The waterfront: keep kitsch alive

Here's hoping the waterfront makeover resists attempts to sanitize. Another concern: not turning it into a second Seattle Center.

Crosscut archive image.

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

Here's hoping the waterfront makeover resists attempts to sanitize. Another concern: not turning it into a second Seattle Center.

I've been concerned that the grand waterfront makeover might have a major casualty: kitsch.

One of the best things about the waterfront is that it's a tourist destination, with lots of fun and corn ball stuff, like Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe and the carousel. Much has been made about keeping Seattle's blue-collar port jobs safe from gentrification, but what about the jobs of people who have to wear candy-striped shirts and paper hats? 

It's a genuine worry because when Seattle makes big plans, it often does so with the intent to "clean up" grassroots tackiness. The removal of the waterfront trolley, for example, happened in part because it wasn't considered "serious" transit. I remember in the mid-1980s when the city wanted to, and I quote the Seattle Times here, "save the waterfront from being taken over by tacky businesses suitable only for trinket-seeking tourists." The key man behind that effort was then-Mayor, Charles Royer, who is very much involved with the remaking of the waterfront today. In 1986, he disdainfully said "I don't think our people want the waterfront to be wax museums and models of the Space Needle."

Of course, "our people" have done everything possible to attract "those people" to town with cruise ships and Metronatural hype. It's also true that wax museums and fancy condos and hotels can coexist, as they do to some extent now, but also see places like Monterey. Seattle is now economically geared toward tourism; that is a foregone conclusion. If the waterfront is going to continue to be for everyone, it's going to need its touristy funk and junk, along with everything else. I hope Seattle resists its Scando-Asian tendency to clean everything up too much.

I was relieved that the city approved a permit for a giant Ferris wheel on Pier 57. With the Fun Forest gone from Seattle Center, it's a bit of something we need, a taste of Chicago's Navy Pier. One of the great things about the Olympic Sculpture Park is the way it showcases art, but also plays off the neon kitsch around it, like the Old Spaghetti Factory or the P-I Globe. You need the high and the low, and the interaction between the two. Think how much First Avenue has been deflated by the disappearance of the Lusty Lady.

Looking through some of the waterfront plan presentation materials, available online from James Corner, offers some reassurance on a couple of fronts. One is that the scheme to make multiple new connections between downtown and the waterfront seems really good. So too the pedestrian and bike access, and the habitat restoration plans for chunks of the shoreline.

Another is that there is plenty of potentially tacky, populist stuff in these schemes, though it's the stuff most likely to to be opposed or unfunded in the end. The idea of public hot tubs on Elliott Bay (how Roman!), along with a public pool (possibly with an inflatable, retractable roof), and the addition of a funicular rail connection to take people up and down, are delightful. But the more I looked at the general approach to open space, plazas, etc. filled with pictures of happy people and jugglers in the sun, the more I was reminded of another problematic public experiment that is still, after 50 years, a major work in-progress: Seattle Center.

There are a couple of threads worth pointing out. One is that the waterfront plan envisions a lot of stuff we already have at the Center, like fountains kids can play in, outdoor concerts and theater, Bumbershoot-type events. The Corner presentation envisions ways of "enlivening" the waterfront that seem a lot like stuff we're already doing elsewhere, duplicative. Will the new waterfront compete with the Center? Do we want it to?

There is a long history of symbiosis between the two, or at the very least, a relationship that suggests they could be potentially more connected. Often if a feature or amenity has not worked in one place, it has been considered for the other. For example, the Fun Forest closes at the Center, but a Ferris Wheel crops up on a pier. An aquarium and skating were proposed for the Center, but one shifted to the waterfront and James Corner now proposes a rink there too.

The world's fair planners wanted the Center grounds to connect with the waterfront. I've seen at least one early fair concept that envisioned pedestrian walkways and lids where the Sculpture Park is now, connecting the Sound and Center site. Another idea was to connect the two with a gondola ride. Yet another rejected fair idea, pitched in 1958, was to connect the fair grounds with Puget Sound via a man-made salmon spawning stream. That is echoed in Corner's plans for waterfront salmon habitat recovery. A number of architects and scientists wanted the '62 fair to emphasize our connection with the sea, a notion that was literally lost in space.

Ideas flowed the other way too. The Center was seriously considered as a home for Namu the Killer Whale, who miserably inhabited a small pen along a waterfront pier. His new home was proposed to be a custom-built pool at the Center, located roughly where the Bagley Wright theater is today. It was scotched partly because of cost.

All this is to say that the two sites have historic links. But if the publicly-owned Center has never quite settled or jelled, the far more complex waterfront is also likely to prove troublesome and, it seems to me, will have distinctly different opportunities given its proximity to the downtown business district, the Port, commuter ferries, and the potential for residential development. Crosscut's Mark Hinshaw has wisely counseled that some of the "enlivening" ideas be dealt with via an editor's pencil (or delete key). The plans cry out for some greater kind of realism. The visuals, meant to be conceptual, suggest a vision that is a bit out of step with life on the ground.

First, there are comical renderings of an eternally sunny Seattle of the Perry Como song; I saw only one that seemed to show what things would be like in inclement weather. One idea involves a water feature that would spray mist at people. Uh, you can get that 345 days a year in Seattle for free. Also, the accuracy of some of the montage illustrations is in doubt: Are we really going to plant Ponderosa pines along the waterfront? I hope not. Perhaps the climate is envisioned for an imaginary post-global warming time.

Another problem: We see a lot of what is happening on top of the various "folds," but these are actually enormous lids and we rarely get a peak underneath at what could be dark and problematic spaces. I suspect they cover up problems that might be better day-lighted as a matter of both principle and design. Instead of hiding ugly traffic, let's deal with it. Another concern: The complexity of the design makes me wonder about the cost of policing it. It could be like a Freeway Park on steroids and require lots of manpower to keep it safe.

Then too, some of the renderings of the ferry terminal would be humorous to anyone who commutes by boat. The mass of fast-walking bodies headed for the Bainbridge ferry at quitting time is a bit like the gray horde in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many..."). They march somberly and purposefully and are likely to run over sightseeing looky-loos who get in their way. Which is reminder that there are parts of the waterfront where people are going about their daily business, not enjoying an "amenity." The plan has to work for these people too.

Hinshaw has also suggested that Seattle likes small and quirky, not big and organized, and I second this. The waterfront could be both over-planned and under-utilized. Residential and office development is one answer; another is to make some of it more like the Pike Place Market: a collection of stalls, places for start-ups, craftspeople, street services, etc. The James Corner restructuring plan could help seed a kind of urban wild-flower garden of entrepreneurial activity; but at this stage it also has the potential to be an over-sanitized urban dead zone requiring major public subsidy to keep it bubbling. Do we really need another one?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.