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    The Seattle waterfront: Our new front porch

    When the viaduct comes down, Seattle will have a blank slate of high-value, big view public space. Can we make it our own?

    Waterfront concept design, near the Aquarium.

    Waterfront concept design, near the Aquarium. Seattle Waterfront Project

    The waterfront has become the new blank slate upon which planners and urbanists can sketch out their fantasy futures. It’s the new Seattle Commons, the new monorail, the new Westlake, the new SoDo, the new South Lake Union, the new World’s Fair, all rolled into one. It’s a transportation project, a safety project (the sea wall), a park, a tourist center, a commuter corridor for ferries and foot passengers.

    The new tagline is a “waterfront for all,” signaling an egalitarian goal. The preliminary and incomplete price tag puts the cost at nearly $1.1 billion, most of it public funds. That’s the sticker price without a lot of the extras — and not counting the tunnel.

    Seattle’s downtown waterfront is going through a major transformation, that’s assured. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming down, the deep tunnel will be bored. Already, the transition has brought change: traffic detours, scarce parking, noise, the construction chaos that presages a worsening before it gets better.

    Seattle is oriented toward Elliott Bay: Traditionally, those are the most desirable views. In some high-end downtown condos, the view can add $100,000 to the price. Many people like looking west, because that’s where the happy-hour sunshine is (when it shines). The Viaduct removal and waterfront transformation will be a boon to property owners, whose values will soar as the noisy concrete wall comes down and new views are created.

    A local improvement district will help fund a new waterfront plan based on the windfall in assessed values of properties that can take advantage of Seattle’s new “front porch.” Inevitably, high-priced high-rises will sprout. In 2011, most of the priciest condos (in the $1.8 million–$3 million range) were downtown. A new waterfront offers the promise of a vertical land rush.

    Waterfront boosters, such as former Mayor Charles Royer, get touchy when you talk about the costs. With design plans from James Corner, famed for Manhattan’s High Line elevated park, we are encouraged to look at the benefits and amenities that could spring into being: saltwater pools, a new promenade, open space, beach access. No question, it is cool stuff. But is it right for Seattle? Is it affordable? Maintainable? Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned Northwest

    Interestingly, the first great waterfront amenity to bloom during the transition was the Great Wheel at Pier 57, a cheap way for the people to get a glimpse of that multimillion-dollar condo panorama. No public underwriting here: The new 175-foot ferris wheel is a private venture that was put up in part to mitigate the mayhem the transition might cause, driving tourists away with all the construction. It has to be one of the city’s cheapest landmarks. Could it be a model of how to improve the waterfront — letting the private sector step in? Could we get cool stuff without spending so much or trying so hard?

    And can we end up with a waterfront that hasn’t been sanitized by good intentions? Westlake Park is an example of a civic space with little soul or appeal in its final form. A mall now stands where a warren of curious shops used to be. On the waterfront, I’d much rather see the variety of Pike Place Market than a neighborhood of suburban plazas made safe for Whole Foods. The sterility of some parts of South Lake Union is an example of what to avoid.

    The gritty past is gone. If you want to get a sense of old seaport Seattle, check out the 1973 film Cinderella Liberty, about a sailor on leave here. The new concept of a waterfront “for all” is commendable; a greener, safer, more open waterfront with better connections to the rest of the city is a good thing. But my advice is to avoid overthinking it and supersizing it. Make room for some chaos, serendipity and flexibility; for the unexpected good ideas that spring up without the need for public subsidy. I look forward to seeing the spirit of entrepreneurs like Ivar, attractions like the Big Wheel and gimmicks like the go-fishing-from-your-window Edgewater emerge for the next generation.

    Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    Not surprising that the ex-mayor would be “touchy” about the costs of these special interest driven mega-projects imposed during times of withering budgets for social and emergency services for the elderly, the homeless, the mentally ill, the unemployed and over-taxed citizens who sit quietly by and watch this members-only frat party that passes for governance and leadership in Seattle.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    Nice piece. But is the gritty past entirely gone? Perhaps from the waterfront and other places Seattleites, especially newcomers, frequent. But it's still pretty gritty along Shilshole Avenue, Nickerson Street, Commodore Way, 15th Avenue — and I'm just mentioning four arterials close to my new home and close to a lot of people who probably never give the "Ballard-Interbay Industrial Area" a second thought except as a way to get to Downtown or the University District. It's even grittier down along the Duwamish.

