A Walk on the Seattle Waterfront

From Burien to the North End, the Seattle shoreline reveals our rich connection to the landscape, to industry, and to our lives.

By Lawrence W. Cheek April 17, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Golden Gardens Park

I am on an edge, Seattle’s waterfront, about to begin a three-day, 45-mile urban hike from Burien, just south of the city limits at Three Tree Point, to Carkeek Park in the North End. 

My reason for walking the waterfront is that I want to see how Seattle is treating its most cherished natural resource, Puget Sound. The city is about to begin a seven-year project to dramatically transform the downtown waterfront, tearing down the vile viaduct and creating a dramatic new pedestrian experience, and it’s worth trying to understand that in relation to the city’s entire edge with the water. Walking is a way of learning the physical texture and culture of a place with an intimacy that driving never allows. 

Between the big lake and the sound, Seattle lays claim to a staggering wealth of water frontage. Without counting the Duwamish and the Washington Ship Canal, there’s about 22 miles of freshwater shore and 29 miles of saltwater frontage within Seattle city limits. By my count, about 44 percent of the saltwater shore and 41 percent of the freshwater is publically accessible in one way or another (views from a bluff or actual beach). Considering the sweep of history, this may be a respectable fraction.

A few years ago, I hiked the perimeter of Lake Washington, 76 miles in five days, and discerned for the first time an essential difference between the city and its satellites. Seattle provides twice as much lakefront to the public as all its ’burbs combined. The reason is that American cities tend to be about community, while suburbs bloom from notions of private and exclusive space. In walking, such concepts take tangible shape and exert a force on how you feel about a place.

 Humans have always been drawn to waterfronts, whatever their reasons and restrictions. We risk everything in order to occupy land adjacent to water: storms, floods, tidal surges, tsunamis, beach erosion, onerous building restrictions, and of course, great expense. Puget Sound is a benign neighbor compared with the open-sea exposure of New Orleans or Long Island, but our edge can still be dangerous. In 1997 mudslides forced evacuations of dozens of houses in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood and killed a family of four in a beach community on Bainbridge Island. 

I can’t speak for the entire human psyche but, in making this trek, hugging the view of Puget Sound as tightly as possible or being out on it in my small sailboat, I feel an infinity of possibility, endless configurations of sky and wind and tidal current and the architecture of waves, and boundless routes to take, either in fact or imagination. 

See more photos of Lawrence W. Cheek's walk on the entire length of the Seattle waterfront.

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Eagle Landing Park in Burien.

Burien to Alki Point

It’s early morning. The beach ahead is broad and sandy and deserted, the water blue satin. Facing it is a phalanx of two-story homes exuding prosperity and patriotism, American flags posted in the yards sloping toward the water. And a quintessentially American sentiment on a big red sign: “PRIVATE BEACHES to low tide.”

I am on an edge of my own: Begin my trek with a bold and unapologetic trespass? On one side,
an ancient injunction lingering from childhood: Respect thy neighbor’s property. On the other stands the adult with a populist tilt and the knowledge that Washington law is ambiguous. Some property owners hold title to the swath of land between low and high tides, and some don’t. 

Instead of the beach, I start along the Indian Trail in Burien, a mile-long, sanctioned path arrowing north from Three Tree Point. It’s essentially an alley graced with a canopy of maples and ivy, giving alternating glimpses of Puget Sound and backyard gardens. Over these three days I will trespass, but not too much and not too flagrantly. My sentiments remain firmly aligned with common-law populism, but my feet follow directions more deeply ingrained.

Three Tree Point.

I’ve started four miles south of the Seattle line to parse the intriguing geography of Seahurst Park and Salmon Creek Ravine Park near the north edge of Burien. The topography around both is among the waterfront’s crinkliest, a farrago of folds and hills and dark ravines. I try to find the shortest way into Seahurst from the neighborhood to the south using a shuffle of paper maps and iPhone apps, but soon I’m lost in a network of unofficial, unmarked trails. It feels more remote and lonely than would seem possible in a conurbation of 3.5 million people. When I finally blunder onto the main park trail, it climbs from sea level to an elevation of 398 feet, cresting on a waterfront bluff that overlooks the sound. Then comes Salmon Creek Ravine, where a mini canyon collapses in off the bluff, as if to hide from the sun. 

