esplanade along the water’s edge with places to sit.

Southpoint incorporates mounds of grasses and wildflowers, as well as few of historic structures. There are lots of trees and sinuous pathways. There are a couple of spots to have a concert or hold events. In some places the banks of the shoreline have been restored with vegetation to catch and filter water runoff and provide habitat. The park is accessed by an aerial tram that serves the neighborhood, carrying mainly workers and residents along with the occasional tourists. This is a park to be enjoyed in solitude but still offers spectacular views. It's simple, restrained, and a bit rough-edged.

The park even has at least one completely quirky aspect. The overgrown ruin of an old building is occupied by feral cats. The urban legend — which in this case is entirely believable – is that for years people have dropped off their unwanted cats in that location. Over time, the formerly domestic animals have adapted to living outside, roaming the place alone or in small groups. It’s a small version of the estimated 300,000 feral cats that live in Rome.

Which, as a metaphor, leads me to my final observation. We in the Pacific Northwest often enjoy taking in nature while in relative solitude. We bike, camp, hike, kayak, and sit, often alone or with just a few companions. This is a much different cultural condition than exists in the socially gregarious cities of New York and Chicago. The Northwest may be the only place in the world that combines the restrained and introspective attributes of Scandinavia and Asia. Bustling crowds are for occasional events.  For most part, we prefer quietude and intimacy. Perhaps this is one reason why people from elsewhere often comment on a kind of standoffishness on our part.

Maybe all we need is a good, dry place to sit on our haunches.

 

 

 

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