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The waxing and waning of Seattle's waterfront plan

There are things to love in James Corner's latest, but also plenty of room for editing.

Last Wednesday, James Corner Field Operations rolled out the latest thinking for Seattle’s urban waterfront. Occasionally, there were flashes of brilliance. At other times, just a big collective shrug.

There were changes to this draft. A big green space that would have sprawled across Pier 48 was marked mainly by its absence. (Apparently, any project involving that pier will have to wait for an initiative by the State Department of Transportation, which owns it.) A big urban beach south of the ferry terminal has been replaced by a smaller, more realistic rock outcropping — the perfect perch for watching the ebb and flow of the tide. 

Further north, Union Street has been ingeniously extended westward as an elevated overlook for pedestrians.

The cantilevered structure, at the same elevation as First Avenue, resembles a long tongue rolling out from the top of a bluff. It's an idea that might have been inspired by Seattle's own history: Until the 80s, downtown streets that had previously soared over the tracks and touched down on piers were severed and left as protruding, orphaned pieces of the street grid.

The terribly-dated semicircle of a waterfront park at the foot of Union Street has been replaced by a grand platform, where children and adults can cavort about in a shallow reflecting pool and an array of vertical water jets.

This is a simple but elegant idea to engage people with water when interacting with the actual bay would not be practical or safe.

The one odd, superfluous note here: A collection of mist-emitting sea stack-inspired vertical rocks. We already get plenty of mist in our weather. No need to make up more.

North of the Aquarium, Piers 62/63 are a long, angled public plaza — a sensible plan for accommodating events, performances and celebrations.

Back in the 90s, Seattleites road-tested the piers as a concert venue when they played host to Summer Nights at the Pier. Music, water, sunsets. Needless to say, we loved it. (Let's just hope that the Seattle Aquarium, once again embarking on its own expansion plans, doesn't consume geography that would shrink the public spaces envisioned by Corner’s team.)

Just inland of the piers, a see-sawing arrangement of walkways and terraces would link the waterfront to Pike Place Market. This idea, supported by the market, would allow easy walking between two of Seattle's great places.

This big and quirky front porch, cascading down from our precious public market to the water’s edge (well, almost), holds the greatest promise of all the parts of this plan.

Still, some significant editing is called for. I would start with the west side of the roadway, where a continuous planting strip drenched in plants is proposed.

Wouldn’t a dense wall of vegetation obstruct views of the water from the east side of the street? The initial cost of such a long, slender botanical garden would be immense, not to mention the ongoing (and formidable) maintenance costs. Even Barcelona's active, elegant esplanade, with its more commodious climate, isn't packed with plants.

The continuing notion of a barge tied up alongside Piers 62/63, containing a public swimming pool and hot tubs on a raised fantail, is also troubling.

With a number of fine, well-loved year-round public swimming pools in the region, adding another – especially one that would require a covering 3/4 of the year -- seems ill-advised. (Imagine a retractable roof like a small Safeco Field: It's not a pretty picture.)

These kinds of public pools require large, expensive infrastructure: Pumping systems, water treatment, showers and changing rooms, not to speak of continuous, labor-intensive maintenance. Seattle's other public shoreline natatoriums were long-ago banished by changing health codes and public investments in other community pools. Really, its time to let go of the water barge.

In the southern segment, Alaskan Way resembles a surface freeway with multiple lanes, some of which are for local traffic, others for ferry queuing. Corner’s plan shows planted medians and parallel rows of street trees to soften the impact of all that paving. Call it “Mercer South” perhaps.  It remains to be seen if this wide stretch of roadway can be crossed comfortably on foot.

That will be important too if our waterfront is to look anything like Corner's renderings -- in which the Seattle waterfront is not just eternally sunny, but perplexingly packed with people participating in an alarming number of activities. The sheer intensity feels like New York or Hong Kong, with millions of more inhabitants and visitors milling about.

