City leaders have been squabbling over the waterfront for years—particularly since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which knocked the 50-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct's federal structural-sufficiency rating down to 9 points (out of 100). It became clear that what's there must be demolished and replaced. But the game has changed. Whereas there seemed to be agreement in recent years on how to best replace the concrete hulk—when former mayor Greg Nickels and former King County executive Ron Sims struck a deal with the governor for a tunnel and the city council agreed to a deep-bore-tunnel option—those plans now seem more tenuous. Sims and Nickels are gone. So is city planner Ray Gastil, whom we poached from New York City because of his waterfront-planning accomplishments. Lawsuits are pending to block the tunnel. And newly elected leaders at City Hall have their own ideas about rebuilding the waterfront and investing in major transit infrastructure.
Regardless of the political tumult, the process to rebuild the waterfront is proceeding on a tight schedule. City leaders and civic activists are jumping into the design phase and developing preliminary plans—plans that could feature beaches, parks with trees and lawns, community gardens, children's play areas, and concert venues—that will be released this fall.
Here is where we stand: In May, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) will launch a search for design consultants to reenvision 25 acres of land that has been eaten up and overshadowed by the viaduct since 1952. The swath runs from Pioneer Square to Belltown. In October, city planners will unveil preliminary designs for public comment.
"We finally have a real budgeted project to design and ultimately build the waterfront," says Marshall Foster, the new planning director for DPD. "We've never had that before." The city, the county, and the state have agreed on funding for three elements essential to development: removing the viaduct and replacing the main roadway, replacing the utilities that run under the viaduct, and allocating money to develop the waterfront. There's some dispute about how much money will go specifically toward a rebuild—after demolishing the viaduct and digging a tunnel—but suffice it to say there are hundreds of millions of dollars. The city alone has committed $123 million for creating public space.
What will that space look like? Cary Moon, director of the People's Waterfront Coalition, says the future waterfront can't be a homogenous shopping strip that caters just to tourists, but needs to be a more urban area that supports a variety of uses. Creating competing spaces that play off each other will draw locals and tourists alike. The waterfront needs "active edges, with cafes and shopping, a community garden, a kids' playground, industrial ping-pong tables with steel nets, beaches—anything's possible," she says.
But several variables—how to pay for replacing the seawall and lingering questions about the viability of the deep-bore tunnel—complicate the timeline. Balancing these issues is the Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee, formed by the city council last November to advise on waterfront development. Forty-one people from the Seattle Parks Foundation, the American Institute of Architects, People for Puget Sound, Allied Arts of Seattle, and neighborhood groups make up the group that will ultimately make recommendations to the city on the time line for construction.
The group has the ear of Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who ran for office last fall, in part, to push for the deep-bore tunnel under downtown and to open up the waterfront. "The tunnel is a means to an end," she says. (The outcome of the tunnel dispute, of course, bears on the waterfront development because it would reroute traffic away from Alaskan Way.) Bagshaw explains that losing the tunnel would mean losing dedicated state funds for rebuilding Alaskan Way closer to downtown businesses once the viaduct is demolished.
Others disagree. The tunnel project is the subject of two lawsuits spearheaded by citizen activist Elizabeth Campbell, who claims that the Washington State Department of Transportation hasn't conducted the environmental reviews needed before deciding on a deep-bore-tunnel option.
Moon and others argue that the waterfront can achieve the same outcome with the tunnel or by making transit, I-5, and downtown road improvements. Eventually, she says, the viaduct has to come down, and the state is obligated to pay for viaduct removal and the cost to replace the city street. Bagshaw is "dead wrong on the waterfront vision or replacement street funding being dependent on building a tunnel," says Moon.
Disagreements aside, the leaders of the waterfront efforts share a growing sense of urgency caused by an 80-year-old decaying seawall. In addition, the pillars that support Piers 62 and 63 are rotting. They can no longer support large public gatherings like the Summer Nights at the Pier concert series. The Washington Street Public Boat Landing facility south of the ferry terminal hasn't had a pier for over a decade. The park adjacent to it is perennially padlocked, although a sign next to the locked gate still reads "This park is for enjoying shore views."
Mayor McGinn, DPD, and the waterfront committee recognize that a comprehensive waterfront vision needs to include the seawall shoreline, which is the spine of the new public space. They've accelerated the waterfront-planning effort to parallel the seawall-replacement effort.
Moon says there are several great opportunities to connect to the water, if the seawall is designed to accommodate it. Elliott Bay is shallow enough for beaches directly north and south of the aquarium (adjacent to Piers 62 and 63) and south of the ferry terminal (near the defunct public boat landing). If the seawall is designed to recede in these places, in tandem with the waterfront design, Seattle could have multiple beaches, or a lower-level walkway, with steps that sink into the bay. The question is, what do the people want to see?
The next priority is getting the public to chime in about what they want on the waterfront. "It's the only way to ensure that in the end this project really sings," says Moon.
So what happens next? DPD is creating a steering committee of roughly 10 people to hire and guide the design consultants and ensure great public outreach. The committee will be composed of citizens with expertise in planning, design, and public development, tasked with overseeing the design work. In October, city staff and civic leaders will bring this preliminary vision to neighborhoods for public comment.