Remaking urban waterfronts: not just in Seattle

Bothell is the latest to get the bug, joining Bellingham, Bremerton, Kirkland, and Port Angeles in creating "collective living rooms" on the shoreline. Seattle remains an embarrassing laggard.

Crosscut archive image.

An architect's rendering of the preliminary design for the Bellingham waterfront.

Bothell is the latest to get the bug, joining Bellingham, Bremerton, Kirkland, and Port Angeles in creating "collective living rooms" on the shoreline. Seattle remains an embarrassing laggard.

The design process for remaking Seattle’s central waterfront has been receiving a lot of ink in the press, some of it generated right here. Because the big city seems to get most publicity about various planning and development initiatives, it is easy to overlook what is also happening in other smaller communities around Puget Sound.

Recently The Seattle Times described plans by the city of Bothell to re-purpose its rather lackluster downtown and reconnect it to the river with boulevards and parks. The plans for Bothell include relocating the state highway closer to the river, which seems counterproductive to having a park removed from noise, fumes, and congestion. A broad, landscaped boulevard might also separate retail energy rather than focusing it. An elaborately detailed aerial rendering seems to suggest that the downtown has been carpet-bombed and replaced with an entirely complete New England village.

As ambitious as they may be, those plans in Bothell pale in comparison to those of other cities in western Washington.

True, some cities waited too long. Bellevue long ago gave up most of its waterfront to private homeowners and is only now getting a toehold back on a short stretch of Meydenbauer Bay. Kirkland’s modest downtown waterfront park was an early win more than three decades ago, but further expansion and connections to downtown have been stalled in debates over the loss of parking and wavering political will.

But while these relatively well-heeled cities fuss and fume, a number of other cities and towns have made remarkable headway.

Probably the most stunning transformation has been Bremerton, which not long ago was languishing, mired in moribund buildings and seemingly permanent economic doldrums. With much of the downtown land tied up by a single family, the place just sat, an empty husk of what at one time had been a thriving seaport town. Well, those who associate Bremerton with those dreary decades need to see the place now.

In less than ten years the waterfront has been breathtakingly altered. A waterfront promenade was followed by a splendid new ferry terminal, a prominently-positioned government center that collected a wide array of local, state and regional agencies together. A new conference center added a dramatic civic square anchored by an animated water feature. New condominiums, office buildings, banks, and cafes have pushed aside the row of seedy bars that used to greet people as they disembarked the ferry.

A couple of years ago, an almost fantastical new park opened next to the ferry terminal with periodically explosive fountains, meandering promenades, and handsomely landscaped belvederes. More recently, the park has been extended, finger-like, into the center of downtown and connecting with shops, the restored Admiral theater and multiscreen movie complex, along with commercial and residential spaces that are under construction. And more is to come.

All this was initiated by the relentlessly passionate leadership of former mayor Cary Bozeman and continued by the current administration. Ironically, what James Corner Field Operations has proposed for Seattle's central waterfront park has already been done in Bremerton.

To the north, Bellingham is embarking on a grand plan to transform the site of a former Georgia Pacific mill into a whole new neighborhood with new streets, parks, a university campus, housing, shops, and public buildings. Through a cooperative agreement, the Port of Bellingham is acting as a redevelopment authority, guiding the planning and disposition of property, as well as the requisite environmental clean-up.

Port Angeles is directing the transformation of its central waterfront with redesigned streets, parks, an esplanade, and a network of signs to help visitors find their way about. Already that city is seeing fine restaurants, art galleries, home-grown coffee bars, an extensive collection of public art, and family-owned stores fill its downtown with new energy. That city also exhibits a political will in its elected leadership that is striking in its enthusiastic resolve.

That is the first lesson in re-making urban waterfronts: consistent, persistent, leadership — sometimes in the face of quibbling and fussing by naysayers — can make a huge difference. While debate about public policy should be robust, there is a time when a city needs to declare an end to discussion and just take action.

We can see the results in our big city neighbors, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., whose waterfronts are sheer pleasure to use day or night, throughout the year. Those public places serve as collective living rooms, teaming with music festivals, events, races, art displays, markets, and a plethora of places to eat and simply relax. By comparison, Seattle’s waterfront is a massive civic embarrassment.

The second lesson is that waterfronts thrive when they welcome a wide diversity of activities, uses, people, and organizations to help shape and program them. We should not be afraid of trying out things and failing. And although tourists certainly bring an infusion of cash, the people who live and do business in a community make it unique. If we make a place good enough that we want to spend time there ourselves, undoubtedly others will discover it and value it as well.

Despite all the intellectual and emotional energy that can suffuse a planning process, it basically comes down to providing a handful of things that have always worked. As William H. Whyte, a keen observer of human behavior in cities, once said: “People will sit where there are places to sit.” Sit and watch the sun set. Sit and watch the waves. Sit and listen to music. Sit and chat with your lover, a neighbor, a colleague, or a visitor from Indianapolis or India.

We know it when we see it. When it's done right, the waterfront renews your spirit and lets you reconnect with natural forces and the global community beyond.


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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).