A New Seattle Waterfront Is Coming

This story originally appeared in Seattle magazine’s March 2019 print edition as part of the magazine’s waterfront feature.

Seattle’s new downtown waterfront—a combination of projects so monumental in their collective scope that it’s hard to think of them as a single program—is finally coming into view. Squint just a little as you look up from Alaskan Way toward Pike Place Market’s glass-walled MarketFront development—opened in June 2017—and you can almost see what will be the grand, terraced Overlook Walk swooping gracefully toward a waterfront that will finally be reconnected to downtown after the demolition of the hulking Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Along the central waterfront, just below the new walkway, will be an audacious expansion of the Seattle Aquarium, complete with a 350,000-gallon shark tank that will be visible to people walking through the plaza below. To the south: a reconstructed Washington State Ferries terminal and an actual beach, where people can walk right up to the water. And all along the 26-block length of the project will be a protected bike lane, a landscaped pedestrian promenade and public spaces hosting year-round events, from ice skating in winter to the return of public concerts (which ended in 2005) at a reconstructed Pier 62.

“For the first time, we will really connect Pioneer Square, the historic piers, Pike Place Market and the aquarium—they will all be basically part of one parks system,” says Marshall Foster, director of the city’s Office of the Waterfront. “That is something that doesn’t exist today, and it will thread those neighborhoods together,” making the waterfront a single, unified downtown district, rather than a series of disconnected destinations.

Check out a timeline of waterfront milestones here.

Other elements of the project are less visible, but no less ambitious. A new, seismically stable seawall, finished in 2017 and expected to last at least 75 years, includes salmon-friendly “habitat benches” and translucent sidewalk segments cantilevered over the water, which, planners say, have already shown some success at nudging the threatened fish to use the waterfront as a migratory corridor. A full-service restroom, supplemented by two Portland Loo public toilets with security features that discourage drug use and loitering, will be staffed 24 hours a day. A new green stormwater system will manage runoff from the entire length of the downtown waterfront. And of course, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project will permanently bury State Route 99 underground, fundamentally changing the look, and sound, of the waterfront.

Cary Moon, a onetime mayoral candidate, a longtime waterfront resident and cofounder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, was an early skeptic of the city’s plans to tear down the Viaduct and divert its traffic through a tunnel. Although Moon still thinks the city should have spent its money on transit, rather than the $3.3 billion tunnel project, she says she’s “100 percent psyched” about what’s happening on the waterfront. “I’m really proud of the city,” Moon says. “This plan is really big and ambitious and bold, and the city has stuck with it.”

Foster notes that once the Viaduct comes down, people who come downtown will no longer have to cross a physical and psychological barrier to walk down to the water. “It’s going to change the mental map of the city,” he says. For businesses on the waterfront that have endured years of closures and disruption from construction and traffic detours, this will be the calm after the storm—a welcome boost in accessibility that could improve their long-term viability.

The project to rebuild the waterfront arguably began almost two decades ago, back in 2001, when the Nisqually Earthquake forced the city, region and state to come up with a plan to replace the damaged, seismically vulnerable Viaduct. Years of debate over how (and whether) to replace it ended in 2008, when then Governor Christine Gregoire, Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims decided to bury the road in a deep-bore tunnel, opening up acres of new waterfront land for parks, a new roadway and private redevelopment.

Years of additional debate ensued. In 2010, after an international competition, the city chose New York City–based James Corner Field Operations to design the waterfront park. When local architects and others criticized Corner’s initial proposal as too grandiose, Corner scaled back, and then back again—eliminating hot tubs, gondolas and floating swimming pools—to a plan with a more modest, but still grand walkway; flexible spaces for outdoor activities, such as a winter ice skating rink and a mini soccer field; and a wide waterfront pathway flanked by hundreds of trees.

“We have really learned a lot, and we’ve gone through a healthy set of iterations and steps to hone in on the right scale to make a really gracious connection and be as efficient and cost effective as it can be,” Foster says. Significantly, the park’s plan includes ongoing maintenance, which will cost more than $6 million a year (about $4.8 million from the city; and $1 million‒$2 million from the nonprofit Friends of Waterfront Seattle, created in 2012 to help fund and operate the park).

Homelessness is an issue that has come up again and again in discussions, particularly as waterfront property owners debated a special taxing district, known as a local improvement district, that will raise their taxes to reflect the increase in their property values gained from proximity to the park. Former Seattle mayor and waterfront resident Charles Royer, who supports more aggressive enforcement of the city’s anti-camping laws on the waterfront, says people worried that “the waterfront could open and the first tents could go up the next day.”

