How Seattle finally built its waterfront park

It turned out much smaller than once hoped, but nobody said compromise was easy to reach in Seattle. A retrospective "history" of the star-crossed project

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1984 Sanborn map of Seattle's waterfront

It turned out much smaller than once hoped, but nobody said compromise was easy to reach in Seattle. A retrospective "history" of the star-crossed project

Seattle, July 5, 2021

A small crowd gathered for Fourth of July fireworks at the newly completed 1.7-acre Seattle central waterfront park. Mayor Erica Barnett, in subdued remarks, said "she was relieved the whole saga was finally over." Mayor Barnett cut a ribbon for the final component of the much-reduced park, originally intended to be a 26-block sequence of parks but ultimately reduced to three smallish parklets near the Aquarium, the Ferry Terminal, and as part of the vast China-funded "new city" on Pier 48, just south of the Ferry Terminal.

Barnett expressed exasperation that the Viaduct had been replaced by a 10-lane highway along the waterfront, though she commended planners for the busway and bikeways included in the vast, spaghetti-bowl swath of asphalt.

At the moment, the central waterfront remains a tangled mass of detours, temporary overpasses, and ongoing demolition of the Viaduct. All traffic is diverted to the surface Alaskan Way while demolition is completed of the ugly Viaduct. Eventually, more lanes will be added to the temporary SR-99, following the alignment of the former Viaduct. The final configuration will consist of a slightly sunken expressway with six lanes of general traffic, two lanes of Bus Rapid Transitway (BRT), and two lanes for parking. Bike lanes adjoin the Expressway, which also features numerous swooping access ramps to connect with downtown. Berms on both sides help suppress noise, but take up the last remaining width of the McGinn Expressway.

Observers have compared the outcome to Westlake Mall, which also began with high hopes for a park and ended up a deeply compromised mall and small park (today fronted by an enormous new Microsoft store). It might be interesting, therefore, to recount the brief history of how Seattle's central waterfront turned out this way.

In retrospect, a key to the outcome was the vote in 2011 on an arcane referendum about a routine step authorizing the deep-bore tunnel solution by the Seattle City Council. The measure passed, validating the council action, but the margin was small, 52-48. Two things then happened. Mayor Mike McGinn, saying he was "heeding the voters' wishes," shifted to a neutral stance on the bored tunnel proposal he had fought since 2009. That shift improved the mayor's low popularity rating, in what was thought to be part of his belated effort to win reelection in 2013. But it galvanized opponents, who felt betrayed by their standard-bearer, took up the fallen flag themselves, and found a new champion in Ron Sims.

A subsequent ballot referendum in 2012 on a substantive vote by the council was successful in voiding the tunnel plan, until overturned by the courts two years later. Similarly, a Sierra Club lawsuit on the adequacy of the EIS on the tunnel ground the project to a halt, escalated prices, and led to the exit of the contractor who was going to bore the immense tunnel. The project entered a protracted period of limbo, during which no one proposal could find majority support or funding.

In the mayoral election of 2013, Mayor McGinn was squeezed out in the primary. Former King County Executive Ron Sims, the eventual winner, ran by opposing the tunnel idea as no longer practical and favored a transit corridor along the waterfront and on Second Avenue, with bus rapid transit as the preferred mode (an old pet idea of Sims'). Former deputy mayor Maude Daudon was the other finalist in that race, promising to pull the tunnel coalition back together, saving money by having the park itself funded largely by developers who could build alongside it. (City Councilman Tim Burgess had earlier declined to run for mayor, once Sims announced, and State Sen. Ed Murray came in third in the primary).

Gov. Rob McKenna, elected in 2012, weighed in with his "Smart Roads" proposal, a massive state bond issue to finish highway projects and marry them with BRT lanes and extensive wildlife crossings. McKenna began with a proposal, widely thought at the time to be a "forcing mechanism," to double-deck I-5 and convert Second and Fouth Avenue into bus and auto expressways. Gov. McKenna also said he would tear down the Viaduct by 2015 and implement this solution unless a better idea emerged. He and Mayor Sims pledged to find that solution, and a 49-person stakeholders' group, co-chaired by Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Mike McGinn, who was elected to the city council in 2015.

By then, there was not much remaining advocacy for the ambitious waterfront park. Architect James Corner had withdrawn from the job, citing the diminishing budget. The Urban Density Alliance, headed by former Publicola reporter Erica Barnett, began to attack the park as sacrificing chances for urban infill to a "Victorian" notion of a grand esplanade. 

Ultimately, consensus was formed around the notion of allowing eight 16-story apartment/condo complexes near the waterfront, with mitigation payments going to creating a park and "Dave Meinert's Summer Nights at the Pier" facility near the Aquarium; a view park atop the remodeled Ferry Terminal, and an outer-pier viewing park at the end of Pier 48, funded by the Chinese consortium building the 1,700-residential-unit mixed-use Pioneers' Landing project there.

That cleared the way for McGinn Expressway, which gained girth as the interests insisted on BRT lanes, bike lanes, and parking lanes for the many new businesses drawn to the upzoned area. Among the new attractions: Starbucks International Coffee Museum, the Gerard Schwarz Music Academy, the Northwest Indian Museum (tentative), and the Hanauer Institute. Tying the stretch together is a narrow elevated park that slices through the old piersheds and jumps across open water to connect the three nodes of open space, a kind of Seattle High Line.

Mayor Sims and Gov. McKenna announced the compromise plans in 2018, progress toward which had greatly helped in the governor's reelection. Immediately after the announcement, Mayor Sims announced he was quitting.


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