Waterfront Park is trying to jump into Elliott Bay, and really who can blame it?
Waterfront Park is trying to jump into Elliott Bay, and really who can blame it? COURTESY @STREETPHOTOJOURNALISM

Yesterday I logged onto a press conference on Webex featuring Department heads from Seattle Parks and Recreation, the Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects, and the Seattle Department of Transportation with one question on my mind: Will the "significant shifting" of Pier 58, aka Waterfront Park, cause the Seattle Great Wheel to roll into Elliott Bay?

As we all know, the Seattle Great Wheel, which stands majestically on a pier connected to Waterfront Park, is the most romantic $15 place on earth. Any disaster movie scenario where the pier collapses into the bay while bringing the Great Wheel along with it would represent a devastating romantic loss to the city.

The short answer to my question, courtesy of Seattle Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre, was that structural engineers will soon lay out in a report any potential danger to connecting piers. "There could be some impact if [Pier 58] moves quickly, depending on how it's shifting and which way it's moving," he said.

Aguirre added that the piers also share some utility connections, which will be "disconnected or moved to make sure there's no risk of them being sheered off or pulled off."

The city banned heavy loads and large groups from the pier in response to recommendations from an evaluation conducted by Seattle Structural in 2016.

Since then, the Parks department said "natural forces have accelerated the closely monitored deterioration" of the pier.

When asked about the likelihood of a doomsday scenario, Dr. Marc Eberhard, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, noted that he had "very little specific expertise in the areas of timber structures or piers" and "zero knowledge about that particular structure," referring to Pier 58, but his read on the 2016 inspection was that "absent an earthquake or large storm, the engineers were (back in 2016, at least) mainly worried about local failures of individual timber piles."

"They thought it probably okay to have small groups of people on the pier, because the failure of a single pile would likely lead to load redistribution to other piles," Eberhard added.

In general, he said, structural engineers and the assessment procedures they use typically include generous factors of safety in their work, particularly when there are a lot of unknowns, such as the case for the condition of the pier.

While we await the new report, the news you can use is that Waterfront Park will remain closed until at least 2024. The pier was scheduled for replacement starting in 2022, but, given the significant shifting and "deterioration" confirmed by engineers over the weekend, Aguirre said the city must "accelerate" the removal of the pier.

The removal plan, Aguirre said, will take into account the adjoining properties—namely the Seattle Aquarium and Miners Landing, where rests our precious Wheel—and will "preserve the integrity" of those neighboring structures.

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SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said his department will “expedite that permitting process" with the Army Corps of Engineers, who he said were "aware" of the possible need to accelerate the process. He added assurances that the Elliott Bay Seawall, which is separate from the pier, was "in good shape" and had not shifted along the pier.

Though Mayor Jenny Durkan mentioned the potential "failure" of the pier as an example of an "unexpected new emergency" in a press release about declining revenues and a bad economic forecast, Marshall Foster, who directs the Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects, said the replacement of the pier is already fully funded. If money is needed to pay for any emergency short-term demolitions, his office would draw from their current funding sources, he said.

Foster said the design of the new pier is 60% complete, and that construction is still scheduled to begin in 2022. So we might just be looking at a fenced-off pier between the aquarium and Miners Landing for a while, unless of course they need to bust it up quick.