Seattle's waterfront park comes into focus

The basic outlines of the ambitious park, really four big parks connected by a promenade, are now emerging. There are very sensible design decisions being made, but can the city pull off such a spectacular plan?

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The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south.

The basic outlines of the ambitious park, really four big parks connected by a promenade, are now emerging. There are very sensible design decisions being made, but can the city pull off such a spectacular plan?

After all the battles over the Viaduct and the deep-bore tunnel, are we going to manage to create a splendid waterfront park for Seattle? The desire is there, and the setting is certainly spectacular. But it won't be easy, particularly given Seattle's way of building and bungling major projects.

It's now possible to get a better idea of what might happen. After the successful vote for the tunnel last month, the guardedness has been relaxed. Additionally, more details are being filled in, so the design is moving from a generic 26-block esplanade into something far more tailored to the conditions of the spaces. What follows are some of the things I learned from tagging along on a tour put together by the Seattle Parks Foundation and guided by the two principal city officials in charge, city planner Marshall Foster and Steve Pierce of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

One of the first things I learned is that the main stem of the park, stretching along Alaskan Way from King St. to Mercer, will make for a nice connection and strolling/jogging/biking pathway, but that won't really be the heart of the experience. That part is just too crowded and narrow to be grand, and often the views of Elliott Bay and the mountains beyond are blocked by the piers.

The planners sketched out a typical cross-section of this promenade. On the eastern edge, where there are older buildings now snugged up against the Viaduct, there will be a new, wide sidewalk, with trees, to encourage cafes and other ways for these buildings forming the eastern edge to make use of the new open space. Then, moving westward, will come four lanes of slow traffic, stopping at most intersections, another little island of green, a two-way bike path, another little buffer of green and trees, and then finally a rather constricted main walkway along the seawall and extending a bit out onto the pier aprons. Note: no waterfront trolley. That would make this corridor too crowded, so the trolley or streetcar will probably migrate up to First Avenue instead.

It may work quite well. The noise of the Viaduct will be gone. The surface traffic (including trucks) will be calmed by all those streetlights and intersections, and the pedestrian crossings, as in a Parisian boulevard, will be designed to make the pedestrian feel dominant. There will be intriguing glimpses of the water — big vistas in a few places — as well as striking views of the cityscape as one looks back and up the hill. But this is connective tissue, not dramatic stuff.

Wisely, in my view, the lead architects, James Corner Field Operations of New York, designers of the celebrated High Line in lower Manhattan, have moved the drama to largely elevated parks lying west of the shoreline, out where the views of water and ships and mountains will be truly grand and you are farther removed from the thrum of the traffic. The planners envision four such grand spaces (five if you count the existing Sculpture Park), each with a distinct personality.

Let's start with the southernmost, on Pier 48 south of the Ferry Terminal. This would be a large open space (the pier shed has been removed by the state), on gradually rising ground, dedicated to festivals, summer music concerts, and big entertainment. One reason for this kind of use is that Pier 48 is close to Pioneer Square, which offers bars, restaurants, and parking to support the big events; is close to transit (ferries, Sound Transit, bus tunnel); and is easy to walk to, given the flat approach to the pier. The "folds" of the terrain in the design, a feature throughout Corner's design, provide storage and support space underneath, as well as spaces for performances in cold or wet weather.

Pier 48 may also be one of three places where you can get down and touch the water. Plans show a sandy beach at the base of the pier. Other opportunities are at Pier 57 (currenly the forlorn Waterfront Park, a sad relic of 1970s design) and the existing beach at the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Next, moving northward, is the Ferry Terminal which, when rebuilt, will have car access on the ground level, passenger waiting and ticketing and services on the first floor, and another grand open space, complete with tilting planes, on the roof. This is meant to be a kind of grand maritime entrance to the city (a somewhat abstract notion), but will provide marvelous outlooks, including the fleet of ferry boats.

The third large park is the grandest of all, and bound to be a tourist mecca. This elaborate open space begins at the Pike Place Market, at Victor Steinbrueck Park, descends the hillside in sweeping set of stairs and terraces, crosses over Alaskan Way to a large open space around the Aquarium, and then continues outward to a rebuilt Pier 62-63 (former home of Summer Nights at the Pier) for more wondrous views westward. This is the one place where the surface boulevard is largely buried, and the open space is continuous. Much will depend on how the Aquarium expands and develops this space (and helps fund this portion), and whether it gets dominated by tourists and cruise-ship passengers.

The fourth big space is in Belltown. Surprisingly, it won't be on the waterfront but rather on the bluff above it, cantilevered out into a kind of belvedere of fine maritime views. The smart thing about this design is that, instead of trying to negotiate down the bluff to open space, the park is put much closer to the residents and workers in Belltown, a neighborhood that notoriously lacks for open space.

