Seattle belatedly joins the harborfront parade

As uses have changed, many cities around the world have turned blighted old waterfronts into major public amenities. Now it's Seattle's turn.
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Seattle's downtown waterfront, with angled piers and a long-blighting Viaduct.

As uses have changed, many cities around the world have turned blighted old waterfronts into major public amenities. Now it's Seattle's turn.

Removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvigorate Seattle's central waterfront and create a string of parks, public gathering areas, and people places. In doing so, downtown will be reconnected to the Elliott Bay waterfront and realize its full potential of becoming Seattle's front porch for visitors and the living room for those who live and work here.

If Seattle seizes this magnificent opportunity, it will join a worldwide movement of cities that have been studying the challenges, opportunities, and solutions for their old waterfronts during the past 50 years. More about these other cities below.

The Seattle plans are spelled out in its Waterfront Concept Plan, which took three years to develop. The plan calls for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bored inland tunnel and conversion of nine acres of concrete to tree-lined open space along Seattle's central downtown waterfront.

This concept plan, completed in 2006, was the culmination of the efforts of more than 300 designers, planners, and community advocates who participated in the Waterfront Visioning Charrette Design, the largest such effort in Seattle's history. The plan described a series of linked parks and public spaces to be pedestrian-centric and well designed.

Nine months ago, the city created the Center Waterfront Partnerships Committee, composed of stakeholders from the public and private sector. It has been meeting regularly to determine the next steps for planning, financing, and opportunities of public/private partnerships. Just this week, the city issued its request for qualifications, seeking "a multidisciplinary team of exceptional talent and experience" to provide the design concepts for converting this mile-long area. Such a juicy project should attract attention from design and planning teams around the world.

The existence of a grand-scale central waterfront open space is predicated on replacing the Viaduct's through traffic with a tunnel. The alternative solution, a multi-lane high speed arterial similar to what was recently completed in the lower west side of Manhattan, would replace one barrier with another and would monopolize the space that could be used for open space.

For over 50 years, there has been a worldwide movement by cities to take back their waterfronts. There have been yearly conferences and books, including the well-edited Waterfronts in Post Industrial Cities (2001), that have focused on this exciting global effort. Cities need to be competitive and provide the amenities that will attract people and enhance a city's vibrancy; Seattle can't coast.

Many of the world's major urban centers have converted and cleaned up their waterfronts, no longer needed for shipping and industrial uses. Many have removed the railroad and highway barriers that have denied people access to their harbors and riverfronts. Portland was among the earliest when, in 1974, it made way for the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, displacing Route 99W from along the western shore of the Willamette River. Portland became the first major city in the United States to actually remove an existing freeway, a milestone in modern urban planning.

Other cities in the United States have demolished freeways as well, or are considering such action. San Francisco is well known for the (earthquake-assisted) demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, which freed up its waterfront and revitalized blighted neighborhoods. Boston undergrounded the elevated portion of Interstate 93 as part of the massive Big Dig project. Milwaukee removed the Park East Freeway.

Seattle's waterfront has a sad, worn-out quality and is mostly the domain of tourists. It needs a dose of new energy, best provided by the proposed central waterfront park.

Most of the world's major cities are located on waterfronts, since historically cities competed on their abilities to attract commerce through shipping. In time, industry monopolized these districts, polluting them and denying access to most inhabitants. Since these waterfronts were blighted, it was politically feasible to build major highways along them, further walling off the shoreline.

As shipping moved away to less expensive land, cities began to rediscover their waterfronts and to think of them as places for recreation, leisure, tourism, cultural, residential, and educational uses. In North America, the list of cities that have revitalized and opened up significant portions of their waterfronts to public use is impressive: Boston, New York, Vancouver, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Memphis, San Antonio, and many others. The seminal example is the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

A nearby, limited example is Tacoma along the Foss Waterway. It's the site of the Tacoma Glass Museum, as well as the recently completed Balfour Dock Working Waterfront Maritime Museum, which is housed in a converted century'ꀓold wheat warehouse. With its huge, long-span wooden trusses, the Maritime Museum is a lively, authentic-feeling structure.

To create a link from downtown to the waterfront, Tacoma built the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in 2002, which is a 500-foot-long pedestrian bridge with a number of significant glass exhibits along the route. While this bridge is beautifully designed, it is not enough to overcome the gulf created by the freeway connector and rail lines underneath.

Seattle'ꀙs central waterfront has a colorful maritime history. The inner harbor wharves hosted many beautiful sailing vessels, as well as steam- and diesel'ꀓpowered cargo traders well into the 20th century. These ships went away, but industry, warehouses, and railroad lines multiplied. Our downtown was left completely cut off from the waterfront. The creation of a container port south of the inner harbor was also important in drawing off commercial shipping activities and opening up new public opportunities in the inner harbor.

Seattle has made some modest steps, converting and revitalizing a few parts of its inner harbor. The crown jewel is the Seattle Aquarium, which was opened in 1977 and has recently expanded to an adjacent historic pier. It now draws more than 800,000 visitors a year. The historical character of other piers has been retained, and there has been a partial conversion to retail and office uses. The new Olympic Sculpture Park is a very important and desirable improvement at the north end of the inner harbor.

Despite these achievements, Seattle's waterfront still has a sad, worn-out quality and is mostly the domain of tourists. It needs a dose of new energy, best provided by the proposed central waterfront park. The buildings along Western will become revitalized and positive growth will occur, extending blocks inshore from the new park.

Among the opportunities for public amenities are Piers 62 and 63, two large, unused wharves condemned because of failing pilings. An obvious use would be to revive Summer Nights at the Pier. Another opportunity is to create an exciting new Maritime Museum.

Cities around the world from Sydney to London have invested billions of dollars into public waterfront redevelopments and the list gets longer each year. The time for inaction and excuses in Seattle is over.


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