The Seattle waterfront: Our new front porch
by Knute Berger
Waterfront concept design, near the Aquarium. Credit: 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.
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