On Seattle's waterfront, the sunny days are over

How politics, doubt and a bitter dose of reality changed the conversation about Seattle's waterfront park.
Crosscut archive image.

The proposed design for the overlook walk on Seattle's central waterfront.

How politics, doubt and a bitter dose of reality changed the conversation about Seattle's waterfront park.
The sunny days of Seattle's new waterfront plan are over. And I don't mean James Corner & Co. are finally showing us some images of their plans with some rain and clouds, which they are.
I guess even San Diego has a gray day now and then.
The project has long carried a boondoggle price tag (over $1 billion) and, like all such projects, it is starting to run over budget. Mayor Ed Murray has wisely suggested a trim-down from a budget estimate that crept up by some $200 million since we were last shown designs last spring. The most visible element so far proposed to be removed from the drawing board is a nearly $30 million floating swimming pool, but further trims are being discussed and the mayor, citing Bertha's delay, is worried about the time frame — a delay we were previously assured wouldn't really slow anything down. Yeah, right.
Not only is the delay slowing things down, it is pushing costs upward. That's amid some worry on the mayor's part that the money to fund the waterfront plan might not be as easy to come by as some have suggested. The Local Improvement District, a plan that would have waterfront businesses pay fees to support construction, was supposed to raise $200- to $300-million. But Murray says that's on hold until we know Bertha's fate, which wont be until at least March of 2015.
It’s still unclear where some of the millions of dollars the project is counting on in private-sector donations will come from.
Worse, Bertha's lost momentum has weighed on public confidence. What if Bertha can't be fixed? What if she breaks down again in a place where a giant pit can't be dug to get her out? What if we have to go back to a surface solution or a temporary Alaskan Way Viaduct retrofit?

Few in charge want to even contemplate that, but if the doubts expressed by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the mayor are genuine, we better have a Plan B for above and below ground.
Politically, the pressure is no longer on the officer holders who were accountable for the deep-bore decision. Greg Nickels and Christine Gregoire are gone from public office.

Now, Ed Murray owns the waterfront, lock, stock and borer. He helped Seattle get the funds. His team is overseeing the waterfront makeover. He's the guy on whose watch Bertha broke down. He's the guy who has to knit this whole thing together, and he's proven adept at handling complicated Seattle politics.

He's also the one who's going to have to come up with the money to pay for stuff that comes up. Even without Bertha, projects like the seawall and the James Corner plan, as we've seen, are capable of generating their own overruns.

So budget-conscious caution is a smart move — even smarter if it's genuine and not simply a way of finessing bad news.
There are other concerns too beyond the plan and construction. The outcome, for example. Waterfront staples, like Ivar's Acres of Clams, are being shut down for seawall work, and many waterfront businesses will be kept on some level of life support while the work goes forward. But what happens when it's all over?
There is concern about the kinds of rents tenants will have to pay on the other end of improvements, after all the attendant private renovations are done. Ivar's Bob Donegan was quoted in the Seattle Times on the compensation his operation will receive covering taxes, mortgages, key employees, etc., "With this, we have the chance to survive.”
A chance to survive? If Ivar’s is worried, what about all the little guys? What about their neighbors? Will Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, the curio emporium and private museum founded in 1899 that has embodied the waterfront and Seattle weirdness, be able to reopen on the same scale and with the visibility that it has had in the past?

Someone's going to have to pay for all that gussying-up.
There is reason to be concerned. While the waterfront redo has been pitched as "for all," there's no guarantee it'll work out that way. Expensive high-rises, raised rents, the potential to lose some anchor businesses and the lack of more affordable neighborhood housing (though Pike Place Market will add some) suggests that familiar gentrification outcomes are likely.
And let's face it: For some people, that's the whole point. One type of waterfront booster want to wipe out the tacky tchotchke shops and old piers for the sparkling, gleaming new stuff. Plastic city for all?

The other political issue is the 2015 City Council district elections, which will likely reshape how public money is spread around the city. Projects like the waterfront could face a more skeptical council if new district city council representatives, in tight budget times, are asked to balance downtown or citywide benefits for the sake of local, district needs.

Murray himself nodded toward this. "'Something like 35 percent of the city has no sidewalks,' [Murray] told the Seattle Times, saying he doesn’t want to move ahead with an elaborate waterfront at the expense of Seattle’s outlying neighborhoods." District 5, District 2, did you hear him?

Like it or not, it's now on Murray to keep the project on track and in bounds; to figure out the trade-off between creating a privileged new waterfront and taking care of other city and neighborhood needs. It's up to Murray to figure out Plan B in case the WTF moment happens and the tunnel proves too problematic or too expensive to finish.

He's the one who will be on the hook for keeping this makeover from becoming a domino of boondoggles; he's the one who will be on the hook if the new waterfront turns into something less than what we deserve for more than we can pay.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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