April 22, 2004

Seattle's big chance to reconnect the waterfront



When landscape architect, Charles Olmsted, arrived in Seattle a century ago he created a vision for parks and greenways. Like Olmsted, we have a once-in-a-century chance to reconnect our city to the waterfront.

For the past 50 years, the Alaskan Way Viaduct has wedged a barrier between the city and the waterfront. Due to earthquake damage and aging, the viaduct and seawall must be replaced. Now, we have a chance to reshape the waterfront with ecological sensitivity and urban vitality.

On Feb. 27 and 28, CityDesign hosted a two-day charrette to rethink our city's “front porch.” Preparing for this event started nine months earlier with a series of public meetings to craft guiding principles for the waterfront. Additional fodder for the charrette sprang from the creative work of seven teams that participated in the Allied Arts-sponsored waterfront design collaborative in October 2003.

 Terminal 46
Courtesy of Reverse Evolution (Team 9)
This idea for Terminal 46 restores the shoreline and provides parks, sports fields, a school, housing and commercial space. Click here for a larger view of this map.

More than 300 people agreed to participate and formed 22 teams consisting of designers, neighborhood representatives, economists, transportation planners, longshoremen, Port of Seattle staff, ecologists and UW students. The charrette harvested an array of inspiring ideas that struck a balance between urban life and the ecological health of our waterfront.

Common themes emerged from the event. Most teams agreed to tunnel the portion of Highway 99 that runs through the central waterfront. With this bold move, water views open up, city streets extend to the water, and parks and pedestrian-scaled development make the waterfront an around-the-clock destination.

With up to 26,000 new residents and 70,000 new jobs coming to the Seattle's downtown over the next 20 years, charrette participants recognized the essential role of parks, transportation and amenities in supporting urban vitality. Many teams extended mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods to the waterfront, adding amenities like schools, grocery stores, outdoor cinemas and parks.

The water side

Charrette participants were encouraged to design the waterfront with a larger ecological context in mind. Let's zoom out. From a distance, we see that Seattle's central waterfront sits between two beacons of light: the Discovery Beach Lighthouse to the north and Alki Lighthouse to the south.

What if Seattle's waterfront were more ecologically friendly? If we peel back the layers of industrial use, what would we see? Fish, migratory birds, mud flats, marshes and streams.

 Fish spirals
Courtesy of Edge Habitats (Team 12)
Fish spirals provide habitat for fish and aquatic plants.

As a primer for the charrette, CityDesign invited participants to a forum on the current health of Elliott Bay. Participants learned that nature doesn't have clean boundaries. To restore a healthy waterfront, we must consider the interface between shoreline and upland habitats.

Teams designed a replacement seawall with shelves to provide a continuous shallow water corridor for migrating juvenile salmon. They softened the shoreline edges with plants. One team developed a fish spiral that provides habitat for fish and aquatic plants.

Incremental improvements add up. To protect Elliott Bay's ecosystem, teams minimized the rate of stormwater runoff with green roofs, pervious paving, bioswales and re-vegetation of the waterfront.

Visualizing the waterfront without the viaduct prompted discussions on how to strengthen connections to downtown neighborhoods. Strategies included preserving and creating view corridors and extending each neighborhood to the water.

Vine Street/Belltown

Going with the flow of the Growing Vine Street Project, teams continued the theme of collecting rainwater and displaying it in fountains, water jets and even musical water organs. Building on the water theme, one team developed a Venetian canal system for a new mixed-use neighborhood on the waterfront.

Pike Place Market

By covering the freeway ramp with a lid, teams created a grand pedestrian descent from Pike Place Market to the waterfront. The lively commerce of the market spills down the hill with the creation of artist lofts and ground-floor storefronts. An elevator and bridge provide a quick way to reach the waterfront while a “wander path” provides pedestrians with a leisurely stroll and changing views of the water.

The Cultural Corridor

Courtesy of Downtown Seattle Association (Team 1)
A grand promenade would bring new vitality to the waterfront.

The charrette also seized on the concept of a Cultural Corridor, a dynamic pedestrian passage through Seattle's West Edge neighborhood. It starts at Harbor Steps and continues to the Seattle Art Museum and Benaroya Hall. Some teams added a park at the bottom of Harbor Steps to open up the water view and complete the pedestrian journey all the way to the waterfront.

Other teams pointed out that Western Avenue could be temporarily closed for a street fair, a public address or the beginning of a parade.

Colman Dock

Many teams envisioned a new ferry terminal as a regional icon that could become as synonymous with Seattle as the Space Needle. Some designs for a new terminal accommodated auto-queuing internally, thus freeing up acres of surface parking for open space and pedestrian-scaled development. Other designs added a green roof that could become a new venue for outdoor concerts.

Terminal 46

Terminal 46 is an active marine terminal, but if shipping were consolidated to the south, 88 acres of land would be free for parks, sports fields, high-density housing, commercial uses and possibly a school of ecology. Noting the site's adjacency to the mouth of the Duwamish River, teams took a cue from nature and replicated coves, canals and mudflats for restoration and recreation.

Extending the Pioneer Square street grid into the site would strengthen this new amenity. If Royal Brougham bridged over Alaskan Way and the railroad tracks to the site, Mariners' fans could celebrate a World Series victory all the way to the water!

Getting around

What if the streetcar moved up to Western Avenue to expand its tourist-based ridership to include office workers making trips between Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square? Or, imagine if people could link a ferry ride from Bainbridge, to lunch at Pike Place Market and then to the monorail for a Mariners game. These were some of the visions proposed by charrette teams.

Some teams suggested supplementing the ferry system with a new mosquito fleet of water taxis, offering a fast and scenic way to get from the Olympic Sculpture Park to the ferry terminal or other waterfront destinations.

Creating pedestrian and bicycle linkages was a high priority among teams. Alaskan Way could be curved into a green promenade along the waterfront. Undulating landforms would allow pedestrians to move freely over land bridges to the water and vehicles to travel through underpasses.

With a linear trail system along the waterfront, it would be possible to walk, jog, or ride a bike from Myrtle Edwards Park to the Duwamish Trail, without the interruption of street traffic.

Seizing this once-in-a-century opportunity to redevelop the waterfront will create a legacy for generations to come. Redevelopment with parks, plazas and restored habitat will tie the city to its greatest resource — the water. Realizing this vision will take time. We will need good stewards to guide this vision to its completion.

Nora Daley is a landscape architect for Otak and a member of Action: Better City.

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