September 25, 2008

5 principles for renewing Seattle’s waterfront

  • Razing the Alaskan Way Viaduct creates a rare social, environmental and economic opportunity
    LMN Architects


    The heart of every great region is a vibrant urban core that embodies the spirit of the place and serves as the social, economic and spiritual heart of the community. In Seattle, the missing piece in our urban core is a spectacular urban waterfront.

    The best examples of urban waterfronts — Chicago; Barcelona, Spain; Sydney, Australia; Vancouver, British Columbia — capture the aspirations and imagination of their regions by creating energetic, mixed-use districts that extend the experience of their urban cores to the waterfront. Such waterfront redevelopments can be functional, beautiful and sustainable, acting as catalysts for development with a positive social, environmental and economic impact.

    Seattle has a unique opportunity to create a similar great urban waterfront.

    Throughout Seattle’s history, the city’s central waterfront has been a habitat, a traffic artery, frontage for industrial and commercial activities, a drain, a reservoir, a residential backdrop and a recreational resource. Mostly, however, it has been a bustling commerce center that hasn’t served as a particularly inviting waterfront for its citizens.

    Weighing possibilities

    Photo courtesy of Tourism NSW
    Sydney, Australia's waterfront extends the energetic experience of the city core to the shoreline. Seattle has the opportunity to create a similarly great waterfront.

    So the question before us is, what should we expect from our waterfront?

    It’s important to first realize that the seemingly endless controversy surrounding the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seattle’s central waterfront is more than just a transportation problem. It’s a question of what we want our city to be and how we choose to present ourselves to the world.

    We must consider what it means to have a connection to the waterfront and how that connection can benefit Seattle environmentally, economically and socially. We need to ask ourselves: What’s good for the ecology and socioeconomics of the region? How can Seattle create a waterfront befitting the highest ambitions of the city? What inspires us?

    As the approach for eliminating the viaduct is developed, many critical issues must be comprehensively addressed. For the Stakeholder Advisory Committee’s current review, these issues have been summarized in six guiding principles, including cost, mobility, sustainability, public safety, economic impact and enhancement of the waterfront as a place for people.

    These issues are interrelated, as various measures in the approach will obviously impact more than one of the guiding principles and will have significance for the entire downtown. Eliminating the Alaska Way Viaduct and creating a highway-free waterfront will redefine the city’s relationship to its single greatest amenity and resource — the Puget Sound waterfront.

    Framework for renewal

    It’s time to come together and embrace this unique opportunity by creating an ambitious and sustainable plan. Mobility, cultural heritage, natural environment, urban ecology and the character of civic spaces must all be carefully considered.

    Five core principles should act as a framework for the renewal of Seattle’s central waterfront:

    • Connect Seattle’s unique urban qualities with the waterfront. The waterfront should feel like and function as a seamless extension of the urban fabric. The sloping topography offers important views and streetscape experiences that unfold toward the water. Enhanced connections from downtown streets to the waterfront will enrich both the urban core and the waterfront.

    Likewise, distinctive neighborhoods such as Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market should be more directly connected — visually, physically and experientially — to the waterfront. The configuration of waterfront streets rising to cross over the railroad tracks adjacent to Victor Steinbrueck Park will significantly impact the relationship between Pike Place Market and the waterfront. Roadway schemes should be configured to strengthen this important relationship.

    • Create a vibrant mixed-use waterfront district. The waterfront should become a vibrant urban district with public open spaces that can support informal activities as well as scheduled public events. It should offer access to the water and the experience of Puget Sound, creating a physical connection to the water that is a central part of our region’s heritage.

    It should contain public facilities while supporting the nearby development of retail, offices, residential and entertainment activities. In short, it should become a thriving urban district integrated with quality public space linking the urban core to the waterfront.

    • Contribute to a citywide mobility plan. Without a highway on the waterfront, tremendous opportunities emerge to develop a thriving, vibrant urban district that will enrich the entire urban core. To achieve a highway-free waterfront will require an integrated mobility plan that captures roadway capacity elsewhere, leverages use of transit systems and other non-vehicular transportation, such as bicycles, and integrates the waterfront district into that system.

    A waterfront surface street with stoplights similar to other downtown streets, along with provisions for pedestrians, bicycles and transit connections, should be included in the plan.

    • Improve the environment. When we dismantle the viaduct — and eliminate its traffic and stormwater runoff — we have the opportunity to restore compromised areas of the waterfront habitat and protect its ecosystem. The waterfront plan should integrate with the natural ecology of the shore.

    We also can support the city’s efforts to build a denser urban environment by creating the shared open space that urban density requires. Urban density and compact growth means fewer cars and less pollution.

    • Create a framework for continued development. The waterfront should develop through an open-ended plan that comprehensively establishes the parameters for development and allows for broad-based participation in its continued evolution as an urban place.

    Realizing the vision

    The evaluation of approaches should consider which alternative offers the best opportunity to realize the potential of Seattle’s urban waterfront. We should make choices that support a vision for a smart and sustainable future that fosters compact urban growth.

    Waterfronts are fundamental to Seattle’s history, image and quality of life. As a community, we treasure our relationship to water. We should aspire to create a great urban waterfront that enriches the social, economic and spiritual heart of the community.

    Mark Reddington is a partner at LMN Architects, where he leads the design of public-assembly projects in cities and campuses across the United States. He also participates in the AIA Seattle committee on creating a new Seattle waterfront.

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