A "D word" Seattle waterfront? Can't we at least vote?

Seattle's least-favorite descriptor has popped up again in discussions of our pending waterfront park.
Crosscut archive image.
Seattle's least-favorite descriptor has popped up again in discussions of our pending waterfront park.

Danny Westneat uttered the dreaded "D" word this week.

In respect to the waterfront redevelopment, the Seattle Times columnist said "Disney."

Westneat was critiquing various concepts unveiled in recent weeks, including a proposed tourist tram down Union Street. He accuses planners of "airbrushing" the city, turning the waterfront into an amusement park.

Then he used a fighting word, to Seattle ears.

In discussing the expansion plans for the Pike Place Market that will tie-in with the waterfront redevelopment, he used the "B" word. "The people running the Market say all the right things about 'preserving the authenticity' of what they correctly call the 'soul of the city.' But then there are these drawings of glass-fronted atriums that have the feel of ... Bellevue Square."


Some of these sentiments echo my own, which is that the emerging waterfront concepts are missing something. Something we can love. Trying too hard. Too sterile. Too sunny. Too phony.

The late Fred Bassetti, a Northwest architect who had a huge impact on our cityscape, once described the old Pike Place Market as "an honest place in a phony time." That was said in defense of preserving, rather than redeveloping, the Market.

But what Westneat is putting his finger on is that the plans for the waterfront by James Corner and others have exactly the opposite feel. A phony landscape in an honest place.

This isn't about historic preservation. This isn't about resisting change. This isn't about spending money. This isn't about being against parks, or tourists or commerce. This isn't anti-fun.

It's about designing something that feels as if it is us, as if it is ours. The waterfront has been described as our face to the world, our front porch, the project of a generation or two or three.

Not Disneyland. Not downtown Bellevue.

We've heard the "D" word before. Back in the 1980s, mayor Charles Royer wanted a makeover of Seattle Center and Disney's Imagineering was picked to consult on a major overhaul of the Center — perhaps even invest in its redevelopment. (That didn’t work out.)

Not all of Disney's ideas were bad, and some are still being discussed more than 25 years later: more green space, getting rid of Memorial Stadium, adding parking, more things for kids to do. And since we're in the Wayback Machine, at the same time Disney was redesigning the Center, there was a scheme afoot to build a new basketball arena near the Kingdome. The potential "loss" of the Sonics at the Center was part of an economic problem driving the Center's Disney redevelopment plans. A SoDo Sonics arena? Some dynamics never seem to change.

Disney's ideas were generally critiqued as being too commercial, too slick, too out of touch with local likes and habits. Disney's theme-park aesthetics were seen as out of touch with Seattle. And too expensive: The plan's budget was supposed to be about $60 million, but ended up coming in at a whopping $335 million.

The Disney Seattle episode became fodder for urban studies. In 1994, the Journal of Urban Affairs ran a paper titled “Disneyfication of the Metropolis: Popular Resistance in Seattle” by Stacy Warren. It described in detail what went wrong with the Disney plans for Seattle Center. “[T]he plans did not speak to Seattle’s unique character or to actual city residents, such as senior citizens or ethnic groups.”

As landscape architect Rich Haag observed at the time, the “tactic of bypassing public input does not work.” Seattle process finally defeated Disney’s arrogance.

The "B" word has also often been raised in conjunction with sterile- or artificial-seeming Seattle redevelopment. It's the go-to criticism for South Lake Union's Amazon architecture or Westlake's mall-centric mediocrity. It has also been raised in conjunction with downtown "renewals" like Pacific Place. Fair or not, it's a longtime pejorative.

The waterfront redevelopment has a long way to go — seawall, tunnel, piers, Colman Dock, Viaduct removal, surface transport — before we settle arguments over what to do with it and how it will look.

People — very obviously — want something new and innovative. That can be done. The Olympic Sculpture Park, Gas Works Park, the Burke-Gilman Trail, even the weary Seattle Center are all, in their way, trailblazing examples of innovation rooted in the real city we live in, not on some urbanist's iPad.

Here's a suggestion: Move the waterfront to a public vote. The waterfront redevelopment plans ought to be matured to the point where they can go before the public for a show of hands — just as the Alaskan Way Viaduct options, the seawall funding and the tunnel did. If nothing else, it might force the planners to get real.


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

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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