A Seattle waterfront wish: Architect has big plans for post-viaduct era

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Visitors to a redesigned Seattle waterfront could pass through a curtain of mist near sea-stack rocks reminiscent of the Washington coast, kick off their pumps and loafers, and head into a shimmering wave pool, leaving their day jobs behind.

Around them on the central waterfront would be a 26-block promenade from the Stadium District to the Olympic Sculpture Park and, at its center, nine acres of new public plazas, water features, terraced gardens and a seasonal swimming-pool barge — complete with hot tubs and changing rooms — tied up at Piers 62 and 63.

And when it’s not brilliantly sunny, the water features could be turned off and the public plaza at the foot of Union Street could host festivals, a Christmas tree, an ice rink and other community events.

The new design ideas will be presented to the public Wednesday night by landscape architect James Corner, who has been working with local architects at The Miller Hull Partnership and city officials over the past 18 months to refine the design.

Marshall Foster, city planning director, said the city is 30 percent through conceptual design and is confident it can move forward with the $420 million endeavor. But paying for it requires voter approval of a new parks district, in addition to tens of millions from other sources.

And while Seattleites are invited to dream big, a stalled tunnel-boring machine could delay the planned removal of the viaduct in 2016, which will allow Alaskan Way to be moved east and the park built in the former right of way.

“We do not know all the implications yet to the schedule, if there’s going to be a delay and how much of a delay,” said Jared Smith, who last month was named director of the new Office of the Waterfront by Mayor Ed Murray to coordinate the tunnel construction, seawall rebuild, viaduct removal and development for the new park.

The latest design also features large glass elevators to drop visitors from First Avenue to Western Avenue, view overlooks at Union Street, the Pike Place Market and in Belltown, and a scaled-back gateway walk from the Pike Place Market down to the Aquarium.

On Tuesday, the owners of the Great Wheel at Pier 57 announced their own, potentially competing plan for a privately financed gondola to carry passengers from the Convention Center along Union Street to the waterfront.

Corner and city officials say they worry that the gondola plan will take people off the street and away from the new public spaces envisioned in the waterfront park.

“Our focus is on a free, public connection that links the planned First Avenue Streetcar to the waterfront,” said Foster. But, he added, “We’ll certainly look at their proposal.”

“Very sociable” areas

The newest waterfront design focuses on the west side of the rebuilt Alaskan Way, where a landscaped pedestrian promenade and a bicycle path would run alongside it.

Corner said one of the most striking features of the new design is the “ensemble of public spaces” made up of the Union Street plaza, Aquarium plaza, and the spaces descending from the Pike Place Market.

“The areas are designed to be very sociable, very flexible and will combine everyday uses such as strolling, sitting and taking in the scene to holiday concerts, festivals and markets,” said Corner, the celebrated designer of New York’s High Line project.

Mayor Ed Murray, who grew up in the Alki neighborhood, has embraced the vision of a Seattle waterfront to rival Vancouver, B.C., and Sidney, Australia.

“I am committed to transforming our waterfront into a world-class park, to reconnect our city to the bay, and to create a waterfront for all. Although our waterfront is downtown, this project is not just for downtown, but for every neighborhood and community,” Murray said in an emailed statement.

Corner’s first design proposals, particularly of what he called the “overlook fold,” a grand walkway from the Market to the Aquarium, were criticized by local architects as out of scale with the market and a poor fit for the city’s laid-back, nature-loving ethos.

In town this week for the public presentations, Corner conceded that the original plan was “monolithic.”

But he said that over the past three years, with feedback and suggestions from residents and others, the design better reflects what people said they wanted — active, family-friendly spaces, as well as a sense of Elliott Bay as a working waterfront.

The public plazas are now planned to be paved with a ground aggregate that looks like smoothed beach pebbles. Corner said the materials reflect both the geology and muted colors of the region, and are tough and practical.

The connection to the Market has been scaled back and reconceived to fit with its historic character. It will feature view overlooks, seating, garden terraces, some retail space and a new public events center.

“The walkway down will be activated with uses, more protected from the weather and better integrated with the Market’s character,” said former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, an architect and consultant for the Market. “What’s resulted is a better, more-integrated solution. I support it enthusiastically.”

Paying for the park

Planning is under way to pay for the new park, estimated to be about $420 million. A stewardship organization, Friends of the Seattle Waterfront, formed last year and plans to raise $100 million in private money to help provide ongoing maintenance and programming for the park.

The group would operate like organizations such as the Central Park Conservancy in New York City and the foundations that support the Pike Place Market, Seattle Aquarium and Woodland Park Zoo.

The proposal to replace the current Seattle parks levy with a Metropolitan Parks District includes $3 million a year for maintenance and upkeep of the new waterfront park. That measure, if approved by the City Council, would go to voters in August.

The state has pledged $290 million to demolish the viaduct, rebuild Alaskan Way and the pedestrian promenade along the waterfront, and remove the Battery Street tunnel, where Corner’s plans call for another new park for the Belltown area.

And the city is planning for a local improvement district that could raise about $220 million annually from downtown property owners, who will see big jumps in value when the park is built.

The cost estimates haven’t been updated since mid-2012, but are currently being revised by the city.

Maggie Walker, co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee and president of Friends of the Seattle Waterfront, gushes when talking about the latest plans.

“What I’m really loving is the detail, how extraordinary the experience is going to be. Everything is coming together in a fantastic way.”

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