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Don't Compromise The Central Waterfront By Ruling Out Development
Yesterday's selection of a team led by james corner field operations to design Seattle's central waterfront is inspiring, for sure, but the decision didn't have me on the edge of my seat. Any one of the four shortlisted teams have the chops to do something amazing. The far more critical issue is how the city sets the parameters for the design of the waterfront, and in particular, the misguided notion that there should be no new development.
Removing the roaring concrete hulk known as the Alaskan Way Viaduct will obviously transform the central waterfront. But it won't fix many other existing faults that have prevented the waterfront from becoming a exemplary public space, including a lack of diversity and density of uses; massive swaths of surface parking and parking garages; angled piers that block water views; a huge pedestrian dead zone created by the loading area of the state ferry terminal; and poor connectivity to the east. Today the waterfront is kept on life support by tourists during the summer months---for locals, on a day-to-day basis, it has little to offer.
After the viaduct is gone, the biggest challenge to creating a successful people place on the waterfront will be the vastness of the space. It's difficult to capture that in pictures or diagrams---you really have to walk through it to understand. In particular, to get an idea for how empty the central waterfront would feel with the viaduct gone, check out the area just north of Pike Street where the viaduct and Alaskan Way diverge, as shown in the photos above (click to enlarge).
The designers could fill all that space with compelling landscape architecture, no doubt. But for the post-viaduct waterfront to reach its fullest potential, what it needs most of all is new buildings that will create activated, human-scale spaces. As I have written previously, to be successful the the waterfront must provide all kinds of people with all kinds of reasons to go there at all times of the day. Given the deficiencies noted above, a smattering of kiosks and pavilions won't be enough to prevent empty windswept plaza syndrome from infecting such a gargantuan expanse. The most prominent recent example of this trap is the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.
And this is where constraints come in. Because unfortunately, the city has so far taken the position that all of the land under the viaduct must remain open space. In 2004 the city council codified that sentiment in a city ordinance stating that one of the "guiding principles" of the Viaduct/Seawall Project would be to "keep the public right-of-way in public ownership." In 2009, a spokesman told the PI that then-mayor Greg Nickels wanted to "keep the corridor land in public ownership if the viaduct is removed, and to transform the land into a millennium park."
More recently, the city has also resorted to scrubbing the advice of its own consultant, Gehl Architects of Copenhagen. According to a reliable source, the draft version of the firm's "Public Spaces, Public Life" report recommended the development of new row of buildings opposite the piers, with Alaskan Way running behind. But that recommendation never made it into the final report. And that's a shame, because I, for one, believe Gehl's advice is spot on, and would like to see the plans of what they proposed.
Much of the city's aversion to new development on the waterfront seems to be politically motivated, driven by the perception that the typical Seattle voter worships open space and loathes developers. That dynamic was captured perfectly in council member Sally Bagshaw's recent comment that she has been working for years to prevent "giant condos and hotels" on the waterfront.
Look, nobody with any credibility is proposing to wall off the waterfront with a playground for the wealthy. But allowing that myopic, knee-jerk fear to rule out any development at all is counterproductive. Development is not the enemy. And in this case, since the city controls the land, we have the opportunity to stipulate exactly the kind of development we want, as well as to cut deals with developers to fund public amenities---a win-win.
It will be no small task to transform today's central waterfront into the kind of vibrant, diverse, comfortable urban public space that everyone wants. But we might as well give up now if we can't beyond our collective fear of allowing thoughtful redevelopment to be a part of the reinvention of one of Seattle's greatest assets.
- A Beloved Seattle Restaurant Shuts Its Doors
- Butcher BB Ranch Is Feeding Marijuana to Pigs
- Seattle’s Best Restaurants for Cheap Eats
- Morning Fizz: Luckily for Mayor Mike McGinn
- Morning Fizz: Serious Faux Pas
- Mayor's Race Scenarios
- McGinn Below 25 Percent in Latest Poll
- Retail Refreshment at Pacific Place
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