    At any rate, I'm with you on this one. I love Whole Foods, but I love it where it is. Turn the waterfront into that and I'll go even less than I already do.

    It will be interesting to see if there's anything we can do to truly make the waterfront a “vibrant” place “for all.” I don't know if I've ever really seen bustling non-touristy activity right up on the water's edge. It's always been at least a couple of blocks inland... on the old waterfront. Doesn't mean it doesn't exist — I'm not as well-traveled as I'd like to be — and it doesn't mean we can't try something new. I do hope we succeed.

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

    The best public areas are the ones that grow up organically. Take a look at the Seattle Center. It's been planned to death.

    The Pike Place Market neighborhood, on the other hand, has been build by hundreds of small businesses and is interesting and self-sustaining. When one shop closes, you don't have five years of committee meetings to decide what will replace it. You just let nature (known to economists as The Market) take its course, and soon a new shop will open to replace it.

    With the opening up of the waterfront, Seattle has been given a once in a century chance not to screw something up. It will be hard for Seattle not to screw it up. It's not in Seattle's nature not to screw things up. But if calmer, less meddlesome heads prevail, and a more organic approach can be tolerated in the halls of power, maybe... just maybe... Seattle won't screw this up.

    At least, not too much.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    dbreneman, if you are referring to brain drain that nixed the Seattle Commons proposal, then I agree, we have a knack for screwing things up.

    Mr. Burger says "No question, it is cool stuff. But is it right for Seattle? Is it affordable? Maintainable? Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned Northwest minimalism?"

    1. I would suggest that the once prevalent nativscandinasian minimalist aesthetic in the region has been in remission for quite a while. Jet planes, $4 coffee, software, $500 shoes returnable with a smile and biochemical cures for everything are not timid ideas. The accoutrements that that go with having been the purveyors of “a few big things” for more than half a century are visible everywhere, and speak to a different Seattle than the one that built the current waterfront and dressed it with wooden piers and a concrete freeway. Just look at Ballard.

    2. Speaking of affordable and maintainable, the concrete freeway is going away, the piers should too – or at least a few more of them. They are expensive to maintain, they block our view of the bay and the land beyond, and they are bad for salmon migrating out of the Duwamish River, (yes folks, the Port of Seattle is also a river mouth, with several wild and hatchery salmon runs). If we are going to have a new “waterfront”, let’s have a real waterfront, not a “building front” over the water filled mostly with non-water-dependent uses.

    I agree with some of the sentiments expressed above. With this opportunity to reinvent our front porch, let’s be bold, a little sloppy and true to ourselves – whatever we are now, and more importantly, whatever we are becoming.

    Posted Sat, Dec 29, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    I couldn't disagree more about tearing down the piers. An unobstructed view is fine, but it only lasts a couple minutes, after which people ask "What do we do now?" After all, one could improve the view from the former bluff above the beach by tearing down the Pike Place Market, but again, would would people do? The activities that the businesses in the piers afford are what makes the waterfront vital and interesting, not to mention historic.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 11:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Knute fails to mention the need to restore the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar which has, so far, been omitted from the plans. The design presented to date seems to depend primarily on its direct connectivity to adjacent areas of downtown. What it lacks is enhanced north-south connectivity which the Waterfront Streetcar would provide.

    Also, the Waterfront Streetcar provided a good link between waterfront destinations (and arrival points for cruise ships, etc.) and Pioneer Square and the International District. The decline of Pioneer Square retailing may be due in part to the closure of the Waterfront Streetcar. Restoring the Waterfront Streetcar and extending the line to serve the sports facilities south of Pioneer Square would serve many purposes. It would also honor promises that were made when the Waterfront Streetcar was closed--promises that, so far, have not been kept.

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 1:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    Jeffrey: Would love to see this happen. I think it was terrible the way it was done-in.

