January 18, 2007

Risky site inspired creative thinking

  • Park planners faced a rail line, four-lane road and environmental contamination
    Seattle Art Museum


    When the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land announced plans to create a sculpture park on a former fuel yard site, it made headline news.

    Billed as “Seattle’s last chance for a downtown park,” the site held enormous promise for a city that was still rebounding from thwarted efforts to build the Seattle Commons. The long-neglected Unocal property was expansive, it was in the heart of the city and it had remarkable views for which Seattle is renowned.

    Other prospective purchasers may have shied away from a complicated and risky proposition: the site was environmentally contaminated, it was divided by a four-lane roadway and separated from the waterfront by an active rail line. And yet this site like no other — with its dramatic views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound, and constantly changing landscape of weather, atmosphere and light — it inspired a level of vision, creativity and civic commitment that would guide the park’s development for the next seven years.

    Jon and Mary Shirley’s endowment gift ensured the Olympic Sculpture Park — named by the Shirleys for its visual connection to the majestic Olympic Mountains in the distance — would be free and accessible to all. It laid the foundation for the transformative role that art and ecology could have as catalysts on a city’s vitality.

    Their intention, shared by the museum family and a growing group of community partners, was to create a dynamic and flexible setting for art, a diversity of landscapes for sculpture and human interaction, a park that would reflect the beauty of the Northwest and simultaneously educate visitors about our unique regional environment.

    52 submissions

    Photo by Paul Warchol
    Dramatic views and changing landscapes of weather, atmosphere and light inspired park planners to look past the site’s many obstacles.

    Following site acquisition (which also included the purchase of an adjacent one-third-acre property, formerly home to RC’s Billiards), SAM was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ New Public Works program, established to promote design excellence in the public realm.

    In response to its international call for entries, SAM received 52 submissions from established and emerging talents from the visual arts and design fields, including Vito Acconci, Julie Bargmann, Rem Koolhaas, James Corner, Zaha Hadid, Tom Leader and James Turrell.

    After a thorough review of built projects, interviews and public presentations by five finalists, Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi of Weiss/Manfredi won the design competition in 2001. Their design vision expressed the dynamic integration of landscape, architecture and urban design, which they had successfully achieved in previous projects.

    The city of Seattle joined with the museum to fund a design that included the city-owned right-of-way west of the railroad tracks, which at the time was a surface parking lot and home to the waterfront streetcar maintenance barn. The city’s participation and support was a crucial element in the realization of the sculpture park.

    Elevated switchback

    Weiss/Manfredi’s brilliant design strategy was an elevated switchback in a Z-shape that would traverse both Elliott Avenue and the railroad tracks while mitigating the 40-foot grade change that existed across the site, which for years had made public access to the waterfront a challenge.

    In addition to providing elevated passage over the road and rail line, the Z-path and the substantial placement of soil required to construct it ensured SAM protection from the threat of any contamination remaining on site. The state Department of Ecology’s early participation helped solve the initial challenge of creating a public park on a former industrial site, but more important, set the stage for a multitude of partnerships with public agencies at all levels of government.

    Restoring the shoreline

    Following the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, Seattle woke up to the fear that its Alaskan Way Viaduct along the central waterfront might not survive the next big one.

    Planners from the state and city agencies offered one proposal to both replace the aging structure and reinforce the equally vulnerable 900-foot-long seawall with a buried tunnel that would extend north under the sculpture park. The tunnel idea was ultimately abandoned due to high construction estimates, potential impacts on Puget Sound and public discord over continued delays to the sculpture park.

    SAM still faced the challenge of replacing the seawall that is the park’s shoreline boundary and whose vulnerability was also made visible by the earthquake.

    Presented with an initial budget estimate by transportation engineers of $50 million-$80 million, the park’s design team identified an alternative solution that would both meet seismic standards and help restore the shoreline. Technical expertise and funding made possible by King County, the city of Seattle, the state of Washington and the U.S. government resulted in a project that at $5.5 million was comparatively cost-effective and better for salmon. It also presented Seattle with a re-created natural shoreline — a first for the central waterfront.

    A final challenge

    The park’s final challenge came in early 2005 when efforts to relocate the maintenance facility for Seattle’s streetcar were met with opposition from trolley enthusiasts and further complicated by the projected time frame for replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

    After months of deliberations and a range of possible solutions, political leaders at King County and the city approved a plan to relocate maintenance operations, a plan that would someday provide an opportunity to extend service so that the historic streetcar could also become a commuting option for those living and working downtown. The solution fit perfectly with SAM’s intent to incorporate a streetcar stop at the waterfront entrance to the park, maximizing the connection between the park and other cultural landmarks on Seattle’s waterfront.

    Although the realization of the sculpture park was a complicated seven-year odyssey that ultimately required partnerships with many entities outside the museum, these alliances and the design vision they helped to advance ensured that the Olympic Sculpture Park would leave a lasting imprint on Seattle’s physical and cultural landscape, a remarkable legacy for generations to enjoy.

    Chris Rogers is director of capital projects and government affairs at the Seattle Art Museum. A native of Seattle, he received his bachelor’s degree in art history from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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