The city's remake of the central waterfront is moving ahead. In March, the Seattle Department of Transportation released a refined design. The current budget for the project is around $1.07 billion dollars, which includes the seawall and the surface highway. But now that the design is 30 percent complete, SDOT is recalculating. The agency expects to have an updated budget total by mid-year.
I doubt that the new figure will be lower.
Already the seawall project is some $30 million more than anticipated and the makeover will likely run into new challenges here and there. Then there is the potential impact of the long Bertha delay. Not only does that draw out the timeline for the project but repairing the broken tunnel boring machine might complicate seawall work. For example, this fall traffic will need to be diverted around the area near Colman Dock where the rescue pit work for Bertha will be underway. That could create a bottleneck or conflicting needs.
The Bertha situation raises a lot of questions, not the least of which comes from Lynn Peterson, head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, who said this week that she couldn't guarantee that Bertha could complete the job. If the tunnel had to go back to the drawing board, well, a lot that's contingent upon it would be up for grabs.
On April 29, the Seattle Channel devoted an episode of its "Seattle Speaks" program to a Town Hall forum on the waterfront project. I served as a panel member, apparently the designated skeptic of the plans. One thing became clear during that 74 minutes of TV: There are a number of seeming contradictions in the way people speak and think about the waterfront plan. Here are a few I've noted.
Infrastructure vs. Amenity
When proponents discuss the waterfront plan, its purpose always sounds lofty. A "Central Park" for Seattle. A "front porch" for the city. A "waterfront for all" that is first and foremost a beautiful park. Yet when these aspects of the project are questioned, supporters quickly remind skeptics that no, this isn’t really about amenities, but about infrastructure: a necessary new seawall, for example, which will cost around $330 million, and a state highway. Some traffic diverts to the tunnel, but a lot of cars will be moving along the waterfront. In other words, there's a tension between the waterfront project's park-i-ness and its functionality as a major surface thoroughfare.
Artist's rendering: Looking north from S. King Street.
In some ways, it's a highway disguised as a park. Designers have tried to hide the roadways with phalanxes of cherry trees and a partial lid. People seem more willing to pay for infrastructure, so when talking cost, the waterfront makeover is pitched as strictly practical. But amenities — certainly captured in the design's emphasis on play areas, amphitheaters, porch swings, sculptures, a floating pool, an ice rink, etc. — are used consistently as a major selling point.
Public vs. Private
Seattle city planning director Marshall Foster is adamant that this is a public project and he shies away from any suggestions of privatization of the waterfront right-of-way that the city will have. Yet, there is concern already about a trend toward increased private and commercial use of park properties. In addition, adjacent businesses will be self-taxed, via an improvement district. That revenue will pay part of the project's cost, thus businesses will have a vested interest. Project reps also suggested at the forum that private sponsorships or donations might cover things like the cost of the floating pool barge. So don't be surprised to see naming rights, corporate funding and private contractors being considered when it comes to running the waterfront park.
Everyone recognizes the waterfront's enormous economic and commercial consequence. But the dimensions of its nine-acres and complex design promise a high maintenance public space, one that will require constant "activation" (meaning: lots of activities and events). Bottom line: Long-term care of the new waterfront will require extensive, ongoing private investment of one kind or another.
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