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Here is the article on the George Benson Waterfront Streetcars. They need to come back.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    I hope your voice is heard Knute. For all the notoriety and glitz of New York's High Line design, the meaningful part of it is the authenticity of its original purpose and place.
    Most of the big thinking about Seattle's waterfront is linear in a tight corridor running north and south along the seawall. Its confined as if the barrier of viaduct will loom forever. I think your point is that we should rediscover the historic streetways and visual openings that work east and west to tie the downtown to the bay. Pioneer square and the market both anchor the authenticity of the waterfront and explain its underlying narrative.
    An important step in redesigning the waterfront should be rediscovering the evidence of its original design and patterns of purpose. Fussy folds and candy colored condos are well and good but a careful understanding of what we keep from the past might be the most critical thing in getting to a real waterfront in the future.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 7:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    Tell me what is 'authentic' about a groomed outdoor shopping mall with grass along a natural waterfront bay?

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    The folks turning this into a Christmas tree should go ahead and start scaling this back now by $70 to $150 million now in city general funds and voter approved levy funds. If the philanthropy and private sources is tied to the general fund and levy money then you are going to want to take that into account when scaling back.

    Waterfront for All, meet Streets for All.

    Thank god nobody is playing any kind of sport there or the "champions" of this future home for Hempfest would have more than one pie chart loosely describing the funding in the 106 page snow job from last July.

    They already have a LID, that should not only make this self funding but provide a positive return similar to the arena project. Where are the hypocrites for more important things? Why aren't they trolling this use of city tax dollars for private gain?
    Imaging Chris Hansen asking for $85 million dollars straight out of the general fund on top of using the TIF captured at the arena site.
    You'd all blow a freaking gasket.
    Well, somebody other than a Royer tell me how the parts that are not directly connected to rebuilding the sea wall and WSDOT road reconstruction that directly benefited those property owners on the waterfront are the responsibility of the entire city to lard tax money on to.

    Hey, build it in Bellevue.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    a “waterfront for all,”>/i>

    Until it gets walled off by expensive highrise condos, anyway...


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    Mr. Berger's "advice (regarding the Elliott Bay waterfront) is to avoid overthinking it and supersizing it." What perfect advice. But, he did leave out at least one very important adjunct, cost.

    Add to that another of somewhat similar importance - how it will probably lead to the non-replenishment of the Seattle Center and its long-time role as a major destination for recreation and socializing. Here, there should be no question the Seattle Center is a far superior place than the Elliott bay waterfront to spend tax payer's hard found money. It has always been, certainly for half a century, an attractive people oriented gathering spot. It should not be allowed to fall into disrepair or become an orphaned stepchild to the Elliott Bay waterfront, an issue that is certainly in the offing, even if no one of substance cares to recognize it.

    With that as an introduction, consider the following issues along the so-called "waterfront for all".

    1. In the vicinity of The Great Wheel and Piers 62/63, Alaskan Way (from the published Draft EIS data) has an accident rate statistically higher (at P = 0.95) than what may be expected on any city street under typical and normal traffic operations. For short, it is demonstrably today a hazardous route that has absolutely no mitigation offered in the Seawall Draft EIS. Accordingly, under this kind of threat, it should not be programmed to attract any more traffic, absent a remediation plan (of which none is mentioned as of this date).

    2. The available parking supply (2,557 stalls according to the Draft EIS) in that area is "at capacity" (97 percent occupancy on any summer weekend). Unfortunately, again from the Draft EIS, no more additional parking capacity is even on the horizon let alone being seriously considered. A rule of thumb to consider in this regard: if you lack parking capacity, don't invest in any additional activity that generates more parking demand if you have any hope for success.

    3. There are only three transit routes serving the Elliott Bay waterfront and none of them offer transit access to the major heavily populated residential neighborhoods of Seattle.

    4. To continue, the idea that Seattle needs a swimming (barge) pool on the Elliott Bay waterfront, at a price of about $18-20 million, when the city is already served by over a dozen wonderful beaches for both lake and salt water swimming, must rank high in the "extreme stupidity" column. This is assuredly germane when you consider there is (a) no proximate parking and (b) no transit for likely swimmers. Notably, parking and transit is available at all the other places in Seattle from Mathews Beach to Alki and down to Lincoln Park. For short, in terms of (swimming) recreation this is a lousy part of the city to do anything other than empty the pockets of unlucky, captured tourists. Fundamentally, failure to address accident hazard, parking, and transit access is negligent planning at the best.