The best part of Wednesday's meeting was discovering the tiny chicken n’ waffles food truck on the way out. I wolfed down a tasty treat while standing in the rain, water streaming off my umbrella onto the water-logged pavement. Something I might be doing sometime in the future on the waterfront. That is unless we can fit some more glass-covered pavilions into the plan. 

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner at a Seattle architecture firm. He was an architecture critic for "The Seattle Times" and is the author of many articles and books, including "Citistate Seattle" (1999). He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 6:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Great comments as I would expect from Mark. I am alarmed at the omission of the George Benson Streetcar line. It was one of our greatest waterfront attractions until it was taken out by the art museum sculpture park. The historic Melbourne W2 cars are still here, in well-protected storage.

With all that real estate freed up by removing the viaduct, they can't find 20 feet to devote to track restoration? If the waterfront plan is going to succeed, our beloved streetcar line must be restored.

We have to do better than the current lame idea of a rubber-tired shuttle bus. Metro tried that when they substituted the Route 99 bus after the historic streetcars were shut down, and ridership plummeted. Now they want to repeat that mistake? Just makes no sense.

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Alaskan Way layout includes streetcar lines (2-tracks) in the Left-lanes with median stations at Marion, Spring, Pike, Bell, Vine & Broad. The line runs east on Yesler, south on 1st Ave. To minimize station footprint and improve access, low-floor streetcars are recommended. The main ferry queue is south of Yesler(no problem), and from the north, the ferry queue will be an extra curb lane. The problem is how stopped streetcars will affect Alaskan Way traffic, expected to triple from average 12,000 vehicles to 35,000 daily. One could argue that Alaskan Way traffic will be gridlocked with or without the streetcar.

Wells

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

There have been several articles about the waterfront plan this last week, since Corner was in town to
present his latest designs. The plan, naturally, must continue to be modified, as changes to the overall development of the area come into play. Several pundits have poo-pooed the barge swimming pool as frivolous and costly. But a summer, uncovered, heated salt water pool in West Seattle is a city gem, and has been running for 70 years. Having something like that at the edge of the waterfront seems like a draw. Using up space for a summer only activity might not be wise, but perhaps a simple cover, rather than an expensive, retractable one (a clear flat plane?) would extend this into year round use.
Trying to establish some kind of greenery, or a greenway, on the waterfront also seems crucial, to prevent the whole area from being another concrete jungle. What that landscaping might be is surely negotiable, the plantings on the Highline in NYC aren't particularly fancy, but are very effective. I think we should allow Corners team the opportunity to be creative now, while they can, before we cut off the ideas at the knees.

gmgd

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Mark,
This plan is sophomoric at best. Best to cut and run.
In the history of the central waterfront, we have done nothing but push the shoreline farther and farther out to sea, primarily for shipping activities, but now for what? Seems like the waterfront is looking for a use that never was. and justifying it with petty snippets of public expenditures, pubic landscaping, barges and more hard surfaces that ever existed before, is just a waste of public dollars.
We are quietly giving up the one world class item that Seattle presently has, an eye popping panoramic view of our urban setting and gorgeous backdrops, the view from the Viaduct. And if you think replacing that with a tongue-like extension of a street end, then the deal is done.

The blind leading the blind.

Shameful.

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Couldn't agree more, and isn't the proposed gondola (which I think is even more truly absurd that the "great wheel") wanting to go down Union?

So does it go over, through, around this weird tongue thing? And I think that's an absurd idea as well. Wasn't all the whining about "reconnecting" the city to its waterfront? How does that idea accomplish such a thing--not that I ever thought the whole reconnecting trope was a truth, either.

Looks like everybody and his/her developer want to get in and add some clutter to the waterfront. And it's just going to serve the tourists it serves now, and probably get less maintenance. Plus, how will the wall of condos to come affect "reconnecting?"

Look how bleak the north end of the waterfront is. Now add a huge freeway running through, subtract most plantings, no doubt to aid in "reconnecting," and what's created is the north end of the waterfront. No thanks.

mspat

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Worse. It's the stupid leading the stupider.

