Waterfront rumble: Where new Seattle confronts old Seattle

Can the industries that built Seattle survive in the new Seattle with its push for an upscale new urbanism? We better hope so, but Seattle's working class roots could easily slip away.
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The Port of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

Can the industries that built Seattle survive in the new Seattle with its push for an upscale new urbanism? We better hope so, but Seattle's working class roots could easily slip away.

There has been a lot of talk about the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project, and how we create a waterfront for all. While these discussions rightfully focus on costs, they should also address how we might create the best public spaces for all our citizens.

All these questions are also on the front lines of a bigger discussion: Can the industries that built Seattle survive in the new Seattle along with our concern for the environment and a push for an upscale new urbanism? I offer a resounding, yes. In fact, the soul of our city depends on it.

First, we need to understand what we have.

Seattle'ꀙs waterfront is unlike any other on the West Coast and maybe the United States. We often compare our waterfront to Portland or San Francisco. There really is no comparison. Neither Portland nor San Francisco has the mix of transportation, industry, and recreation we are so lucky to have.

Consider the diversity and economic power of our waterfront: We have marine container terminals, the main terminus for the largest ferry system in the world, ship building and repair, and the BNSF Seattle International Gateway, where containers are loaded to move to Chicago and points east.

We have a major grain terminal. There are recreational boat marinas, hotels, the Victoria Clipper, and the Royal Argosy. And let's not forget the cruise ship industry. In 2009, 218 cruise ships brought over 875,000 people to Seattle. Each of these cruise ships spends over $1.7M in local provisions, goods, and services.

We also have shops and restaurants, the Seattle Aquarium, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and many other public spaces.

While all of the components are important, the working waterfront, or maritime industrial cluster, is really what separates our waterfront from other places. I have come to know this industry through my work with the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade association representing marine terminal operators and container vessels that serve the West Coast. Growing up here, I always had an appreciation for Seattle'ꀙs maritime history. Having worked in two mayoral administrations, I understand the economic importance of our waterfront and the need to protect it.

The waterfront is an economic engine that provides family-wage jobs. It is a living heritage left by our grandparents and their parents. They built the infrastructure that we depend upon today.

We all want working families to be able to work and live here in Seattle. We want good jobs for our kids. The alternative to a college education should not be the minimum wage. And in Seattle, it'ꀙs not. The working waterfront provides an opportunity for those without a college education to make a great living, buy a house (yes, even in Seattle), send their kids to college, and provide taxes to maintain and build infrastructure that drives our economy.

A 2008 study commissioned by the city found the maritime industrial cluster contributed $5.6 billion to our economy in 2007. Employment grew 3 percent in 2002-2008. Actual payroll grew an astounding 20 percent.

We all know that Seattle is on a precipice. We can either hold on to our working-class roots, or we can let them slip away. The planning discussions already under way need to be discussions about our heritage, culture, and values.

We are lucky to live at this crossroads when we will be able to look back and say we were part of something great. We have an incredible opportunity that comes along once in a generation. We can build infrastructure that will ensure our economic security and preserve our unique maritime heritage for the next 100 years.

Or, we can continue to get bogged down in process.

Part of what is holding us back is an incomplete understanding of what the waterfront is and who it is for. Arguments about whether this proposal is green enough or whether that proposal is just for cars do not move us forward. Industry and mobility are not enemies of the environment and urban living. A livable, walkable waterfront can co-exist with an international trade gateway and competitive port.

We can absolutely have it all — a working waterfront that provides thousands of jobs, a recreational destination for families and visitors, and a waterfront that connects us to our maritime roots and our respect for the environment.

The diversity of our waterfront also affords us the opportunity to form partnerships. We need not go it alone on the replacement of the seawall. We can work with the port, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and finally get a return on the federal Harbor Maintenance Tax that we have been paying for years and providing funding for dredging projects for ports on the Gulf and East coasts.

In fact, revenues from the tax will help those ports prepare for the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014, in order to lure cargo away from our ports. We should work with our congressional delegation and bring some of that money back. Unfortunately, moving forward with a city ballot initiative to replace the seawall and 'ꀜgoing it alone'ꀝ takes that option off the table. I am further concerned that putting an initiative on the seawall on the ballot sends a message that somehow it is a discretionary project. It is not.

Our competitiveness and livability depend on being able to move freight and people through our city and the waterfront. The nearly $3 billion budgeted by the state for the tunnel bypass ensures that congestion will not choke our waterfront and hurt businesses. We should not send that money back to the state. By going forward, we can combine good jobs, mobility, and a livable, walkable waterfront.

This new infrastructure also affords us the opportunity to treat storm-water runoff, as well as vehicle emissions in the tunnel. Because this is a 100-year investment, we may decide to run rail through the tunnel in the future, and because we have created this corridor, it will be available. And there will never be a better time to build — the bids coming into the state Department of Transportation are consistently 30 percent below estimates.

While we continue to discuss what our waterfront should look like and what kind of public spaces we create, let'ꀙs remember our roots and the simple fact that, without jobs, there is no livability and no urban density. Let'ꀙs do what needs to be done, and let'ꀙs have it all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.