    5. That piers 62/63 need a new skating rink, when skating rinks went out the proverbial window with the invention of skateboards, is yet another example of what poor thinking the city got for its $6 million contract with the James Corner Field Operations bunch. This also goes for the idea of rain and fog making machines (called "The cloud") proposed near the Union Street pier, so tourists can get soaked in the summer, literally that is. Surely, this implies utter insanity. Tell me, do tourists visiting Seattle come from the desert only and have never experienced rain and fog? Here again we have yet another dim witted idea from the uber elite planners of JCFO who appear to be thinking so far out of the box they forgot to put a lid on it.

    6. To put icing on this half-baked cake of brainless concepts, the idea that you can make an attractive beach down at the other end of the promenade, at the old Washington Street wharf (the Pioneer Square Beach) makes me wonder if anyone on that committee has ever been there. I spent a sleepless and troubled night there when I moored overnight at the old dock some years ago, never to be repeated. What I discovered is that it is the major attraction for drunks, deadbeats, druggies and dealers and is NOT a place for any kind of family recreation, even swimming, unless it is a family of predators out to "roll a drunk" for his cash.

    Next, lets look at the suggested "replacement piers". These are piers 62/63 and the old Union Pier. These are naturally "over the water", as you'd expect. Unfortunately, they are also on top of the juvenile salmonid migratory passage along Elliott Bay which, as a consequence, now implies some sort of design to allow natural light to get through the piers. How odd is it to propose the rebuilding and expansion of over-the-water structures when you are also proposing to enhance salmon migratory routes that are not compatible with such structures? Did no one read SMC 25.09.60 to see how it all fits into any scheme for critical shoreline habitat? And, what is the price of all this, assuming the left hand knows what the right is doing?

    The unfortunate part of the whole Elliott Bay seawall fandango is that money is no object, so it seems. Here is an example for your consideration.

    The new seawall built in the marina at Des Moines, at it north end, designed to meet all current earthquake standards in identical soils as found along Elliott Bay and extending to the same depth, came in at some $6,626 per lineal foot, including tie-backs, caps, fencing, lighting, pedestrian amenities and road and utility repair. Applying that price to the Elliott Bay seawall project the total cost would be $48 million for all of it from S. Washington Street to Broad Street. Compare that to the Alternative B seawall cost at $680 million and you can see how poorly the Seattle taxpayer is being treated. Of course, the chosen alternative, costing $562 million, is not that much better, either. A tenfold price increase should raise alarms.

    Now you can see why last November's $290 million bond proposal was so unreasonable. It is a pity no Value Engineering Study, mandated by OMB Circular No. A-131, over the signature of Leon Panetta by the way, was even given a moment's thought.

    Is it too late?

    I hope not.

    Christopher Brown, P.E.


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 7:05 p.m. Inappropriate

    It will end up being a big shopping center, a place to spend money and eat, surrounded by beautful Elliott Bay and alchoholics and drug addicts, who are often homeless.

    The mallization of America continues, even outdoors.

    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

    I recently had the pleasure of riding in The Big Wheel and from that vantage point it was very easy to imagine the waterfront without the viaduct. You will have your gritty back. The faces exposed to the water will be the blank, windowless faces of warehouses - you know, the kind of buildings that belong on waterfronts.

    That is, until they are all sold, torn down, and something too expensive for most of us replaces them. Then our city will be walled off from the waterfront by condos and hotels instead of the viaduct. And that will be better how?

    I absolutely agree with seebee on several points:
    What? No additional parking? Then no point in additional attractions.
    What? No additional transit? Then this isn't for locals, is it?
    - to chime in with JeffreyOchsner the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar should return. Keep existing promises before making new ones.
    What? A swimming pool? Are you nuts? Who would swim in it? All those families moving downtown perhaps.
    What? A skating rink? Are you nuts? Have you not seen skating rinks going out of business?
    What? A swimming beach? Are you nuts? Have you never been there?

