Last night, Seattleites embraced the darkness and wandered the grounds of Olympic Sculpture Park, where sculptural works by world-renowned artists like Louise Bourgeois and Richard Serra were lit up alongside contemporary blinky light projects by the Seattle Design Nerds and Bellingham-based Sensebellum.
The event was a kaleidoscopic feast of the visual senses along a downtown waterfront where a certain elevated highway is now just a distant memory. A few weeks ago, I stopped by the Friends of Waterfront Seattle on Western Avenue to grab a piece of souvenir rubble. The mesmerizing diorama and renderings of future plazas and public spaces were pure urbanist porn. But unlike actual porn, the display at Waterfront Space isn’t a fantasy: It’s really happening.
Since the waterfront of our dreams will come true, now is the time to tie up some loose ends. And we have a nearly 50-year-old loose end that everyone knows if they’ve ever cruised along the Elliott Bay Trail or admired the skyline from a ferry deck.
That loose end is the Terminal 86 Grain Facility, a concrete monolith that blots the skyline.
If Seattle were a college campus, the grain elevator would be that ugly building that gets airbrushed out of the promotional literature. (Oh wait, we are a college campus and that ugly building already exists.)
I want to stress that I have nothing against the Port of Seattle exporting grain from the heartland to hungry Pacific Rim countries. I recently took a boat tour of our working waterfront and I came away with a newfound appreciation for the maritime economy that flourishes along Elliott Bay.
Aboard an Argosy vessel on a blustery November day, State Rep. Gael Tarleton of Seattle made a convincing case. We are a unique port city that manages to keep dry docks and fishing fleets afloat cheek by jowl with plenty of competing interests: a high-tech economy eager to gobble up waterfront real estate, two pro sports stadiums constantly throttling port access, the busiest passenger ferry service in the U.S., weekend warrior kayakers and SUPers, and even a few whales and salmon.
As Tarleton argued, we made a conscious decision to keep our working waterfront and not hide it somewhere like dirty laundry as San Francisco did (Oakland) or San Diego did (Long Beach). As, I suppose, we could have done and sent our waterfront industry to Tacoma and turned Elliott Bay into a cargo-free waterfront theme park. Since we decided to hang our port activity out on the clothesline for everyone to see, however, that means we should care what it looks like.
And the Terminal 86 Grain Facility looks like shit. Well, shit if you ate concrete-flavored oat bran for breakfast.
As it turns out, that’s how Seattleites felt all along. The HistoryLink Wayback Machine has a file on the grain terminal, where it notes: “The Seattle Times columnist Herb Robinson summed up the feelings of many in a May 21, 1970, opinion piece titled ‘Ugly Grain Elevator Far Cry from Artist's Sketch.’”
It’s been sitting there, ugly, ever since. A year ago this week, we had a taste of what an aesthetic upgrade could do. Someone organized a spectacular light projection on the grain facility’s flank, proving that this monstrosity has some redeeming value: It’s a perfect canvas.
But an ephemeral light show is insufficient. When the blinky lights were turned off at Olympic Sculpture Park and the sun rose today, we had sculptures that delight the eye. When the projectors were turned off at Terminal 86 and the sun rose a year ago, we had a beige hunk of concrete along one of the world’s most scenic urban waterfronts.
The solution is simple: a paint job.
HistoryLink also tells us that the Seattle Design Commission of yore was adamantly opposed to any splash of color: “members (...) strongly recommended against even painting the elevator gray or green, suggesting instead that it be ‘left in its natural concrete color.’”
The prevailing wisdom of 1970 is way behind the times. Five years ago, Vancouver, B.C. opened its doors to genius Brazilian street art duo Os Gêmeos, who transformed six very active cement silos into the iconic mural “Giants.” Gracing Granville Island with their presence, the piece must be seen to be believed.
While we’re a long way from being a City of Murals like Philly, the good news is that Seattle is slowly becoming more receptive to the transformative power of street and mural art. The two-mile stretch along SODO Track is a head-turner every time I ride Link south of downtown. I now spy Shepard Fairey’s “Fire Sale” on the side of the State Hotel from ferry rides. (More of Fairey’s work graces the side of a South Lake Union building in banner form.)
With Expedia quickly adding more brogrammers and cruise ships docking all summer at adjacent Smith Cove, a grain-elevator-sized mural would be the ultimate waterfront welcome mat.
A few days after watching the behemoth from an Argosy deck, I biked down to the newly opened section of Elliott Bay waterfront by Expedia, called The Beach. It is a marvel of landscape architecture and my new favorite sunset destination. As the western sun descended behind the Olympics and Mt. Rainier hovered in the distance, the Terminal 86 Grain Facility caught the dying rays of sunlight, transforming the dull gray with a flaxen glint. A coat of primer for the canvas yet to be painted.