Waterfront planning: keys for making it Seattle's plan

Seattle residents care about their waterfront, and we bring our own quirks. Taking those factors into account are critical to making James Corner's final plan into something that will soar.

Crosscut archive image.

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

Seattle residents care about their waterfront, and we bring our own quirks. Taking those factors into account are critical to making James Corner's final plan into something that will soar.

As we watch big chunks of the viaduct being ground into dust, the prospect of remaking the Seattle waterfront seems to become more real, actually seeming with grasp. So we are all looking forward with eagerness, our interests piqued by a cascade of ideas coming from the Corner design team. Yet, questions abound and skepticism is pervasive.

My recent commentary on the need to pare back some of the rather frenetic and over-reaching aspects of James Corner’s ideas for the waterfront engendered more response from readers that I had imagined it would. Most were very thoughtful and expressed heartfelt concerns that the teams’ thinking to date was a bit off-track. Few comments were mean-spirited, but rather reflected a genuine desire to see this part of our community come alive in ways that have not previously been possible because of the overwhelming effect of the viaduct. I think most people can agree that once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is finally gone, we have enormous opportunities for making our connection with the water vastly more enhanced.

But there is also a frustration that the work to date doesn’t truly reflect a sense of finding the spirit of the place. Rather, a whole potpourri of things that have worked elsewhere are simply being piled on. Perhaps this is intentional; let’s think of every cool thing we can, throw it down, and see what sticks.

Certainly there are a number of important points being advanced. Connnecting to adjacent districts and neighborhoods is one. Restoring beaches and shallows for fish is another. And finding places for a wide range of artful expressions is important. But some ideas are simply all too obvious. Of course, we are centered on the bay. We always have been, despite urban expansion outward. We really don’t need a big circle on a map to tell us that. Anyone who has lived here for even a brief period of time knows we are a culture profoundly affected by water — in lots of different forms.

As a colleague has reminded me, there is still no proposal; things are in flux and the design process will benefit from continued discussion and debate. So here are observations about some key topics to toss into the stew of robust discussion.

Separation, Slope and Lack of Density

Most active urban waterfronts elsewhere in the world benefit from two things: level topography and the proximity to many people living within a short distance of the shoreline. We have neither condition. So it takes quite an effort to trek the sheer distance and then contemplate climbing back up the slope. To many people, it just seems like too much of an effort compared with other places. Sure, an occasional event can attract a crowd, but on a daily basis, probably not. That in itself makes it very difficult for certain types of retail business to survive, much less thrive.

It might be possible to nurture a few places to be frequent destinations, but a totally, continuously active and animated waterfront would be unlikely. Its simply too spread out. We need to concentrate not disperse our initial efforts and let other places evolve slowly over time.


We in the Pacific Northwest treasure sun and good weather considerably more than other places in the world, precisely because we don’t get much of it. In fact, we go a bit crazy when the sun decides to come out in mid-winter and the temperature rises a bit. Out come the flipflops and short sleeves, as if we were suddenly in the Bahamas. But we also know that most of the winter, the unpredictable winds and precipitation works against plans to do things out of doors. Consequently, we have nurtured a whole host of splendid indoor venues: concert halls, libraries, exhibition halls, community centers, museums, and many live theaters. I believe this also accounts for our long-standing, solid support for films and a host of quirky movie theaters as well. They provide collective experiences that enliven us and lift our spirits. We are not likely to turn to the water’s edge for this in those nasty, dreary winter months.

Could the waterfront have more indoor venues? Perhaps. We already have the Aquarium, of course. And the Bell Harbor conference center hosts a lot of activities and events. Making a stronger link between Pike Place Market and the Aquarium is one idea advanced by Corner’s team that could have legs. I’m not convinced by shops on a lid or a fish tank over the roadway, but let’s not quibble the details quite yet. Clearly, this would be a great place to focus our limited resources.

Accretion and Accumulation of Quirky Places

One thing that is certain about Seattle is that it has never embraced big sweeping ideas. For well more than a century, every time someone brings one up, it's not too long before it gets shot down. The Bogue Plan? Nope. Massive freeway network? Nope. Urban renewal at Pike Place? Nope. Big park in South Lake Union? Nope. We just don’t like plans pushed by government. Perhaps its our populist roots showing, but we just don’t like big. A lot of people who have spent time elsewhere, where such things are common, are probably baffled.

After all, we keep making the top 10 lists, it must be because of big, ambitious  plans, right? Not necessarily.

