Seattle's waterfront: Visions of hottubs & gardens, but where's the cash?

A designer reveals his latest update for a massive waterfront park that would stretch 26 blocks along Elliott Bay once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is demolished.
A designer reveals his latest update for a massive waterfront park that would stretch 26 blocks along Elliott Bay once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is demolished.

There would be viewing platforms that reveal vistas of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. And cantilevered walkways made partially from glass, which would transmit sunlight to migrating salmon as they travel along the bay’s seawall. A small beach would extend west from Pioneer Square, with water lapping the nearby sidewalk at high tide. 

These are a few of the details in the latest “schematic design” for a Seattle waterfront park and open space that would stretch 26 blocks from the Stadium District to Belltown and, according to the Department of Planning and Development, provide about 20 new acres of city park space. The park’s designer, James Corner, presented his plan for the space to an audience of several hundred people at Seattle Center on Wednesday. The design is about 30 percent complete and should be mostly finished by 2015, said Department of Planning and Development planning director, Marshall Foster.

The project could fundamentally transform Seattle’s waterfront. But hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed to pay for the proposed park remain unsecured. Building the park will also hinge on the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The overpass is set to be torn down in 2016, shortly after the new Highway 99 Tunnel is scheduled to open. The tunnel project, however, is on hold for at least six months while the lead contractor repairs the machine digging the underground roadway.

The park would cap a multi-billion effort to remake the waterfront, which involves not only swapping the viaduct for the tunnel, but also replacing the Elliott Bay Seawall and rebuilding the surface road on Alaskan Way. 

The cold realities of public finance and broken boring machines aside, the design offers a sweeping contrast to the downtown waterfront as it is today, separated from the rest of the city by the viaduct and the din of traffic flowing on top of the structure.

“For 50 years now we've been looking through a crumbly, deteriorating double-deck freeway, and we've been fenced off from our waterfront,” said Jean Godden, who chairs a City Council committee that oversees waterfront issues. “It's time that we had a front door to our city.”

Corner believes that the front door designed by his team reflects the city. 

“A lot of things we’re doing here we wouldn’t do on another waterfront,” he said. At one point during his presentation he called the design “peculiar to Seattle.”

The design, Corner said, tries to avoid “chintzy,” or “ritzy” devices, and strives to provide a “tough” and “pragmatic” place for strolling, viewing, biking and exercising. The designer’s firm, James Corner Field Operations, also led-up the design of New York’s High Line park, which is set atop an old railroad bridge, near the Hudson River in lower Manhattan.

There are nuanced flourishes. For instance, terrazzo concrete surfaces, embedded with small stones taken from the shores of Puget Sound. And “tabled” crosswalks, matched to the height of curbsides, which would prevent pedestrians from having to step down into the street. Wooden swings would provide a place to sit while taking in the panorama of Elliott Bay. There would be hanging vines, fir trees and 5-foot-tall tufts of swaying grass.

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