The Waterfront Gondola is Really Happening (Probably)

The guy who built the Great Wheel is serious: He's putting a skyway through Union Street.

By Allison Williams March 4, 2014

Editor's note: Cross-posted from Seattle Met's Tripster.

Over here at PubliCola, we'll have lots more to say about the gondola proposal as it moves forward, including plenty of wonky details about the gantlet of city permits and regulations—including a full environmental impact statement and a city council ordinance—the proposal will face on its way to realization. 

It's a pie-in-the-sky idea: stringing a sky gondola from Seattle's waterfront to the Convention Center. But Hal Griffith, the Pier 57 owner who erected a waterfront Ferris wheel last year, has made it official. He's moving ahead with the project, aiming to open it immediately after the viaduct comes down in 2016.

At a press conference held at Pier 57 this afternoon, Hal's son Kyle Griffith sang the praises of a Convention Center-to-waterfront link, namely that visitors could park at the former and be quickly flown down to the latter. (Doesn't hurt that the visitors are likely to patronize Pier 57's restaurants, carousel, and the Great Wheel.) The Convention Center's 1,800 parking spaces are underutilized on weekends and holidays, the younger Griffith said, while the waterfront lost spaces with construction along Alaskan Way. Gondola tickets could come with reduced parking rates.

The presentation pointed to the rise in urban gondolas, which grace the streets of cities like Medellin, Columbia; Constantine, Algeria; Batumi, Greece; and Singapore. Portland has a tram to its hospital, but Seattle's 8-person cars will haul 1,800 people per hour up the half-mile route. It'd take just five minutes, including a slow-down at the midpoint near SAM and Benaroya Hall. More details from the presentation:

• Where: The gondola would run from Freeway Park next to the Convention Center down to the waterfront, staying above Union Street. A midway station would sit between First and Second Avenues on Union, which would have to narrow from three to two lanes of traffic to accommodate the station.

• What it looks like: Eight towers would support the cable and cars, each shaped like a whalebone and taking up only three feet square on the sidewalk. The cars would travel about 40 to 50 feet above traffic, and well above the cables used by city buses.

• Who the heck is paying for it: The entire enterprise, which will cost "tens of millions of dollars," according to Griffith, is privately funded. No taxpayer money will be used, says the elder Griffith, "and by being privately funded, there's a strong possibility it will happen." 

• How much it'll stick out: No, there will be no light shows on these hanging cars, unlike the techincolor explosion of the Great Wheel that has redefined the Seattle waterfront.

• Where else: "Phase Two" of the project would add a link up to the Broadway Light Rail station on Capitol Hill. But since the eastern terminus next to Freeway Park wouldn't really allow for further expansion, that leg is still in the maybe-someday phase.

• Who gets a say: The city does have to sign off on quite a few permits before the gondola literally gets off the ground. That includes analysis by the Seattle Department of Transportation, evaluation of fees the city would charge, Design Commission review, an ordinance from the city council, and tons of impact studies (including that EIS).

The proposed route.

Is this really gonna happen? By 2016, the same year the University expansion of the Light Rail would open? (And that project was proposed during the Bush administration.) It's not impossible. Hal Griffith and Associates managed to build the city a new landmark in only a few months, and Kyle Griffith notes that they've already spoken to each city council member about the necessary design review and right-of-way issues.

But since the project can't be installed until after the Viaduct is really and truly demolished, we'll be huffing and puffing up the downtown hill for a little while yet.


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