Can Seattle make a great waterfront park?

Other cities show it's a lot harder than it looks. Two key decisions in the next few months, if they go well, are enough to make one "nervously optimistic."
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Other cities show it's a lot harder than it looks. Two key decisions in the next few months, if they go well, are enough to make one "nervously optimistic."

The real prize of Seattle's bedeviled replacement project for the Alaskan Way Viaduct is not an engineering triumph — a record-busting, deep-bore tunnel in soft ground — but a spectacular waterfront park, all across Seattle's downtown shoreline. It's what architect Mark Reddington calls "a city-making development." The media focus, thanks to Mayor Mike McGinn, has been on that tunnel, its cost, and whether we should be building lanes for cars. But how goes the effort for the big goal, that grand waterfront promenade?

The tunnel is a daunting challenge, and the region (one of the global leaders in tunnel boring) is throwing a huge amount of top talent into that engineering effort. The waterfront park is a political acid test of the region's ability to pull off a huge architectural and urban-design triumph — something the city has rarely done well. I'm more confident about the tunnel, though there are encouraging signs of progress on the park.

Keep in mind, the reason we are digging that big tunnel is the park. By putting four lanes of traffic into the tunnel, space is cleared for the park and the looming Viaduct is torn down. If we didn't want a park, and a dramatic, shape-shifting reconnection of the city to Elliott Bay, we could have made our lives much simpler by building a new Viaduct or turning the waterfront into an auto boulevard. The payoff is in that park, if we can make it great.

It's far from certain that we can. The site has real drawbacks. The project is a huge challenge for Seattle's famously contentious political climate. That minefield is complicated by having a mayor who opposes the tunnel and a city council that favors it. Lastly, the track record of transportation departments and Seattle city government departments (notably Parks and Planning) in producing outstanding designs for open space is far from encouraging.

I recently walked the Embarcadero project in San Francisco, a waterfront linear park made possible by tearing down an old ugly viaduct, closed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It's a big disappointment, on balance, and a clear warning. For one thing, while this linear park is right on San Francisco Bay, you barely see the water, since the maritime views are blocked by the wide-flanked headhouses of the old, largely disused piers. (In Seattle, the blockage of water views comes from the pier heads and also the way the piers are slanted to the north.)

The Port of San Francisco did most of the designing of the Embarcadero project, and the result is a wide roadway of six lanes of traffic and two lanes for old-fashioned streetcars. Not much use can be made of the piers because of shorelines regulations (same in Seattle), so there isn't money to fix them up; they are mostly parking lots and tour-boat embarkation places. Touristic uses predominate, including a Teatro ZinZanni, a big Disney tent show, and a few parks adjoining suburban-style office campuses. I was there on a mild Thursday midday, and it was pretty much deserted except for some joggers. Hmmm.

What went wrong? For one thing, years of a blighting presence of the old elevated highway caused the inshore office buildings to turn their backs on the loud, smelly roadway. Now that the viaduct is removed, these buildings don't exactly turn and embrace the new space. Secondly, the promenade is way too wide, especially with all those cars down the middle of it. And the water side has those awkward piers, hard to change or even use. (One pier, the old Ferry Terminal, has been beautifully renovated and hosts a great urban marketplace, but that's a small oasis in a long desert.)

A park with life on only one side, the inshore side, lacks the pedestrian crisscrossing of good urban parks.

So here are the warnings from San Francisco's effort to make a waterfront park out of a removed viaduct. It takes years for the highway blight to wear off and for new buildings to arrive. A park with life on only one side, the inshore side, lacks the pedestrian crisscrossing of good urban parks. Putting traffic down the middle of a park (and there will be about 30,000 vehicles a day traversing Seattle's new waterfront park, triple the current number) is a big problem. Without a powerful architectural design for the space, it ends up dreary. And you can't get a lot of people there if there are not many residential opportunities, the ability to build tall buildings, or some big cultural draws.

Another parallel is Boston's Big Dig and the Rose Kennedy Greenway that has been built atop the (now-underground) Central Artery. Another chastening failure, it would appear. Charles Royer, Seattle's former mayor who is a leading player in the waterfront park drama here, says the problem in Boston is that the Greenway is mostly a highway project, compromised by the many snaking ramps to the underground roadway. Boston politics prevented much nearby residential building, so you have lightly used green places, fronted by blank office facades. Also, the Greenway Conservancy, which programs the spaces and pushes for more life in the linear park, got started late and didn't have enough sway over design and uses. Again: Wrong design team in charge.

There are some lively parts of the Greenway, but not many. Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell calls it "a sad, bloated void," and "a vacant stage set." Warming to the attack, he deplores its "oversized, shapeless spaces, none of which seems to have a purpose." His solution: move all kinds of housing right up to the edge of the Greenway, providing a critical mass of people:

People actually living, not just visiting, is what makes a great public space. It becomes tissue of the city, not mere scenery to be looked at. Babies in strollers, kids in playgrounds, sunbathing elders, joggers and students, dogs and pedalers, all of them mixing. The place becomes populated. It becomes genuine. When you'ꀙre a visitor, you start to imagine what it would be like to live here.

One reason Boston's Greenway may ultimately work is that it cuts through the center of the city, so it can be lined with housing and commercial uses on both sides. Seattle's waterfront park offers only one side for this enlivening. Moreover, in Boston as in Seattle, local populists deplore the kind of expensive development that would inevitably go up along such an amenity mdash; a natural outcome of high land values and height limits. The Seattle City Council, reports Royer, is firmly opposed to selling off land alongside the waterfront park for expensive condos, since the councilmembers don't want to be criticized for taking all those tax dollars to build unaffordable condos. Height limitations (to protect upland views) will also cut down the chances of building dense neighborhoods right near the park. (Pioneer Square will be an exception.) Once again: a political checkmate.

