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One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

November 7, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Calling the question, Seattle: What kind of waterfront do we want?

Posted by Lynda V. Mapes

After all the talk of budgets and tunnels and overruns and more, it's time now to call the question: What kind of waterfront do we want?

Now, after all, should come the fun part. After we rip down the Viaduct, what do we get? What kind of place will the waterfront be? This public conversation got underway in early 2011 with a range of public events convened by Waterfront Seattle to discuss ideas. Now with the Viaduct tumbling down, that conversation is heating up.

Here's a report from an inaugural walk along the waterfront from Washington Street to the Olympic Sculpture Park on a recent Saturday, when the viaduct along its core stretch from Pioneer Square through downtown was closed to traffic. It offered a preview of coming attractions, of what the waterfront might be like once the Viaduct is gone. It was also an opportunity to check our baseline. What's the waterfront like today?

There will be future posts on this topic, too, as we follow the development of the plan for Seattle's waterfront, now underway as consultants, public officials, task forces and citizens draw up maps, plan and ideas, and invite your input.

Look for this logo for this standing feature in Field Notes: a seal in the city, wondering about what kind of habitat we are creating for animals, and for ourselves.

She's pictured in the locked gate to the Alaska Square, a public access point on the waterfront just south of the Washington Street Boat Landing. I picked this logo because it is meant to be provocative. If we are about to spend a bucket of money on the waterfront -- and we are -- we need to ask ourselves what kind of care we have taken of the waterfront we've already got. Have a look:

locked out seal.JPG

Starting at the southern end of the waterfront, at Alaska Square, Seal notices that the public is locked out of its public access point. Is this the best we can do, Seattle?

A little farther up, at the Washington Street Boat Landing, we notice with the Viaduct shut down, it's quiet enough to hear a kingfisher clatter as it swoops off into Elliott Bay after a meal. Nice! If there had been any waves, we probably could have heard them too. But it was a calm morning.

When we got to the boat landing, Cara Tobin, 31, was folding up her bed.

folding up bed.JPG

Cara Tobin folds up her bed after sleeping at the Washington Street Boat Landing. "I hope they keep it," she said of the landing.

trash piled up at the park.JPG

Trash at the Washington Street Boat Landing looked like it had been accumulating for quite some time.

Created in 1920, the boat landing, with its views of the Olympic Mountains and Elliott Bay, is a galvanized iron shelter supported by 16 decorative steel columns, similar in feel to the pergola in Pioneer Square. The whole area it graces is rich in history, hidden in plain site.

Ballast Island, just to the south, where vessels from ports all over the world dumped their ballast in the bay, was for years a gathering place and encampment for Indians on their migrations to and from the area.

There's little hint of that today, and the boat landing is a forbidding place, and the public waterfront access point at Alaska Square a no-go zone, abandoned and padlocked. Dewey Potter, spokeswoman for Seattle Parks and Recreation, said at least as far as the boat landing is concerned, the problem is two fold: lack of money, and lack of engagement.

"It is hard to get people to care about disembodied parts and pieces," she said. Part of what a new waterfront plan might do is connect pieces of the waterfront together, to give the experience a coherence that would spark public interest lacking today, she noted.

As for Alaska Square, it was sold by the Port of Seattle, says Peter McGraw of the port, to WSDOT in 2008, and has been padlocked for years because of concern for the parcel's crumbling seawall, which the Elliott Bay Seawall reconstruction project is intended to fix.

As for the boat landing, park rangers do what they can, Potter said. But mostly, today it's a place Seattle's homeless citizens are making the best use of.

Moving north, up to Pier 52, there's not much to inspire public involvement or to "activate the space," as the consultants hosting a public forum on how to reshape the waterfront put it recently. The public spaces in front of the queen city's premier downtown ferry terminal have been given over to weedy planters and black landscape fabric woven in a chain link fence gating off a staging area for construction equipment.

ferries with tarp and weeds and homless guy.JPG

Here is the street scape experience for the public, walking past the Washington State Ferries' home port in Seattle

At least the tarp screened the view of all the equipment and materials heaped up in the staging area. That's the view you get as you walk north; they must have run out of landscaping fabric to stuff against the fence:

tarp and mess.JPG

To tarp or not to tarp? Either way, a staging area isn't a great view at the Washington State Ferries' premier dock, Pier 52, on the public's waterfront.