    I want the government to create public resources for the public's use and benefit. So where is the parking and transit which the public wants and needs? Why squander money on the likes of a pool, a beach, and a skating rink that the public cannot or will not use?


    Posted Fri, Dec 28, 10:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe it's not really for "all".

    Mr Baker

    Posted Sat, Dec 29, 6:36 a.m. Inappropriate

    This response is to coolpapa's comment "a skating rink? Are you nuts? Have you not seen skating rinks going out of business?" and sebee's comment "...when skating rinks went out the proverbial window with the invention of skateboards."

    What rinks are you referring to? There are only a handful in the entire Puget Sound area, and as any figure skater, hockey player, or recreational skater will tell you, this is far below the demand.

    Why not build an outdoor rink on the waterfront? Freeze it for a few months in the winter, then allow street hockey, bike polo, futsal, etc. in the warmer months. These activities seem gritty enough to belong on the waterfront.

    The rink could also be used for a weekly farmers market or a myriad of other activities that could benefit from a defined, enclosed space.

    If Seattle is able to acquire an NHL team, the dire need for rinks will be even more pronounced.


    Posted Sat, Dec 29, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    Very good piece. They made the first mistake when they hired the out-of-town
    star designer (he'd been a star for at least a year, relatively old timer). Lack of money might actually do the project some good.


    Posted Mon, Dec 31, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    "A waterfront for all"? What a joke! The viaduct provides great views for everyone who chooses to drive across it, for free. But the viaduct has to be torn down to improve the views from the adjoining condos and office suites, which are only accessible to the few. Just like the Kingdome had to be torn down because its architecture was too democratic (Forget the roof tiles, its lack of luxury box suites is what did it in!), the tunnel project is just there to make Seattle less liveable for people making less than $100000 per year! Oh, there will be a few token bones thrown to "the poor" to stanch the liberal heart from bleeding too much (and to help shore up Seattle's 'liberal' self-image), but the message to its local middle-class folks is clear: Get out!

    Posted Mon, Dec 31, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Alaskan Way boulevard design for 13 stoplights between Pike & King Streets will produce gridlock, frustrated motorists and a high accident rate as traffic triples from today's 12,000 to 36,000 vehicles daily. Motorists who don't find a parking space on Western or side streets are forced back into the thru-traffic. The Waterfront Streetcar could be ideal, but there is next to no provision for transit north/south nor east into town. Alaskan Way will not be a place for motorists, transit users, pedestrians nor bicyclists to enjoy. The plaza space will highlight the traffic and include plenty of makeshift and permanent parking lots and spots.

    When predicted earthquakes hit and unstable soils surrounding the bore tunnel are thrust toward the surface, undermining building foundations, cracking facades, vulnerable historic buildings will be condemned and replacements face the same destablization and eventual condemnation. Seattle is doomed. The entire west edge building stock will one day collapse because of the bore tunnel destabilizing affect. Seattlers elect miscreants. The traffic nightmare is intentional.


    Posted Mon, Jan 7, 12:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    Everett & surrounding areas sure looks good. Cheap land, commuter train, close to Bothell UW campus, several community colleges, Payne Field, Whidbey and Camano Islands, Boeing jobs, a nice Port, industrial land just begging for a new owner ...

    Why put up with Seattle any longer? The Sounder train runs to Mariners Saturday games are great.

    Posted Mon, Jan 7, 12:11 a.m. Inappropriate


    I read this "The gritty past is gone. If you want to get a sense of old seaport Seattle, check out the 1973 film Cinderella Liberty, about a sailor on leave here. The new concept of a waterfront “for all” is commendable; a greener, safer, more open waterfront with better connections to the rest of the city is a good thing. But my advice is to avoid overthinking it and supersizing it. Make room for some chaos, serendipity and flexibility; for the unexpected good ideas that spring up without the need for public subsidy. I look forward to seeing the spirit of entrepreneurs like Ivar, attractions like the Big Wheel and gimmicks like the go-fishing-from-your-window Edgewater emerge for the next generation."

    Then, I think to myself ... when gritty Seattle goes, so do good jobs. What will be left will be the further defeat of our society into simply being with purpose to shop, to consume. And at night, the drugs, alcohol and criminal element show up to add a little flavor to the new way of life in Seattle.

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