You can read Seattle’s geologic story in this corrugated parade of hills and depressions. The city’s hills, like this Seahurst bluff, all top out between 330 and 460 feet. Magnolia Bluff, 335 feet; Phinney Ridge, 348; Capitol Hill, 444; Queen Anne Hill, 456. Theory is that before the last glacial age some 14,000 years back, we were essentially a flat plain from the Cascade foothills to the Olympics. Then came the ice, a couple thousand feet of it. And under that, channels of sediment-carrying liquid water, which sliced and abraded the ravines, lakebeds, and Puget Sound basin. These hilltops are the remnants of that plain.

Seattle’s disorderly geology is underestimated as an essential piece of its character. No less than the rain, it forces us to interact with nature—to go into cardiac race at the sudden bloom of Mount Rainier over a rise, like a white tiger at the kitchen window. Or to realize that the city-owned public stairways carved into these hills are a unique attraction, not a nuisance. (Two days later, as I reach the last of the 285 steps groaning up the hill out of Golden Gardens, a slim fiftyish woman bounds to the top, smiling, not even breathing hard. She tells me she bought a house in the neighborhood specifically because of the beach and the long flight of stairs to it. “Use it or lose it,” she chirps, and turns around to run it again.)

Would it be better if we could actually walk an unrestricted public beach from one end of the city to another? I began my trek thinking so, but a few hours in I’m beginning to believe it’s the variety of our interactions with the land and water views, the quirks of civilization along the way—why is this wooden fisherman in the alley displaying a “Peace on Earth” sign?—and even the way-finding difficulties that make the trip interesting. Hiking Seattle’s shoreline isn’t just a walk in the park.

I spend the night at Alki Sunshine Bed and Breakfast two blocks from the western tip of Alki Point, where proprietor Roseann Roper incredibly and cheerfully produces breakfast for my wife Patty and me at 6am. Patty has to leave early for work; I have another 15-mile hike ahead.  

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Industrial District just west of the Duwamish River

Alki to Downtown

At 7am, Alki Beach is already alive with rollerbladers and dog walkers, but at the same time it seems moodily subdued because of a blanket of fog. I reach Duwamish Head, the upturned nose of West Seattle poking into Elliott Bay, just as the downtown skyline 

blurts into view through the fog. It’s a dramatic demonstration of how the physical presence of a city, in the right conditions, can enhance nature. As a critic of architecture and urban spaces, I’ve always insisted that civilization ought to slip into a dramatic natural setting with unobtrusive humility, but this moment, disturbingly, contradicts my belief. This moment is magical precisely because of the downtown skyline’s hubris.

I expect the next hour to be the nastiest of the walk, and it doesn’t disappoint. Somehow I have to scramble from the beaches of West Seattle to the west bank of the Duwamish. It’s not that I have any problem with industrial scenery, but rather that the route is decidedly disincentivized for a walker. The tangle of railroad tracks, streets, and bridges collide at improbable angles, and the nominal pedestrian route is a littered sidewalk bracketed by barbed wire. “Public access” like this is so obviously begrudged that you feel like a trespasser even though you’re not.

James Rasmussen, the Duwamish man who’s been coordinating the river cleanup, meets me a half mile south of the West Seattle Bridge at Herring’s House Park on the river’s west bank. There’s an illuminating contrast in the panorama spread out before us. Across the river, a postcard view of unadulterated industrial Seattle: cranes, dredge barges, escarpments of stacked shipping containers. On the west bank: product of Superfund cleanup efforts that started in 2001, reeds, grass, and trees shade the restored salmon habitat at the shoreline, assorted waterbirds dry out on a sandbar, and an osprey nest crowns an abandoned wooden piling.