John Callahan at Washington State Ferries explains this major Pardon our Dust Moment is necessary as WSDOT undertakes a $4.4 million upgrade of the electrical service to Pier 52, including the slips, Coleman Dock terminal, and its concessions. It's going to get worse before it gets better, with the sidewalk on the West Side of Alaskan Way completely closed as soon as this week until at least Thanksgiving, and construction underway in the area until fall of next year.

The contractor on the job will have construction equipment staged in the waterfront area and the views will remain compromised. "That's construction," said Callahan, who explained the project is necessary and long overdue.

Heading north again, trash seems to be given an overly good view, these must be the most privileged Dumpsters in America.


Dumpsters enjoy prime views on the downtown Seattle waterfront

One of the other surprises was how noisy the waterfront still was. Even with the Viaduct briefly on hold because of construction, Alaskan Way was still plenty loud, with four lanes of traffic. The piped in Muzak from businesses that pump their sound out onto the sidewalk also competed for attention. Sea chanties here, Top 40 there.

Interestingly, glimpses of the actual water itself were fleeting; mostly, the view is of broad, long, walls of buildings on diagonal piers that wall off the Olympics or the bay from the pedestrian. It isn't until you get higher, say on Broad Street at about Second Avenue, that a view into the captivating vastness of the bay and mountains is served up. But the connections from the uplands to the waterfront, either visually, or for travel, are mostly cut up, blocked, or non-existent. The waterfront remains elusive, an "out there, somewhere," experience.

It's not until Pier 62 and 63 that things open way up. Here at last are some of the most generous views of the bay and the mountains.

While we have views and space here, there's not much on offer by way of engagement. Here's the public pier. A pretty blank space, even the benches are so far back sitting there is not a waterfront feeling. The scraps of wood are tripping hazards, used to cover holes in the decking.

blank public dock.JPG

Not much to invite lingering here ... or even walking. Notice the patched decking. Fun yellow plastic chairs put out to invite public use over the summertime by the Waterfront Seattle project were nowhere in sight during our Saturday morning stroll, peak visiting time.

Consultants engaged as part of the Viaduct and seawall projects have been hard at it, drawing up potential plans for the the waterfront. At a public presentation recently, they put on quite a show we won't try to replicate here. Suffice it to say a team of artists and designers has big ideas that brought the audience to laughter, applause and rapt attention. You can check out what they are up to online, at the Waterfront Seattle website.

Waterfront pools, waterfront hot tubs, waterfront promenades, waterfront beaches, waterfront mist clouds, dance floors ... it was exciting stuff. Got to start somewhere, right?

Covering 26 city blocks from King Street to Broad Street, the transformation of the waterfront is underway, as part of the replacement of the Viaduct and Elliott Bay Seawall. In place of the Viaduct, what will civic, cultural, natural and utilitarian uses of the waterfront be like? What kind of habitat will we create?

To get involved, contact Waterfront Seattle at 206-499-8040, or by email, at Visit the Waterfront Seattle website and engage online. Also check up on the doings of the Central Waterfront Committee created by the City of Seattle to help steer the project. There's also the Central Waterfront Stakeholders Group, created to advise the process. Track their doings, and upcoming gatherings here.

The question is called, Seattle. What kind of waterfront do we want?

Is it this one?

walk off seal.JPG

Preliminary project design for the core waterfront will be underway through 2012. Funding for the public space and other elements of the plan will be identified in 2012 as the design evolves, and specific costs can be worked up. It's wide open, Seattle, what kind of waterfront do we want? The project's guiding principle is "Waterfront for All" That, Seal points out, is a long way from where we are now.

Lynda V. Mapes, photos

It would be nice to have a waterfront that preserves enough open space. These spaces should be dedicated as preserved areas so any future...  Posted on November 9, 2011 at 8:35 AM by Doug Fir. Jump to comment
we are building the downtown tunnel to cater to the downtown landowners. find out what the wealthy landowners want for the public space, and you...  Posted on November 8, 2011 at 12:06 PM by jhande. Jump to comment
I want a vibrant, working waterfront. We'll get a wall of condos and faceless towers looking down on a wide street filled with cars and...  Posted on November 8, 2011 at 6:37 AM by Emmett Watson Was Right. Jump to comment

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