Friends of Waterfront Seattle director Heidi Hughes says she’s well aware of the concerns. Hughes says her organization’s plan to operate and program the park (in partnership with the city) strikes a balance between enforcement and deterrence, using programming and outreach to supplement security. Hughes says Friends will provide its own “ambassadors”—similar to the Downtown Seattle Association’s Downtown Ambassadors—who will walk through the park, talking to visitors and providing outreach to homeless residents.

Perhaps more important to the safety and security of the park, Hughes says, will be making sure every space is occupied and used year-round, a strategy that has already proved successful in Westlake and Occidental parks downtown. “Rather than thinking about the central waterfront as a fallow space where events pop up, there will be all sizes of programming of various scopes and scales,” including yoga and tai chi classes, and festivals and concerts that draw thousands of people. Last summer, Hughes says, the Friends group implemented a small-scale version of this approach and saw arrests and citations drop significantly.

Ultimately, the success of the waterfront will depend on whether people show up—not just for events and concerts, but to live, dine, shop and walk along the new waterfront beach and promenade. Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan, whose own flagship restaurant at Pier 54 had to shut down for nearly a year during seawall construction, says he’s bullish about the waterfront’s future.

“One of the things I’ve looked at in the past, to see if a public project is successful, is whether the private sector is investing alongside it,” Donegan says. “If you look from Alaskan Way up to First Avenue, from the stadiums to Pike Place Market, there has been more than $1 billion in private investments over the last four years.” These investments include the newly developed, 16-story Cyrene Apartments, currently appraised at $98 million; Beacon Capital Partners’ $13 million purchase, and subsequent $186 million sale, of the Maritime Building at Alaskan Way and Marion Street; and developer Martin Selig’s 2018 purchase of a small office building and parking lot on Western Avenue and Columbia Street for a record $44 million. Even with the tunnel under construction, Donegan says, “people are coming back.”

By 2023, if all goes according to plan, those buildings will look out on a revamped waterfront full of people and things to do—one that’s equally accessible to waterfront property owners and anyone who happens to wander down on their lunch break to take a look at the view.

Deal Reached in Waterfront Highway Lawsuit: Build 102-Foot Highway Now, Narrow It When Light Rail Opens

THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED, with comments from King County Metro and Transportation Choices Coalition.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square has reached a settlement with the city, county, and state in its lawsuit seeking to stop the construction of a 100-foot-wide, 8-to-9-lane roadway on the waterfront in Pioneer Square, The C Is for Crank has learned.

The settlement stipulates that the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will be able to build the 102-foot-wide surface highway as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, with lanes for transit, general traffic, parking, and ferry queues, on the condition that once Sound Transit opens its light rail station in West Seattle in 2033 and Metro no longer needs to run RapidRide buses from West Seattle to downtown, the city will narrow the surface Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lanes and replacing them with new sidewalks, landscaping, or parking lanes. That will eventually bring the roadway down from 102 feet at its widest point, between S Washington St. and Yesler Way, to 79 feet. In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is supposed to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, is scheduled to open three years later, meaning that the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about ten years.

According to the settlement, which came in response to the Alliance’s appeal of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on the waterfront reconstruction project,

Within fifteen (15) months of the opening of the Alaska Junction station of Sound Transit Light Rail service to West Seattle, the City will retrofit SR 519/Alaskan Way between Yesler Way and South King Street to narrow Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lane on each side of Alaskan Way, and converting the area of the former transit lane to sidewalks, landscaping, and on-street parking.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower, so that in the interim we are accommodating the transportation needs of a rapidly changing city, and in the future we will be more accommodating of the pedestrian and bicycling needs of the waterfront and the historic district,” Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith says.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower.” – Leslie Smith, Alliance for Pioneer Square

The debate over the surface street dates back to the mid-2000s, when a group called the the People’s Waterfront Coalition argued that Seattle should follow in the footsteps of progressive cities like San Francisco and tear down its waterfront highway—without replacing it. Thanks in part to state traffic modeling that assumed (incorrectly, it turned out) that the number of people driving downtown in single-occupant vehicles would increase indefinitely, that plan was rejected, and Seattle ended up getting not just a downtown tunnel, but a costly deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits that is currently four years years late and $23 million over budget.

