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Waterfront park design needs a dose of reality

Artists' conception of the Seattle waterfront. Credit: City of Seattle

What is it with architects and designers? When it comes to art, they all turn into propagandists of the worst type. It seems to be impossible for them to give the public a realistic idea of how their concepts will actually look and feel. Everything comes bathed in the glowing light and vivid colors of a Thomas Kinkade painting — or worse, the triumphal "art" we associate with places like North Korea.

I think of North Korea's pavilion at the world's fair in Shanghai in 2010. It's slogan: "Paradise of People." The country was portrayed as a place where the fountains were filled — I kid you not — with dancing cherubs. Everyone is pink, plump and happy.

Frankly, it's not unlike the view we have from images of the proposed Seattle waterfront makeover. On the new Seattle waterfront, it's always sunny, t-shirt weather. The skies are blue, the winds gentle, every day is Bumbershoot.

The new public waterfront teems with life. People are dancing, musicians play in the plazas, we're even swimming and hot-tubbing on a floating party barge. The people are plastic too — cutouts or place-holders walking, sitting or having fun under the orders of the invisible hand of the master designer. There is no surprise, little real diversity. The streets are expunged of street people, panhandlers, fat people, troublemakers, Wal-Mart shoppers, Ducks. At the new waterfront, it's always San Diego in Seattle.

Everything is new, new, new. History had been polished away. So too the natural environment, which seems composed mostly of non-native trees plucked from the nearest City People's.

Such pictures are standard practice, but they edge toward malpractice. Our designers should create places that will work on our worst days — or at least on the normal rainy, chilly days. Windy, rainy, cloudy is our most frequent weather trio. What will the waterfront look like in January, or Juneuary?

Reality, I think, is important to portray. Get beyond the sales job. The waterfront is too important to be a real estate ad.

This makeover is going to cost (insert Carl Sagan’s voice here) millions and millions of dollars and require ongoing public subsidies. Give us a realistic glimpse of how things might look as it ages out a bit — easily done with computers — so we can see what it looks like in maturity. That's important because not everything ages well. Sure, paint a great vision, but bring us back to earth too.

If I were waterfront czar, I’d demand a realistic portrayal of the design, as well as one of the huge makeover it will inevitably need in 25 years — everything that went wrong and how we’ll fix it.

Freeway Park is an example. Considered by many to be an international gem of landscape architecture, it has experienced the inevitable problems that come with age: The waterfalls were turned off, the trees overgrew, some parts of the park became dark and downright scary. Freeway Park was a brilliant idea, but any park must be judged by its worst days as well as its best, how it meets the challenges of reality and time.

Seattle Center has been a constant work in progress. Westlake needs help, we all know that. The struggle to keep urban public spaces vital, safe and appealing, rather than appalling is really hard work. I think it might be less hard if we designed spaces that we didn’t  fall in love with because of the brochure.

I understand that we're easily delighted by new ideas and distracted by shiny baubles (a gondola!). But, we can also deal with facts. Designers need to stop giving us sun-soaked cherubs and show us some Rain City citizens; convey the scent of sea and mildew, not just cotton candy. Show us a public waterfront that feels like it was made for where we really live and the people who really live here.

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