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A bold idea to transform the ferry terminal

Peter Steinbrueck sketched this idea for Sea Center on the waterfront. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Steinbrueck

Greater Seattle deserves both props and criticism for the way it is trying to do everything at once, largely on its own: Highway 520 expansion, Sound Transit, tunnel, SoDo, South Lake Union, the waterfront redevelopment and park, etc. We are in a huge and transformative phase, despite the recession. Like all long-term and massive makeovers, it's a combination of forward-thinking and out-of-date ideas, practicalities, utopian hoo-hah. But the burdens of funding on taxpayers are enormous because federal funds are not available as they were in the good-old spendy days of Scoop and Maggie.

I recently wrote that Seattle could not do a world's fair now. But this snapshot of the city's ambitions makes the case for why cities once did world's fairs, and why ours worked so well. World's fairs leverage multiple funding sources (city, county, state, federal, foreign, private) to make big infrastructure investments; they bring in outside investment; they help break down silos of decision-making; they create unity of purpose across partisan and bureaucratic lines. They are not just about getting "on the map."

The fair itself is part of the equation and the reward, because the extravaganza generates local excitement and good feeling, it spreads the benefits from the top to the bottom of the food chain, and from one end of the region to another, through tourism and promotion. You can get a huge shot in the arm from new dollars coming from outside the community. Century 21 not only was a boon for local business, but it boosted tourism throughout the Northwest. The community at large makes money, gets exposure, attracts new investment, and gets new infrastructure, and it's not all on the back of local taxpayers. That was the model Seattle helped to perfect, and from which cities like Spokane, Vancouver, and others learned, and why men like Joe Gandy and Ewen Dingwall were in demand to consult on future and prospective fairs, which they did.

Trying to do all this stuff in Seattle without a fair or an Olympic Games (as Vancouver did and London's doing), or some other multi-dimensional civic effort is trying to do it the hard way. And without a Robert Moses to muscle it all through. What's missing is civic vision that binds it all together, from funding to fun, that helps sell and spread the benefits, that energizes parallel initiatives. Century 21 helped to mobilize a can-do culture that boosted Forward Thrust and its laundry list of regional improvements from government reform to transit to water quality and environmental cleanup.

Peter Steinbrueck has an understanding of the link between the waterfront plan and what a fair can do. He was asked by Seattle Met earlier this year to come up with a world's fair idea for the city, and Steinbrueck, whose father was instrumental both in designing the Space Needle and saving the Market and Pioneer Square for posterity and tourism, came up with the idea of what he calls the Sea Center at Colman Dock.

What is it? His sketch looks a bit like the Sydney Opera house or a flapping manta ray, and could, Steinbrueck says, perhaps be designed to glow in the dark like a bioluminescent sea creature. It would be a signature structure, a counterpoint to the wall of high-rises that is sure to grow in the post-Viaduct city. But importantly, it would serve the practical purpose of moving people around this complex, water-bound metropolitan area: fast foot ferries (a 21st-Century Mosquito Fleet), trams, float planes. His Colman Dock would be a multi-modal marine hub for non-auto commuters. Such imaginative structures are often created for expos  (see Vancouver's Canada Place) and they embody and exude optimism and energy for years, sometimes generations.

The former city council member and architect advises a number of clients these days: the Market, the Port, even WSDOT in making sure the tunnel project doesn't do damage to historic structures above the tunnel corridor. His Sea Center is an idea solicited by magazine editors, but it's one that raises some issues about the current waterfront transformation. Colman Dock is a mess, Steinbrueck believes, and state plans to expand it are akin to building what he describes as a bigger "freeway on-ramp" right in the middle of an area that already has too many cars. Even without the current construction, driving on and off the downtown ferry has been a headache for years. I've long thought Seattle traffic engineers actually hate Bainbridge commuters and sadistically enjoy putting them in ever-more ridiculous rat's mazes between work and home.

The idea would be to move car ferry service either north or south of the current location where it could be more workable and flow better. The Sea Center (the nautical pun on Seattle Center is intentional) would serve as a greener hub, and it could serve non-transportation functions as well. Steinbrueck envisions a heritage museum dedicated to the Salish Sea's Native American history and culture. He has noted that the James Corner waterfront plan does precious little to recognize native uses or presence. In his Met proposal, he said, "It's pretty shameful that we don’t have a comprehensive Northwest Indian museum or cultural center in Seattle to speak of, and this could be that." Steinbrueck's idea deserves wider consideration, and is the kind of legacy structure that could both solve practical problems and serve as a kind of water-level icon for the new waterfront.

Great civic endeavors are never without public or private risk. The question is, is the overall vision and the path to making it happen worth it? Seattle keeps raising the price tag with incremental steps. Maybe that is the best or only way to get things done. But it's an expensive, disjointed slog without much synergy.

One wonders if some 7 a.m. breakfast meetings at the Olympic could chart a better course.

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