All the right-thinking folks are lining up against Speaker Frank Chopp's proposal for a new kind of viaduct on the Seattle waterfront, now dubbed a "parkway," though I still like the clunky name Choppaduct. The idea, you'll recall, is for a mammoth new structure with retail on the ground floor, offices above that, a four or six-lane highway 99 on the next level, and a mile-long park on the top.
Chopp is about the least likely advocate for this idea you could imagine. He's secretive. He doesn't much like Seattle politicians or Seattle's talk-things-to-oatmeal style of decision making. He killed an earlier consensus dream of a tunnel surmounted by a park. He's potent, and he's not afraid to behave that way. He's gruff, not anybody's idea of an urban designer. Nobody in Seattle wants to do him any favors.
Author aside, the Choppaduct is the sort of idea that would make bigger cities pretty excited; and it may be that some elements of the notion could be incorporated in Seattle. Consider what's happening in New York City. This spring, the first section of a park on top of an old railway trestle, called the High Line, will open in the West Chelsea area of Manhattan. It will run for 22 blocks, from Gansvoort Street to 34th St, affording great views of the Hudson River as well as lots of grit and graffiti on the buildings it snakes past. (Second phase, to the north, opens in 2010.) The park is 30 feet in the air, compared to Chopp's park at about 55 feet.
As a story in The New York Times makes clear, the project is attracting name architects and developers like crazy, "prompting some of the most ambitious development in the city in years." Diller Scofidio + Renfro is designing the park. Jean Nouvel is designing a 21-story residential tower. Polshek Partnership Architects is designing an 18-story hotel that stradddles the High Line. At the south end, Renzo Piano is designing a new branch of the Whitney Museum. And did I mention the project including low-income units? Learn more about the design, especially through the video.
New York has a confident urbanism, weaving open space in and around old buildings, utilitarian girders, and even some surviving rail tracks. Paris is the same way, and its version is called the Promenade Plantee. Seattle prefers a soft urbanism, along the lines of Portland's grassy Riverfront Park (a kind of Seattle Center pulled into a long ribbon). Even Chopp's drawings show the kind of genteel promenading that might go well in Redmond.
So, could we import some of these ideas, making a more unusual and many-minded kind of space down on our waterfront? One step would be to move the Choppaduct eastward, so it butts up snugly against some of the old warehouses along Western Avenue, bringing them into the elevated urbanscape. Another notion is to make all this happen at the north end of the central waterfront, using Pike Place Market as the entry point to a maze of new buildings, a park lid, and connections to the funky older buildings along Western.
But things like this don't happen if you leave the planning to the transportation experts, which is what we've done while the politicians stay in their foxholes. You would have to hold a competition among some of the top design firms in the world and the Northwest. Then we might start visualizing a different kind of space and neighborhood — as happened notably with Olympic Sculpture Park — and a unique set of solutions that would inspire us to create something new, not generic.