The architects have some unifying ideas for this necklace of parks. One is "folds," keying off the design by Weiss/Manfredi of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which zigzags down the hillside across roads and railroads on a promenade-spine, with plantings and sculpture on planes tilting away from the spine. Another is "tidelines," and the architects plan to stress these horizontal depictions of the 12-foot tidal swings in Elliott Bay with steps, terraces, and graphic elements. The third unifier is to remind users of the park that this is still something of a working waterfront. One example is the thought of having farm boats pull up alongside some piers, selling vegetables from up the Sound. (This, too, I find a tad abstract.)

The notion of four big node-parks makes sense for other reasons. They provide more variety, and they are keyed to the inshore neighborhoods like the Market and Pioneer Square. Less stressed is the financial reason: the park, which will be very expensive (don't ask) will have to leverage dollars from the Ferry System, the Aquarium, large entertainment companies, wealthy donors of sculpture, and the like.

What about arts? Marshall and Pierce said they and the 42-person Central Waterfront Committee have been wondering if there is a need for a new arts facility on the waterfront, as a draw, but feel the city is largely built out in that regard. Besides, parking and load-in issues would make it difficult for any large building, along the lines of the Sydney Opera House. Floating performance barges, as are popular in Amsterdam of Brooklyn's Bargemusic under the Brooklyn Bridge, might be impossible due to the surprisingly rough water and strong tidal differences. Instead, there will likely be spontaneous, edgy performance opportunities all through the park, much as takes place on the High Line.

Here's what worries me about all this, exciting and intelligent as it is so far.

First, it's not clear, and it may never be clear, exactly who the client is. Great architects need great clients, the saying goes, but Corner (and maybe some sub-architects) is confronted with a vast committee (so all interests feel protected and can cast vetoes), and a jury-rigged hierarchy in City Hall (with SDOT technically in charge) that reflects the city's weak planning department and the long feuds between Mayor McGinn (tunnel-foe until the vote) and the City Council.

There was supposed to be an evolution toward a small committee of the town's leading citizens in charge of design and operations of the park, but that got short-circuited when McGinn blocked some names because they were so pro-tunnel. We remain with the mammoth Central Waterfront Committee (co-chaired by former Mayor Charles Royer and SAM president Maggie Walker, neither of whom get along with McGinn), which was supposed to wither away. Design by committee is the danger, as happened with Westlake Mall.

Second, and related, it's not likely to be worked out until much later in the game who would manage, program, and otherwise make all this richness happen. Among the possibilities: a Seattle Center like semi-autonomous department in City Hall; a "conservancy" as with Central Park, with mandatory and voluntary contributions by members and nearby businesses; a business improvement district, taxing the nearby businesses and beneficiaries, as in New York's marvelous Bryant Park. Settling this will be a bloody business, with labor issues, turf issues, suspicion of "privatization," you name it. It's unwise to defer this critical issue, and again we risk a muddled outcome.

Third, can we afford it, and when will we see the bill? Candor about this was impossible during the Bore War, especially with a citywide vote looming. There are some (to me unconvincing) efforts by architect Corner to describe the waterfront park as part of a great horseshoe of parks extending from West Seattle to Magnolia, along with an outer circle of parks including Lake Washington Boulevard and evoking the half-finished Olmsted plans for the city. This is a way of making the whole city feel linked to the expensive downtown park. Seems very abstract to me, and besides if we really did build these links the whole price tag would really be a shock.

It makes sense (at least if government were more trusted) to get folks excited about the vision and then say (ahem) that it will cost A LOT and it would be a shame to stop now. That's certainly the Seattle way, the Sound Transit way. But in a recession? With a deeply unpopular mayor? Where the idea of grand downtown park brings anti-Commons pitchforks out of the garages?

My last case of jitters comes from the very long time frame, during which new wars can break out, new priorities appear, earthquakes could shut the Viaduct prematurely, and supporters will get exhausted. The park will be completed in 2018. We get the concept design in the middle of next year, knock down the Viaduct in 2016, spend more than three years in designing the parks. True, there will be a few "early victories" of small features to buck up the spirits, but we're at least five years away from even starting construction of the park.

Sometimes I wonder if, years from now, we will still think of the central waterfront as the right place and way for revitalizing our downtown — and if our "downtown" will still be as central a part of Seattle, given all the movement to South Lake Union and South of Downtown. But Seattle has always dreamed very big about having a mini-Manhattan of a downtown. It fended off the Bogue Plan in 1912, since it would have shifted the core of the city to the Regrade. It defied the international authorities by having a tiny world's fair near its downtown, to clean up a run-down neighborhood. It routed all its transit lines through the hub of downtown to preserve its department stores and high office rental rates.

So here we have one more grand throw of the dice, one more unifying crusade for a generation. Ah, but which generation?


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