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the great article Mark.

As a downtown resident I agree with much of your commentary on the waterfront, especially your comment about the fact that "we already get plenty of mist in our weather. No need to make up more".

I do however agree with GMGD's comment on the pool barge. I think this is one of the few instances where the designers got it right. If heated, this is something I would use on a regular basis.

Hello

Posted Wed, Mar 12, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

I've been watching this for awhile, anxious to see if an urban designer or team thereof could come up with a creative, inspiring vision. I've grown tired of our plan by committee approach, a cornerstone of the Seattle Process. I wondered: Could we go back to the planner as architect and see if an internal creative process could produce something grand. Mr hinshaw's comments make me think that what we have received is baubles on a tree.

Here we are, paying a fortune to free up the waterfront from a freeway, and for this? For a pool? For landscaping? For spray jets? For mist?
I love the waterfront for its authenticity and the homespun corniness that fits with the market.
We keep the finger piers, we creat active and passive places, exposed and protected, all linked year around. We have the the water and mountains. All we need are places to experience life, there, on the waterfront.

neonative

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 7:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's put a park on the viaduct! http://www.parkmyviaduct.org

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I would rather see a covered hockey rink on the waterfront.

Seattle is on the cusp of being granted a NHL expansion team. The city also has a very high rate of participation in adult recreation leagues.

A covered rink would be used year-round (unlike a pool). Lunchtime games for people working downtown would become very popular and can be quite fun to watch for the casual observer. The paved rink could even become an ice-skating rink in the wintertime (can you imagine skating around on the waterfront with the Olympic Mountains in the backdrop? Now that is world-class).

The rink could be used by any demographic, young or old, skinny or fat, so I'm not sure if James Corner can represent it properly.

I think this would be a fun and creative use of the space.

jeffro

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Is this for real? How are all of these crowds of people shown in these images supposed to get there? Paying $30 for parking (not to mention potential tolls and the absurd cost of gas) to walk in these areas is not enough of a draw to get me to come over from the east side.
How about adding a dose of reality to these schemes...huh?

GaryBB

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 3:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Mark writes, "Back in the 90s, Seattleites road-tested the piers as a concert venue when they played host to Summer Nights at the Pier. Music, water, sunsets. Needless to say, we loved it."

And just what happened to those extremely popular summer concerts at the piers???

And just what happened to the extremely popular trolleys that are now in storage???

And just what happened to the extremely popular 'free bus zone' in downtown Seattle???

Posted Sun, Mar 16, 5:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Where is the monument to "Bertha"? Billions wasted, worse transportation, yet another homeless encampment site. Lovely.

animalal

Posted Sun, Mar 16, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps Bertha could be best immortalized by moving the Hammering Man next to her, and into forever, he can hammer, hammer, hammer to try to gain her freedom.

Posted Sun, Mar 16, 7:20 a.m. Inappropriate

We are seeing "Disney" because the moneyed interests will have ahold of the ultimate decisions. There is too much to be made by current owners for the choice to be something sedate and tasteful. We will likely have our "public process", but that will have little influence on what gets picked.

A key item should, indeed, be the waterfront streetcar to connect the Olympic Sculture Park with at least the southern end of the waterfront or International District. Further, the price should be twenty-five cents, possibly fifty to allow easy transit by families from the Aquarium to park or I-District. Make it easy to get around. Go for volume and subsidize the rest. However, I am skeptical we will see the return of a people's streetcar because the powers-that-be demonstrated long ago that they have little desire for a streetcar.

If you want to have a neighborhood waterfront, people are going to have to participate in droves and speak loudly before the back room crystallizes control of the design elements that, of course, THEY know we all ACTULLY want.

slame

Posted Sun, Mar 16, 6:14 p.m. Inappropriate

By George! If they build this massive waterfront park, put a dome on it too, and make every day a sunny day in Seattle!

We can easily afford this.

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