Seattle is about to wade into one of its grand orgies of planning and design. No, not Seattle Center. Not the Commons. Not a new downtown library. It's the central waterfront, a mighty swath of 26 blocks that will emerge soon from Viaduct-blight into the sunny uplands of a grand waterfront park, all the way from S. King St. to the Sculpture Park. Yessiree!
The kickoff will be this week, Feb. 17 at the Seattle Aquarium, 6:30 pm. It's the start of a massive public conversation about designing that park, and a first chance for project designer James Corner to unveil "early design aspirations." It's free, but you the folks in charge ask you to register to go; already about 600 have signed up for the presentation and conversation.
All this is going to take years, with construction of the park set to begin in 2016 (though with some opportunistic gestures before then). Some of this elongation is owing to the usual grandly inclusive Seattle process. Some is due to the scope and the numerous different neighborhoods connecting to the waterfront park, once the Viaduct is demolished in 2016. Some reflects the polarized local politics created by tunnelgate. And a lot has to do with getting stakeholders all over the city sufficiently excited to raise the funds and donations to do the job.
An indication of the inclusiveness is the list of 20 civic organizations who are partnering for the kick-off event this Thursday. That may also be an indication of the complex task of getting an exciting design with so many chefs in the kitchen, so many competing agendas to coordinate.
Project designer Corner, based in Philadelphia, is best known for his High Line project, on an old railroad trestle in lower Manhattan. Corner's trademark approach is to view parks not so much as opportunities for striking landscape design as to see them as platforms for looking into a city's other buildings, history, landforms. That should work well along our waterfront, particularly since the park will be somewhat squeezed in between a new boulevard and the waters of Elliott Bay.
Out of this first phase, including thousands of suggestions from thousands of citizens, the design team hopes to come up with a concept design, perhaps 10 percent of the final design. Then cost estimates can be derived and the public can get excited.
Excited it will probably be, given the way the city embraced the architectural drama at the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Central Library, both using bold and famous-elsewhere architecture firms. But here's a caution, added by my Crosscut colleague, Ray Gastil, who has been city planner for both Manhattan and Seattle:
"The design and programming of public space are critical," Gastil warns, "but it’s also time to start calling for what really makes places work — stuff to do, from a better bigger aquarium to a native American cultural center, saltwater natatorium, or branch of Pike Place Market.
"The waterfront today can be grim, without enough to do. Great events, an edge where you can touch the water, and inspired design won't be enough on their own. Seattle just doesn't have the critical mass to make this large, long waterfront park work without new destinations, and a land-based mosquito fleet of jitneys to get people down there from the shopping district would help, too.
"Clearly the leadership of the project gets this, which is why they have such a strong emphasis on partnerships. But now's the time to reckon with the scale of the operation and be direct about the scale of partnerships Seattle will need."