A good part of the distinct charm of Seattle is that it’s a collection of many, many smaller things that are good, if not great. Public parks, greenbelts, civic buildings, the Market, Seattle Center, oddball neighborhoods. It all adds up to this fabulous mash-up of technology, topography, trees, and hills that are laced with waterways and waterbodies. It's lots and lots of modest but well-done efforts accomplished by thousands of people and organizations. And we seem to like that. A lot.

So how can we translate that homegrown adoration of the small and beautiful to the water’s edge?

Reconsidering the Categories

The most recent presentation by the design team addressed three categories of subjects: Habitat, Program and Art. While there is nothing terribly wrong about this, this method might be building in some unfortunate limitations. For example, certainly the objective of creating habitat for marine life is a noble one. But it asks people to place an emphasis of that specific issue such that other values might be compromised. Perhaps a broader term like “Living Systems” would enlarge the perspective. How can we make the waterfront work better for a wide range of plant and animal species, including humans?

“Art” as a category can easily lead to the conclusion that what the waterfront needs to have is a collection of commissioned objects, whether temporary or permanent, as if the Olympic Sculpture Garden were to make a sharp left turn on Alaskan Way and slide along the entire length of the shoreline, depositing fine works for people to look at. It suggests lots of objects done by artists. Instead, should we be looking for many different types of Creative Expressions?

This might involve other realms such as lighting, technology, information, interpretation, and education. Without a doubt, artists have much to contribute in expressing the soul of the place, but a collaboration of talents and skills could be truly amazing. Fortunately, we have not only a huge cadre of artists experienced in working with the public realm but also a host of other creative professions as well. It's not really necessary for a group of artists from elsewhere to jumpstart this. Plenty of people here are champing at the bit. 

This systemic approach might also work for considering “Movement.”  Discussions around moving people, goods, and information could result in a rich array of choices in mobility — both along the waterfront and on both sides of it. How do we want to walk? What forms of transit — landside or waterside — are possible and where? Can we make the roadway feel like a public space … at least at points? Are overhead forms of movement, like the trams in Barcelona, New York, or Portland, worth pursuing?

There are scores of funiculars now around the world on sloping sites. Could one make sense here? As one readers pointed out, a diagonal form of transport was once seriously considered for the Market Hillclimb.  How about foot ferries like those in Vancouver? Are  zig-zagging  terraces the best solution to movement from uphill? The meandering Olympic Sculpture Park is nice but do we need a second one?

Rethinking the Rooftops

Are roof top parks really a good idea? We already have a number of them around downtown, including one on the waterfront, and they do not get much use. The one at the Port of Seattle's Pier 66 is a kind of secret in the middle of the city; even with a grand stairs, elevator, and a skybridge it is seldom used, except for planned events. I’m glad it's there, as it is at times a sweet place to be with the breathtaking views of the skyline, bay, and mountains.  But it demonstrates how even a well-designed space in a remote location can fail to attract people.

Of course, Steinbrueck Park is also a roof top park, as it sits on the top of a parking garage. But its close proximity to the intensity of the Market and the fact that its accessible directly from the street give it exposure and accessibility. Many people feel downright uncomfortable going up to a public space that they cannot see from the street. The rooftop plaza of Rainier Square — in the very thick of downtown — is ample evidence of that.

That is not to say that there should be no overlooks and places to sit and take in the view. It is just that large, capital-intensive, high-maintenance parks perched on the tops of structures might not be the best direction to go, from either a fiscal or sociological perspective.

Let’s Focus

Much of the transformation of the Seattle waterfront depends on groups and agencies other than the City of Seattle. Despite inspirational plans for a beach at Pier 48 and a public space at Colman Dock, these places are in the hands of the state. And we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for action, even after a fiscal retrenching is over. The state has considered redeveloping the ferry terminal several times over the past several decades with not much to show for it.

The Port has its own turf, which it has actually managed relatively well. And the privately owned piers have their own limitations and constraints.

So why not give our attention to the one place where there are already the ingredients to make a hugely public series of spaces  –  the waterfront segment between Pike Place Market, the Aquarium, and Piers 62/63? Already lots of people use that area; it has several institutions, such as the Market PDA, the Aquarium and the Parks Department, that could coordinate the financing and implementation. A non-profit could be formed to get the work done and to make sure the place is well managed —  just as has happened in other cities. Here in Seattle, the Parks Foundation serves as a good prototype for planning public places intelligently and making sure they are well run.

We could spend the next five to 10 years making this central connection work and serve as a grand series of connected spaces and buildings. It's reasonably doable rather than daunting. And with our deeply rooted passion about the Market and our desire for a spectacular front porch to the world, lots of folks could get behind it. And James Corner could have a field day designing it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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).