“We need the industrial area,” says Rasmussen, a big, barrel-chested man with a silvering ponytail. “It’s incredibly important to the economy of the city. But we also need the wildlife habitat. We can have both.” He ticks off three more industrial sites upstream that he says are going to become almost like this, but it all requires relentless pressure and hard work. “It’s almost like dealing with a kid that doesn’t want to clean up his room. The bad actors on the river, the first response they have is, ‘We’ve been doing business like this for 50 years.’ That sounds like a kid: ‘My room is fine.’”

Jack Block Park

My talk with Rasmussen underlines the complexity of the waterfront. So many constituencies have a stake in so many pieces of it—industry, tourism, the tribes that were here first, homeowners who are here now, dog walkers, kayakers, salmon, and the Department of Homeland Security, for starters—that it seems entirely too much to ask this edge to somehow accommodate them all. Yet that’s exactly what the city’s waterfront plan will try to do downtown.

“Most cities are disconnected from their waterfronts,” James Corner tells me. His firm, James Corner Field Operations, is redesigning Seattle’s downtown waterfront and has experience with many cities facing water, from Toronto to Shenzhen. “Historically, the waterfront was the industrial zone. The water didn’t have the same allure it has now. It’s just in the past 50 years that we’ve seen an enormous turnaround with deindustrialization.”

Since design work began on the reimagined downtown waterfront in 2010, many of us have voiced some variation on this question: How do we preserve the complicated character of the downtown waterfront—the grit and kitsch and commercial hubbub—while also making it welcoming and beautiful?

Seattle City planning director Marshall Foster tells me that Corner’s presentation won the design competition because he understood an essential truth: “The downtown waterfront shouldn’t be anesthetized,” Foster says. “It should really speak to the history and nature of Seattle. You shouldn’t just have a pretty walk.”

Cary Moon, urban designer and founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, agrees. “We can’t always be sanitizing everything, rewriting history.”

I hike downtown with Corner’s illustrated 60-page design summary in hand, contrasting present reality with vision. The present is not so much unsanitary as it is bleak. There’s a theme, and it’s gray concrete: viaduct structure, walls, ramps, fences, walkways, seawall, even the parks. Waterfront Park, a hangover from architecture’s drunken 1970s dalliance with Brutalism, is the most morose public space in all downtown. The soundtrack is equally dismal; the broadband hiss of the viaduct traffic blankets the waterfront with a noise fog that smothers every other sensation. 

As for connections with the water, Moon, who’s walking downtown with me, reflects on a craving that comes from deep inside. “We have this innate desire to be near the edge, and for Seattle, that’s the ocean. It’s the ‘other,’ and yet it’s right here.

We can touch it. Seattle’s history, our ecology, our commerce, our weather—everything comes from the water. People want to be integrated with that. Having a public space that examines and reveals and amplifies that connection is what Seattle deserves.”

For about a mile, from the Colman ferry dock at the foot of Columbia to the wooden prairie of Pier 62/63 below Pike Place Market, pier buildings block roughly 58 percent of the views of Elliott Bay, as best as I can calculate with the help of Corner’s renderings and Google Earth. By city ordinance these privately owned piers are required to allow public access around their perimeters, but in practice it takes determined effort to navigate around the Dumpsters and outdoor restaurant seating. Corner’s plan won’t do away with the historic pier buildings, but should improve access and the view niches in between. And many of the forbidding masses of concrete will go away.

The most interesting page in the Corner book is the cross-section of what will happen at the water’s edge, which the designer is calling a “great urban street and pedestrian promenade.” From Pioneer Square to Olympic Sculpture Park, we’ll see a walkway projected westward from the seawall with a glass strip for viewing the water beneath our feet, a pedestrian promenade 20 to 60 feet wide, a tree strip, a bike path, a four-lane surface street flanked with its own sidewalks, and finally the backs of the buildings on Western Avenue, which will be encouraged to become fronts on Alaskan Way, linking greater downtown to the waterfront. It’s an attempt to weave a tremendous concentration of urban culture and nature onto a ribbon, but it’s not unprecedented—Barcelona’s great urban street La Rambla pops to mind. La Rambla is more than 150 years old. The challenge here will be to create something that feels organic—that is, not issued from the sanitary pen of a designer—from the start.

