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On the waterfront plan – contradictions abound

People ogling the waterfront makeover model at a public forum on the project. Credit: Courtesy City of Seattle

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.

How to manage the waterfront, says city council member Sally Clark, is an open question, but one thing under discussion is the creation of a separate waterfront development authority. In short, the new waterfront as envisioned is not some isolated urban park or wild area. It's a fully integrated, complex commercial landscape; a public-private partnership, albeit an unofficial one, and that could be a very slippery slope.

Waterfront for All vs. the Elite

I've criticized the waterfront vision for not being "Seattle" enough. Others have used words like Disney or Bellevue to describe the look. The fact is, much of the waterfront will be brand new — and the designs don't even show the massive private development that is expected to go up once the viaduct comes down. And who will be living in the "new" Seattle that will evolve in the wake of the waterfront's makeover? Likely, some very wealthy people, not those waiting around for their $15 an hour wage.

With the exception of the Pike Place Market's waterfront-related expansion plan, which will add 40 units of low income senior housing to the area, there’s no reason to expect a lot of moderately-priced or low-income housing along the water. The city is providing transportation connections, walkability, bikeability and open space, but developers will do the rest. I expect most of the waterfront's new residents will be professional and well-to-do.

Whether the newcomers can ever be persuaded to embrace the touristy and grittier parts of the waterfront remains to be seen. But if you look at the architectural renderings, you don't see people of color or ethnic minorities or panhandlers. As one observer noted, you don't even see "people from Lynnwood." Will there really be an "all" in our "waterfront for all"? Will there just be a lot of rich residents and cruise ship passengers?


Artists's rendering. Courtesy: City of Seattle

There's Still Time for Input vs. Uh, We'll Study That

The waterfront redo has discussed ad infinitum. Many people have attended meetings and briefings, and rendered their opinions. You hear two messages in the official discussion. One is an invitation to join the process and start going to meetings. Fair enough. The other, which seems to come up every time an idea is broached, implies that things are too far along for major modifications. Are the waterfront trolleys coming back? That question gets you a "gee, we'll sure study that," which is the classic "Seattle No." (According to Marshall Foster, waterfront planners will more likely advocate sticking an old trolley or two on the proposed 1st Ave. streetcar line.)

Noticeably missing from the plan is anything relating to local tribes — no Native American art or recognition of the heritage of the site before Henry Yesler built his mill. At the forum, representatives from the Muckleshoot and the Duwamish complained that they hadn't been consulted (the Suquamish had). The current plans emphasize modern art, but not traditional heritage. The gondola proposal is another complication, a fun idea that elicits eyeball rolls from waterfront planners because it's not in the plan. The message is simple, if unspoken: Stuff that isn't in the plan but doesn't really change the plan is okay to talk about, the rest must be skillfully avoided or ignored. Not a great way to get people involved. I have talked to a number of local architects who have been disillusioned with the whole design process.

My sense is that people generally support the idea of making the waterfront better, more accessible, greener and more attractive. They get that it benefits the whole city and feel generally positive about the idea. The seawall ballot measure passed big, as did the tunnel option. Still, many people remain unfamiliar with the complicated specifics and the costs.

People attending the forum seemed to agree that the waterfont redo, as currently conceived, lacks a kind of genuine Seattle sense-of-place. Marshall Foster admits that it keeps him up at night. Let's hope the Seattle-ness of Seattle's waterfront doesn't get lost in the shuffle or the contradictions of the project.

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