With the tunnel mostly off limits to transit and freight, the city, state, Port, and Metro had to figure out how to accommodate transit, freight, bikes, and pedestrians, along with cars lining up for the ferry terminal and general-purpose traffic, on the surface. No one was willing to budge on their demands—not Washington State Ferries, which insisted that it needed two car queueing lanes on Alaskan Way, not Metro, which argued that putting buses in general traffic would slow down the system from White Center to Ballard, and not the Port, which dismissed suggestions that it share a lane with transit, arguing that 18-wheelers shouldn’t be stuck behind buses that stop every couple of blocks. And that, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide highway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

“The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone,” Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster said Friday. Sitting in a vast conference room on Fifth Avenue that looks over downtown construction and, far away, the viaduct itself, Foster said the city has “worked for years to keep it as narrow as possible, [but] with the viaduct coming down, we have to not only deal with just the basic background traffic that we know will have to operate in that corridor,” but all the surface freight traffic through downtown, 600 buses carrying nearly 30,000 people a day, and hundreds of cars that line up for the ferry terminal at Colman Dock every afternoon (585 a day, according to the EIS.)

“We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.” – Marshall Foster, director, Seattle Office of the Waterfront

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re in the middle of growing pains as a city,” Foster continued. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.”

I asked Nicole Macintosh, director of terminal engineering for Washington State Ferries, why the ferry division couldn’t use a reservation system, like the one it  just implemented in the San Juan Islands and Port Townsend, to reduce the number of cars that need to line up on the waterfront. Macintosh said “we don’t have the funding yet to bring the reservation system down to the more core car commuter routes, like Seattle, but I can tell you that with that reservation system we would definitely need two lanes”—one for people with reservations, and one for people who just drive up. What about running more passenger ferries? Macintosh said that would require a change in state law, and reminded me that the ferries are considered part of the state highway system—an objection Foster acknowledges, but also chalks up to “a cultural thing” within WSDOT that could be shifting. Macintosh also rejected the notion that some of the free parking that WSDOT provides to dock workers at Colman Dock itself—about 55 spaces in all—could be used as ferry queuing space, saying that the parking spaces are mostly in “unusable” areas of the dock.

Transit advocates weren’t thrilled when Smith filed her lawsuit challenging the waterfront plan, because Smith’s original proposed mitigation plan involved moving buses bound for downtown from West Seattle off the waterfront and onto S. Lander Street, where they’d have to traverse more than 20 traffic lights. “I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made through this sideways approach of a legal challenge where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the [environmental impact statement],” Transportation Choices Coalition director Shefali Ranganathan, who did not receive prior notice that the Alliance had reached an agreement with the city, county, and state, said Monday that she was disappointed that stakeholders like TCC hadn’t been involved in the settlement discussions, which she called “mysterious.”

“I was hoping for something that would bring our heads together, and this process limits that type of collaboration,” Ranganathan said Monday.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “I just don’t understand how we are making commitments about transit capacity so far into the future,” she says. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now. Maybe Link [light rail] will be able to take all this capacity, maybe it won’t.  We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses seems short-sighted.” Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves in the future. “The ferry system is going to change and adapt to the needs of its users, and that’s going to include how people access that facility, she says.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says. “Once rail is extended out to West Seattle, as we’ve done with every segment of rail so far, we would take full advantage of the capacity and speed of rail.”

Ferry queue traffic projection

There are a lot of ifs built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project—the first one in Seattle that Smith, a lifelong resident, can remember—is contingent on a successful five-year process involving the Port, WSDOT, the Alliance, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants, who are supposed to spend five years working together to decide what the post-light rail roadway will look like. That proposal will then have to be approved by a future city council and King County Councils, which are not legally bound to do what the settlement suggests. Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that “Yes, 10 or 12 years from now, somebody else may have to fight this the way I have fought it. But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.”

In addition, the proposal is still probably not enough to address many of the objections raised by the Transportation Choices Coalition, Feet First, and Cascade Bicycle Club in their letter commenting on the draft environmental impact statement last year. At 102 feet, the Pioneer Square section of the new Alaskan Way will be as wide as the reconstructed Mercer Ave. in South Lake Union—a vast, foreboding stretch of barren concrete that is a textbook example of pedestrian-hostile street planning—for a decade. And narrowing this short section, assuming it happens, still won’t address the fundamental issue at the heart of those groups’ objections—that widening roadways induces demand, leading to “immediate growth of vehicle miles traveled on a corridor.”

Smith, for her part, says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, but she’s glad it’s over. “It took a series of long and very painful conversations” to get to a settlement, she says, but “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

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