Bleakness aside, today’s downtown waterfront still offers the promise of serendipitous discovery. Inside Miners Landing, a pier mall stuffed with arcade games and touristy craft shops, there’s a storefront where a man is painstakingly building small wooden boats to classic plans. Out back is the new Great Wheel, which animates the waterfront with movement but not exactly imagination. At the north end of the downtown strip, there’s one vantage, apparently little known and little used, that provides an emblematic view of Seattle: the rooftop plaza over Bell Street Pier. It’s a 44-foot stair climb to get to it, but the reward is a superb view of how the city and bay relate to each other. And what you see is that the edge today is almost entirely made of concrete and machinery. Corner’s plan will fix this, if Seattle doesn’t lose its way in its traditional morass of process, compromise, and endless talk.

How long the edge will stay fixed is another issue. When you hike the Seattle waterfront the coming rise in sea level is never far from mind, and it’s particularly acute downtown since we’re about to spend $300 million on the new seawall. How long will it keep Elliott Bay out of Seattle? The Washington Climate Impacts Group is predicting a “medium” Puget Sound sea-level rise of 6 inches by 2050 and 13 inches by 2100. However, the group’s worst-case allowances for both periods are 22 inches by 2050 and 50 inches by 2100. At Pier 62, with a friendly tidal graph app on my phone, I conduct my own microstudy. It’s seven minutes past the day’s high, which is pegged at 11.2 feet. I drop a measuring tape to the water, and find it’s 8.0 feet below the seawall top here. Stick with me for a bit of low-level math: The record king tide in Seattle, set last December 17, was 14.5 feet. So the level here that day was 3.3 feet higher than it is now, or 4.7 feet below sidewalk level. Since the new seawall is to remain at the same height, that worst-case 50-inch rise by 2100 would bring a king tide perilously close to within 6 inches of the rim.

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Carkeek Park


Carkeek Park

The final day is a kaleidoscope of contradictory experiences, precisely the point of a city: a postcard view of the Bainbridge ferry from the Magnolia bluff, framed through madrona trees glowing tawny gold in the morning light. An equally dramatic view of nature’s undependable welcome for civilization at the southern end of 28th Avenue West off Galer, where the pavement simply breaks off at the edge of the bluff. 

Shilshole Marina, where I have boatloads of personal memories—three years of sailing lessons and charters departing from here, each one a heady blend of excitement and fear, the proportion varying with the day’s weather and whichever problem the boat decided to present us with. The North Beach neighborhood, where the waterfront park is signed “Welcome Members to the Blue Ridge Park,” and encircled by a six-foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. No one’s inside.

I declare an official end to the walk at Carkeek Park. It’s another mile and a half to the city limits, but from here northward the BNSF tracks claim the waterfront, and it would better be toured by kayak. You get to the water at Carkeek by crossing a tall pedestrian bridge over the tracks. On the west side is a lovely beach in the form of a sandy half-moon elbowing into the sound. Instead of continuing down to it, I linger on the bridge. Of all the places on the walk, here is the view of the most nearly perfect equilibrium of civilization and nature, this huge and hubristic urban conglomeration in a clearing scooped out of the great fir forest, the even greater inland sea pressing at its edges. 

Carkeek Park

For the last hundred years, we’ve been building cities mainly for machines—cities to be navigated by motor vehicle, seen through glass, experienced through the filters of wheels and elevators. That scale is all wrong for the walker—the freeways, bridges, high-rise buildings, the sprawl of the urban conglomerate itself. A 45-mile stroll is a fairly extreme undertaking, even for a reasonably fit person. But forcing the issue, insisting that the city bow to a pedestrian, reveals what we have here. Seattle sits on one of the most magnificent intersections with nature of any city on earth, and we’re just beginning to unmake some mistakes of the past hundred years.


Published: May 2013

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