Making a waterfront park that fits Seattle's culture

James Corner, the prime planner of the central waterfront park, gets off on the right foot — avoiding the sweeping gesture and focusing instead on "small bursts of idiosyncratic energy."

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's downtown waterfront, with angled piers and a long-blighting Viaduct.

James Corner, the prime planner of the central waterfront park, gets off on the right foot — avoiding the sweeping gesture and focusing instead on "small bursts of idiosyncratic energy."

This past weekend a small slice of the Alaskan Way Viaduct was bashed to the ground. Standing on the spot where it stood just a few days ago, it seems hard to believe it was even there. The ground is flat and level. There is a clear view up First Avenue to elegant older buildings framing the street, and south to the distant art deco tower of the Starbucks mother-ship. The absence of the hulking, dirty superstructure with its squat legs immediately makes apparent new possibilities.
One can easily imagine a green promenade extending from the imposing facade of Qwest Field diagonally northwesterly, eventually touching down on an expansive waterfront park, perhaps outfitted with beaches and habitat for marine life. The promenade could be a splendid setting for food carts and festivals, art, and interpretive signs that explain the colorful history of the area previously known as the mud flats. The diminutive and delicate-looking triangle building would be a modest but distinctive landmark — now freed from lying in the shadow of the viaduct.
But still, as one looks along that alignment stretching towards Elliott Bay, the forest of dark gray columns is a dismal reminder of how much there is to be done before we reclaim the waterfront as attractive and accommodating public space. Miles of concrete and steel in reinforced decks and posts to be demolished, utilities to be relocated, new roadways built, and a new seawall — all are yet to come. The prospect is absolutely thrilling and entirely daunting.
Last Thursday at a standing-room-only crowd at the Seattle Aquarium, James Corner of James Corner Field Operations, the prime consultant in a multi-disciplined planning team, shared his observations about the region, the city, the downtown, and the waterfront. He also offered some clues about future proposals by his team. JCFO has a $6 million contract to create a "Framework Plan" in two years, involving the public in the process. The Aquarium was filled with exhibits, videos, and boards for marking up with comments.
Corner spoke to the attentive crowd for more than an hour, running through slides that dissected the waterfront in several different ways. Although eloquent and charming at times, he also conveyed some of his points in simplified ways that seemed to be aimed at a junior high school audience. Big white circles on a map of the region are not exactly incisive commentary.
Surely much of the introduction was obvious to most people in the room, who have been following the project for years and participating in hands-on workshops. But any design professional has to go through a self-learning phase, and I suppose Corner, who is based at the University of Pennsylvania, should be commended for showing his work, rather than merely giving the answers.
More illuminating were a series of maps that separated the waterfront into sections, each relating to an upland or inshore district. These maps suggest that, rather than a monolithic approach, instead there exists the possibility to create a diverse range of settings and choices fitted to the different neighborhoods.
Corner is on to something. It is simply not possible to do a grand, sweeping scheme that encompasses the entire waterfront from SODO to Lower Queen Anne. It would be highly doubtful that we could secure the funding necessary for such a gesture, no matter how compelling. Moreover, Seattle has for the most part turned its collective nose up at big public projects. From the rejection of the Bogue Plan in 1912, to the No vote (twice) on the Seattle Commons 14 years ago, to the more recent scrapping of the monorail project, big visions don’t sell well here.
Every city has personality quirks. Ours is a suspicion of big agencies and really big ideas — especially really big ideas from agencies. We might flirt with a big notion momentarily, but then "Nawww."  We don’t see any of the big urban redevelopment schemes commonly done in almost all other large West Coast cities, including Canada. Just not our style, it would seem. Even the much lauded Forward Thrust in the 70s was essentially a long list of smaller projects, and the big one, rail transit, was rejected (twice).
An approach that creates a multitude of places, each with its own personality and set of choices within it, would fit the culture of Seattle. Imagine more places like the Market, Fremont, Ballard, Pike/Pine. Each of the districts within downtown would have its own particular — and perhaps even peculiar — front porch facing the bay. As one moves along the length of the waterfront, one would encounter small bursts of idiosyncratic energy. Some places there would be beaches and habitat, other places urban plazas and vendors, other spots festivals and food.
Corner also observed the importance of the "wedges" created by our downtown's shifting street grid, a reminder of land disputes by the founding pioneers. In each of these pie-shaped sectors, streets reach back into the city and frame a confluence of turns and trapezoidal blocks, angled buildings, and quirky spaces. Where the narrow part of the wedge touches the water, there could be a significant landmark structure or shared space that celebrates the co-joining of adjacent districts. The long-gone, whimsical clock tower at Colman Dock used to serve as one of those markers. The more recently installed steel light tower at the Port of Seattle’s marina made an attempt to do that, even though it is so understated as to be ineffectual.
Creating distinct and discrete pieces of the waterfront would allow it to emerge and morph over time, each acquiring its own patina and layers of commerce, culture, and community. Some waterfronts in other cities seem forever stuck in the time they were built, and seem to lack an adaptability to change and new influences. Great urban waterfronts continue to have a grittiness, in which some parts are relatively new and shiny while other parts display the effects of time and weather. In such waterfronts, it’s not all about a singular work of design genius: hundreds of people, organizations, and businesses each add their own programs and activities.
JCFO is seems to be heading in some good directions. But their thinking could be enriched by a few added dimensions.
First, there was little recognition that Seattle represents a unique blending of two cultures imported from opposite points of the globe. This region, unlike others, is a mash-up of northern European (specifically Scandinavian cultures) with multiple Asian cultures. The coincidental hallmark of both is a deep regard for craft, the delicate working of smaller spaces, politeness and restraint in social interaction.

We are not known for big, boisterous shows of collective hubris. Every time someone has tried to move in that direction (hosting the Olympics, for example), the lack of enthusiasm is palpable. So, how to express this disdain for flamboyance along our waterfront?  Possibly by emphasizing the small and well-made, rather than the big and showy.
Finally, the waterfront project has the potential to convey to the world what Seattle has to offer. In large part, this is a combination of collective environmental stewardship, technical innovation, a relaxed café culture, and the arts in diverse forms. How do we represent these within various settings along the waterfront? What forms do they take? What gives our waterfront a genuine authenticity of place and culture (including First Nations) that does more than pander to visitors with superficial references like totem poles and Starbucks logos?
I, for one, would not be looking for some grand, sweeping vision from JCFO, but rather a set of clear and compelling notions about how we can create a diverse collection of places with many, many handprints on it. Not all of it may make the cover of design magazines. But it will be like a collection of comfortable, shared living rooms — some classy perhaps, others not so much.

I’ve got my sofa all picked out.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).