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Seattle’s waterfront: Visions of hottubs & gardens, but where’s the cash?

There would be viewing platforms that reveal vistas of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. And cantilevered walkways made partially from glass, which would transmit sunlight to migrating salmon as they travel along the bay’s seawall. A small beach would extend west from Pioneer Square, with water lapping the nearby sidewalk at high tide. 

These are a few of the details in the latest “schematic design” for a Seattle waterfront park and open space that would stretch 26 blocks from the Stadium District to Belltown and, according to the Department of Planning and Development, provide about 20 new acres of city park space. The park’s designer, James Corner, presented his plan for the space to an audience of several hundred people at Seattle Center on Wednesday. The design is about 30 percent complete and should be mostly finished by 2015, said Department of Planning and Development planning director, Marshall Foster.

The project could fundamentally transform Seattle’s waterfront. But hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed to pay for the proposed park remain unsecured. Building the park will also hinge on the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The overpass is set to be torn down in 2016, shortly after the new Highway 99 Tunnel is scheduled to open. The tunnel project, however, is on hold for at least six months while the lead contractor repairs the machine digging the underground roadway.

The park would cap a multi-billion effort to remake the waterfront, which involves not only swapping the viaduct for the tunnel, but also replacing the Elliott Bay Seawall and rebuilding the surface road on Alaskan Way. 

The cold realities of public finance and broken boring machines aside, the design offers a sweeping contrast to the downtown waterfront as it is today, separated from the rest of the city by the viaduct and the din of traffic flowing on top of the structure.

“For 50 years now we've been looking through a crumbly, deteriorating double-deck freeway, and we've been fenced off from our waterfront,” said Jean Godden, who chairs a City Council committee that oversees waterfront issues. “It's time that we had a front door to our city.”

Corner believes that the front door designed by his team reflects the city. 

“A lot of things we’re doing here we wouldn’t do on another waterfront,” he said. At one point during his presentation he called the design “peculiar to Seattle.”

The design, Corner said, tries to avoid “chintzy,” or “ritzy” devices, and strives to provide a “tough” and “pragmatic” place for strolling, viewing, biking and exercising. The designer’s firm, James Corner Field Operations, also led-up the design of New York’s High Line park, which is set atop an old railroad bridge, near the Hudson River in lower Manhattan.

There are nuanced flourishes. For instance, terrazzo concrete surfaces, embedded with small stones taken from the shores of Puget Sound. And “tabled” crosswalks, matched to the height of curbsides, which would prevent pedestrians from having to step down into the street. Wooden swings would provide a place to sit while taking in the panorama of Elliott Bay. There would be hanging vines, fir trees and 5-foot-tall tufts of swaying grass.

A proposed viewing platform would extend west from Union Street, over Alaskan Way. Image: City of Seattle

There are also grander highlights. One is a viewing terrace at the west end of Union Street, which would extend like a diving board over Alaskan Way, providing a perspective reminiscent of the one from the Viaduct. Another is a half-inch deep rectangular pool that would reflect the city skyline and, according to Corner, enable “people to take off their shoes and socks and get their feet wet.” The pool would be bordered to the east by massive "sea stack" boulders and water jets spraying mist.

And there’s the overlook walkway, an elevated span of esplanades and gardens, which would cross Alaskan Way, connecting Pike Place Market with the Seattle Aquarium.

North of the aquarium, a barge with hot tubs and two pools could be docked next to Pier 62. The barge could also act as a stage for concert performances.

There would be 36-foot wide sidewalks and 12-foot wide cycle tracks, along with spaces for movable tables and chairs that would provide a “European flair.”

“The priority must always be, this is a public space, for public use,” Corner said.

The park would also be an expensive space. The best available cost estimate is from the Central Waterfront Committee’s 2012 Strategic Plan, which shows that $420 million in additional funding would be needed to complete the project.

The strategic plan estimates that between $200 million and $300 million of that money could be generated through a “local improvement district.” Under that arrangement, waterfront property owners who see their property values rise because of the park would pay a levy for a set number of years that would help cover some of the project’s costs.

The plan identifies “philanthropy” as a source for $80 million to $120 million. Stepping in to try raising that money is a group called “Friends of Waterfront Seattle,” which recently began work on an endowment for the park. Other potential sources of funding included in the strategic plan are $15 million to $85 million from the city’s general fund and bond issues, and $55 million to $65 million from a nine-year citywide property tax increase.

Sidewalks in some parts of the park could be up to 36-feet wide. Image: City of Seattle

Jared Smith, Central Waterfront Program Director, at the city’s Office of Policy and Innovation, said that updated cost estimates for the park would be released sometime in the next few months. Analysts in the City Budget Office and Department of Financial and Administrative Services, he said, are working on the details for a waterfront local improvement district proposal. The proposal would require City Council approval.

Godden said that it’s possible that the council could authorize the district by the end of the year. Asked if he thought that timeframe was realistic, Smith said, “I doubt it.”

Bob Donegan, president and CEO of Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants and Chowder, which has an iconic restaurant located on Pier 54, said that while waterfront businesses generally support the park, he couldn’t comment on the local improvement district until he knows more details. "We love the idea the idea of the park,” he said. “We know nothing about the LID.”

Overall, the seawall replacement, viaduct demolition and park space construction will cost nearly $1.1 billion. DPD's Foster points out that much of this cost covers urgent public safety needs. The viaduct and seawall are both considered at risk of failure in the event of a strong earthquake. The state is footing the $290 million bill for viaduct demolition and the new Alaskan Way surface street as part of the overall tunnel and viaduct replacement project. The city is paying for the seawall replacement and three pier rebuilds with a $290 million voter-approved bond.

For Foster there’s another element in play beyond the safety factors.

“Seattle is changing,” he said, adding that the city is diversifying, growing and increasingly becoming a city that lives in core urban neighborhoods. “This open space is a critically needed piece of our city.”

One item that Corner is having a hard time envisioning in that open space is a gondola. On Tuesday, a company that owns the Great Wheel, a Ferris wheel located at Pier 57, announced plans to build a gondola along Union Street between the Washington State Convention Center and the waterfront, right through the heart of the proposed park. The city would need to sign off on the gondola plan.

“We really believe it’s important to have people on the street,” Corner said, adding that he was concerned about the aesthetics of the gondola’s loading platform. But Corner also emphasized that, “It’s not just about making something that looks good.”

“What makes a public space great,” he said, “is the spectacle of people.”

Maggie Walker, co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee, which advises the mayor and the City Council on issues related to improvements in the area, said that the group would focus on whether the proposed park could be realistically operated, funded and maintained, while also meeting the needs of users that will include tourists, cyclists and pedestrians.

"You can design something that looks great but doesn't function," she said. "There's a lot that needs to be tested going forward."

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