[Landscape Northwest]
March 31, 1998

Recovering the waterfront

Hough Beck & Baird Inc.

Urban waterfront renewal isn't cutting edge terminology in today's professional landscape practice. And yet the term has never meant more.

With increasing frequency, today's urban communities are re-discovering their waterfronts. Cities and towns throughout the Northwest have become passionately involved in their own waterfront environments, creating new public access, site amenities and historic and cultural connections. Redevelopment of these environments may have many additional benefits, including increased water quality, wildlife habitat and new economic vitality for the surrounding community.

Reconnecting Bellingham

The Whatcom Waterfront Master Plan, designed by Hough Beck & Baird (HB&B) for the City of Bellingham, is one recent example of urban waterfront renewal.

In many ways, the historic background of the project is typical of coastal towns. The shoreline where Whatcom Creek feeds into Bellingham Bay was settled by the Lummi tribe, who fished heavily around the mouth of the creek. White settlers also used the waterfront for logging and commercial fishing industries. Bellingham's downtown and historic Old Town grew up along the waterfront, and the civic district -- which includes Whatcom Museum and City Hall -- was located on a bluff near the bay. The waterfront quickly became a vibrant working environment.

Today, however, Bellingham's waterfront is cut off from the downtown, Old Town and civic districts by busy arterials and an active railroad line -- a familiar scenario in today's industrialized world. This isolated waterfront became a hostile environment with unmaintained, half-abandoned properties, sidewalks and landscape areas. As a result, the downtown and civic districts have long since turned their backs to the waterfront.

Nevertheless, people are still drawn to the water to enjoy its expansive vistas, saltwater habitat and, in this case, the 'ole fishing hole. Local residents currently use a well-trodden path under the railroad bridge and they crawl around a large sewer line to reach the water. Residents and visitors to Bellingham need safe, pedestrian-friendly access to the water.

Through a grant program established by the city's parks and planning departments, Bellingham had already funded improvements to an existing park adjacent to Whatcom Creek, creating safe pedestrian access to the waterfront from downtown, Old Town and the civic district. But the city made a bold statement by expanding the scope of the plan to include the entire waterfront area. Increased water quality and attracting both visitors and residents back to the waterfront area were just some of the goals for this project.

Silverdale waterfront

The Silverdale watefront is now a part of community life.
Photo courtesy of Hough Beck & Baird

The design team worked with the city, community and local business groups to respond to these criteria with a bold "vision" of its own for Whatcom Waterfront.

A long promenade will extend from the civic district along an existing street right-of-way to an overlook at the end of Central Avenue along the waterfront. It will become the spine connecting the waterfront to the civic district and downtown communities. A series of proposed gateways will create a sense of entry into the downtown and waterfront environments.

Implementing the master plan will result in improved water quality for Whatcom Creek and Bellingham Bay. The acquisition of existing properties along the waterfront and other improvements -- such as revegetation of a bluff near Whatcom Creek -- will reduce erosion and help prevent pollutants from entering the creek or bay.

Other site improvements were designed to slow traffic and provide a more pedestrian-friendly access to the waterfront. These include pedestrian level lighting, special paving designs, tree grates, railings, benches and public art. , etc.; special street and accent trees and landscape improvements. Public art was incorporated into many of the design elements to recall the history and culture of the waterfront community.

By providing pedestrian access to Bellingham Bay, improving existing park facilities and creating a distinctive character to the waterfront, the city hopes to spark a re-investment in the waterfront environment by local businesses, property owners and residents.

Local residents have already shown their commitment to the waterfront environment through the construction of their own improvements -- such as building benches and landscape plantings in and around the park and waterfront area -- before the master plan was even completed.

Following the seagulls in Silverdale

Silverdale, a small town nestled on Dyes Inlet in Kitsap County, is another example of a waterfront community who lost its connection to the waterfront. Small businesses and retail shops along the waterfront were replaced by large retail businesses and finally strip mall developments. As a result, Silverdale's waterfront community began disappearing.

Local residents currently use a well-trodden path under the railroad bridge and they crawl around a large sewer line to reach the water.

With the help of the Port of Silverdale and Kitsap County Fair & Parks Department, Silverdale decided to bring back the waterfront by developing it into a public park, boat launch and fishing pier. The redevelopment of the waterfront attracted new interest in the downtown and highlighted Silverdale's unique asset -- the saltwater and beach environment.

Hough Beck & Baird was introduced to the project in 1991 through a design competition, and as the winning design team it has created a regional park and waterfront design with a unique character and identity.

The park is now the focus of a "Whaling Days" celebration, and artwork incorporated into the design helps reinforce this maritime theme. In addition, the image of the beach is drawn through the park with the use of texture, color and the sense of movement created throughout the park design.

Local residents invested in the waterfront before the project was even completed when school children submitted designs of sea creatures to be sandblasted into the walkways within the park. Given the opportunity and a little direction, citizens flocked to the cause to help create their new waterfront environment.

Soon after the park's grand opening, businesses began to re-invest in their waterfront, as well. The park gave Silverdale's waterfront community a new identity, and today the waterfront area is a thriving mixed-use center for small businesses, retail, offices and restaurants. The waterfront attracts many regional visitors and residents, as well.

Silverdale Waterfront Park has received numerous recognitions, including "Best Public Park" in the 1998 "Best of the West Sound Reader's Poll Awards."

The combined efforts of the community, the Port and the County helped transform their waterfront into an exciting, thriving environment.

According to Hough Beck & Baird principal Colie Hough-Beck, "In both the Silverdale Waterfront Park and the Whatcom Waterfront Master Plan, community interaction and commitment to their waterfront environments were crucial to the success of each project. The effort begins with one group, a community or governmental agency, investing themselves in their waterfront environments to spark new interest and a greater investment from others."

Making the waterfront work

The Terminal 5 Southwest Harbor Access project, designed by KPFF Consulting Engineers' Design Team for the Port of Seattle, has brought the waterfront back into balance with the environment and linked it with other urban amenities.

A former landfill, the design restored a polluted industrial site to create a protected marine habitat area while providing waterfront access within the Duamish Green River Corridor Trail. The community, local industry, the City and the Port all combined their efforts to restore this waterfront environment and create pedestrian waterfront access and a marine wildlife habitat area.

The waterfront access consists of earthberm overlooks and a large viewing tower that celebrates the industrial nature of Elliot Bay and allows visitors to observe a working waterfront, from the shipping activities in the Sound to the "container yards" next door. From the overlook, visitors also get a glimpse into the wildlife habitat area.

The industrial character of the site is reinforced in its design through the use of industrial materials, such as salvaged marine equipment (bollards, buoys, drift logs, etc.) The project is currently under construction.

These three projects are just a few of many examples throughout the Pacific Northwest of communities who have taken a progressive approach in the development of their waterfront environments. When accomplished successfully, the re-development of waterfront communities can lead to more productive businesses, greater economic value, recreational opportunities and improved ecological value for the entire waterfront community.

Juliet Barber Vong was a design team member for the Whatcom Waterfront Master Plan.

Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.