Royer along with Maggie Walker, a formidable civic leader (Zoo, Art Museum, UW), are co-chairs of a large Central Waterfront Partnership Committee that has been trying to sort through these design challenges and the process for building and managing the waterfront park. They are well versed with the problems showing up in Boston and San Francisco, and have some interesting strategies for coping with them.

One is to conceive of the park as really "a suite of parks," in Walker's phrase, each of which pushes back via green streets into adjoining inland neighborhoods and draw life from them down to the water. Walker is also intrigued with the way the Aquarium will grow outside its walls into tidepools and other attractions north and south of its central location. (It's not likely, due to parking restrictions, that another magnet, cultural or otherwise, can be fitted into the new park, which may also cause problems of not enough draws to the park, particularly in cool weather.)

The real work of the Royer-Walker committee has been to structure the ultimate planning and implementation of the project. This is a very delicate matter of civic diplomacy. Many city and state agencies are jockeying for control of this project-of-a-generation. Seattle has a political culture that distrusts (even as it covets) public-private partnerships. Then there is the pervasive political problem of Mayor McGinn's opposition to the tunnel, inexperience, estrangement from the city council, and impulsive way of veering away from past playbooks. (It's hard to get prominent civic leaders to commit to years of work in making this park happen when the mayor gives the impression that it might all blow up politically.)

So if the agreements are a way of boxing in the maverick mayor, they are also a way of bringing in generous donors and development partners. Since the city is a clumsy partner, the architects of the agreement are trying to find a way to create a kind of buffer entity to run the show, one that is distant enough from city bureaucrats to loosen private wallets and close enough to city departments to keep them excited and supportive.

The committee has recommended the creation of a successor group, the Waterfront Steering Committee, made up of 8-10 civic notables "to keep people focused on the higher good," in Walker's phrase, and to keep looking for funding sources to make a great park. (Such private money was the key to Chicago's Millennium Park, and of SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park.) All the contentious stakeholders (freight mobility advocates, tunnel-subverters, local businesses, developers, bikers, Port officials) will have their own 36-member (!) advisory committee. About two dozen names for the Steering Committee are about to be forwarded to the mayor and the council, who each get to appoint some. The committee will be key, perhaps evolving later (if it builds enough trust) into what is delicately called the "partnership/management entity" &mdash the group in charge. The complicated chart of roles and responsibilities is artfully done, but will take real leadership to hold in place over the eight years or so before we get a park.

With so many decades of fighting over this project, so many hardened positions, so much need to woo partners and their checkbooks, the whole affair is becoming almost a parody of Seattle inclusiveness and design-by-consensus.

That Steering Committee will be critical, but one can only wonder whether the mayor's appointments will make harmony elusive for the group.

The other critical next step is hiring the design team, expected to happen this fall, which will produce an overall "Framework Plan" (what to do with key piers, relationship to the seawall, linking back to the city by green streets, relationship with the Market, and other high-level matters) as well as a "Concept Design." Once again, this being Seattle, all this is being handled with delicacy and tentativeness, with ample revisitation rights. The design team, for instance, may do the full design in phase 2, or another team or teams could come in. In fact, the waterfront park may end up with different designers and different neighborhood managers, rather than one big design and one "partnership/management entity." Final design is due January, 2015.

You'll notice that Robert Moses is nowhere to be found. With so many decades of fighting over this project, so many hardened positions, so much need to woo partners and their checkbooks, the whole affair is becoming almost a parody of Seattle inclusiveness and design-by-consensus. Does that mean we'll end up with a park that recalls the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? The lessons of Westlake Mall, which fell into disarray and a disappointing design under Mayor Royer, certainly hang over the participants — as does the failure of the Seattle Commons, the last big-hitter civic effort in town.

But there are grounds for feeling "nervously optimistic," as Ivar's manager Bob Donegan, one of the key drivers of the tunnel and park idea, has phrased his feelings. For openers, the down economy is a great time to attract some major architectural talent to what is a very high-visibility commission. That design team is arriving early enough to create a truly strong overall idea on the project, one that may solve a lot of the problems outlined above. The Steering Committee, if it is a good one, will gradually earn the trust of the many other participants to the point that there really is an entity in charge, and one the public and the politicians defer to. The City Council, supplanting the heretical mayor, is also stronger than in years and relatively unified in pushing through these key, foundational steps.

The key question in all this — assuming the political consensus somehow holds together and the tunnel-borer doesn't get stuck — is an architectural and urban planning one. Given the inherent difficulties of making a waterfront park really work — the piers, the traffic, the limits on adjacent development, the absence of a big draw like a Sydney Opera House — will the designers come up with some kind of knock-em-dead concept (as happened in the sculpture park and the Central Library)? Or will they decide to think in smaller scale, with a series of parks that mostly serve their upland neighborhoods?

In the light of all the players, the shaky political consensus, and the absence of a Robert Moses equivalent, it's hard to imagine that some knockout bold concept could emerge or survive all the diverse points of view. That might not be a bad thing. Still, the feeling of letdown, after decades of dreaming and battling to make our central waterfront one of the great maritime promenades in the world, would induce a kind of post-Viaduct tristesse.  

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