Seattle’s billion-dollar waterfront

A conceptual view of the planned waterfront park. Credit: 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.

The whole shebang is designed to make the area more livable by putting a park and bike trails at the feet of those who can afford to live in the high-rises that will blossom, and offer a "waterfront for all" by making it more accessible.

I worry that we're recreating the Seattle Center model when the current Center needs attention, improvements (Key Arena, Memorial Stadium), and more funding. The waterfront has to be sustainable over decades. What are the projected costs and returns over the next 30 or 50 years? Do we really need two Seattle Centers? Seattle has talked about banning circus elephants in the past, but are we to become a breeding ground for white elephants?

An alternative would be less public space, scaled-back ambitions, more private development to "activate" the street, and less worry about trying to move tourists from one place to another. What about actual commuters? This plan doesn't even deal with the mess that is Colman Dock.

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

Public-private partnerships are a necessity with this model and budget, but it does put the public on the hook in ways that are as risky as, or more risky than, loaning money for a new SoDo arena owned by a hedge fund manager. The waterfront plans deserve at least as much scrutiny and public vetting as a basketball venue. It might look like a park, but it's a public-private investment that isn't going to be cheap.

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