Last night, over 1,200 people packed Benaroya Hall to watch four design teams—Wallace Roberts & Todd, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol—vie for the chance to redesign 20 acres of public land along the waterfront once the Viaduct comes down in 2016. Sitting with the spectators, watching the presentations on stage, was a panel of eight city officials ultimately tasked with choosing which team will get the job. They are expected to make their recommendation to the Seattle Department of Transportation next week.

If you don't want to wade through three hours of video, here are the two design teams that clearly nailed it: Field Operations and GGN.

Field Operations: As with all the teams, the goal wasn't to present specific waterfront plans but to prove that they had the chops to design the best waterfront based on their vision and their portfolio.

Field Operations turns polluted waterways into walkable public parks
  • via Seattle Channel
  • Field Operations turns polluted waterways into walkable public parks
James Corner, the leader of Field Operations, designs mad mini-worlds. His team is in the process of turning 22,000 acres of landfill into a New York park. In Qianhai, China, Field Operations is turning five polluted river channels into public parks that filter pollution out of the water—they're "designed partly as parks, they have paths and public spaces but more importantly they are water treatment machines"—that clean the water 100 percent by the time it reaches the city's bay (for Corner's full explanation, go here. Holy shit, right?) Corner used this design to highlight the possibilities for our city: "..Because of the culture and the society and the ambitions here in Seattle, there could be significant ecological improvement that could be a model for the world."

Field Operation designs imaginative, functional parks that are specific to place. And Corner made it clear the waterfront's industrial feel would play a strong role in its design: "I really hate waterfronts that are anesthetized and beautified to look just like any other city," Corner said. "The life of the boats and the ferries are really critical... and the piers are very distinctive. We want to find a way to... get people out on them, experiencing the bay." His slides showed other projects in his portfolio—giant concrete steps leading into water, submerged rock walls that create small pools in larger bays (which people can walk on), giant, climbable wooden walls that teenagers jump off of into water. Every slide revealed a scene I wanted to jump into.

Walking on water.
  • via Seattle Channel
  • Walking on water.

More jumping after the jump.

And Corner clearly understood the complexity of integrating a working street into the design. "We’ve done this in Toronto with the Gardiner Expressway, reducing 16 lanes to six lanes," said Corner. "It’s a priority that the street is integral to the park." Everyone I spoke with agreed that Corner nailed the presentation.

Meanwhile GGN, a local firm with offices on the waterfront, clearly nailed what Seattle is and aspires to be: "A healthy lifestyle isn’t accessible to all people right now," said Shannon Nichol, of GGN. "This is our opportunity to make the entire city as a healthier place to live... We would like to look at the bay as our central park. We could be the first city to have a bay as a central space that joins our communities together."

GGN proposes opening up walking and street corridors to the waterfront
  • via Seattle Channel
  • GGN proposes opening up walking and street corridors to the waterfront
Nichol spoke of the history of Seattle informing the waterfront's design, from the "North Sound glacial footprint carved out what we now know as our city" to the "native ecology and chance to experience it instead of trees from Ohio." She also spoke of rediscovering the bluff that separates downtown from the water, and energizing that by extending streets and walkable paths from 1st Avenue to the Water (all of the groups mentioned this in some form or another, but Nichol explanation was especially poetic). "That is where the ritual of arriving at the water should start," Nichol said. Then she outlined the group's goal of creating walkable neighborhoods along the water, each no more than 300 meters in diameter. "Our framework of mobility and streets needs to break down to a finer scale," she said. "That doesn’t mean less cars on waterfront, but more crossings, finer scaled pieces instead of one singular, over-sized barrier."

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GGN's presentation didn't sing with imagination like Field Operations's, but it did show a strong grasp of the values of Seattle residents. And GGN is partnered with Lead Pencil Studios for artistic design, so clearly they won't be lacking in imagination or vision.

The presentations are all 20 minutes each, followed by 15 minutes of questions guided by Daniel Friedman, Dean of the UW College of Built Environments. Friedman was a dream host: He did a classy job of asking tough, invigorating questions that appealed to both the professions in the audience and the laymen, like me, who don't know shit about design. I strongly encourage you to at least watch these two presentations—I've queued up the video for Field Operations and GGN—and the Q and A that follows them. My bet is that one of these two teams will be tasked with reshaping our waterfront.

*This post has been updated.