Splendors of the Waterfront

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Seattle’s waterfront is “a many-splendored thing.” The late Ivar Haglund used that phrase,  in full page ads in the papers, to describe the less-than-splendid 1959 waterfront.

At that time, the waterfront neighborhood was being criticized by civic activists who deplored conditions there. Concerns over the shabby, neglected waterfront were a perennial story, one that would be voiced time and again, punctuated by periodic attempts to improve matters. But, in fact, there were more proposals and plans than concerted activity.

In the 1980s, a civic group analysis of the waterfront described the area from Pier 59 Pier 70 as “a virtual no man’s land.” They singled out a bleak section from Piers 62 to 65, which, at the time, was wrapped in barbed wire and draped with “no trespassing” signs. Charlie Royer, then the new mayor, waxed prophetic saying,  “There was a time for Pioneer Square and a time for the Chinatown/International District, now it is time for the waterfront.”

It’s sad that the waterfront was allowed to become such a problem. For it’s that same waterfront that is, and was, the city’s grandest blessing. Seattle settlers were first attracted to the waterfront’s magnificent deep water harbor, a body of water than never needs dredging, that lies as much as a day closer to Asia than other U. S. ports, and that accommodates ferries, cruise ships, commerce, port activities, a matchless aquarium, a fabled sculpture park and soon, we hope, a Waterfront for All.

In fact,  Monday, Aug. 13th, was the day we’ve long been waiting for. That’s the day the Seattle City Council adopted Resolution 31399, which provides a framework for the new Seattle waterfront. It outlines the plan that will replace the Elliott Bay Seawall and, after removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, create new public spaces and reconnect the city to its deep-water harbor.

The resolution represents completion of a major milestone. At last we have a unified vision for waterfront redevelopment, as well as — and this possibly is the crucial element — a funding plan. This resolution didn’t happen overnight. It’s been 10 years since the city began a process aimed at reconnecting Seattle and its waterfront (a process that was prompted by the Nisqually Earthquake).

But although talk began years earlier, it wasn’t until 2011 that the mayor and Seattle City Council appointed the 34-member Central Waterfront Committee (CWC) to provide oversight for waterfront planning and design. The CWC and its four subcommittees – design, finance, long-term stewardship and outreach — met more than 80 times to craft a strategic plan. They were led by energetic community activist Maggie Walker and Charlie Royer, the 1980s mayor whose prophecy at last is coming true.

During their deliberations, the city held four public meetings that attracted around a thousand attendees. They contributed design ideas and worked out a framework plan. There followed five community forums with another 750 in attendance. These forums worked on more detailed topics, including design, mobility and access.

The resulting resolution, based on public input, not only gave us a vision and a funding strategy, it also created a brand new nonprofit, Friends of Seattle Waterfront, to work with partners in the community and help crystallize the vision.

We owe a great debt to the volunteers on the Central Waterfront Committee, as well as to the thousands who attended the many meetings and workshops. And, while it’s estimated that we need $1.07 billion to pay for the Waterfront transformation, the good news is that the funding plan appears reachable. Already, the state has promised funds to remove the Viaduct. And, if voters approve bonds for seawall replacement in November, the city will be two thirds of the way there.

Local property owners will pay their share through a local improvement district, raising between $200-$300 million. Private philanthropy is anticipated to provide somewhere around $100 million, leaving only $70 to $150 million to be financed through other city funds.

It is tremendously exciting to have a plan for moving ahead. It’s true that it took longer than many of us thought it would. It has taken the better part of the past decade to debate plans and get transportation problems solved.  But, now that those questions are behind us, we can begin to realize the amazing possibilities.

Just imagine. There are 21 acres of waterfront land soon destined to become the city’s central hub. Envision public parks, pathways, trails and open space and recreational opportunities.

Among the core projects citizens have imagined are a waterfront promenade, Pioneer Square beach, Colman Dock gallery, historic pier walk, Aquarium Plaza, parks at piers 62 and 63,  and East-West connections including links to Belltown and the Pike Place Market. Don’t forget plans for children’s play areas, boat harbors and a possible floating swimming pool.

Designs for these and other amenities are by no means complete. But the Seattle Waterfront has reached the stage when we can believe that it’s really happening. The vision is coming into focus and we are all going to have a part in realizing that vision.

For a quick update at any time, you can visit  Waterfront Seattle’s website. Or engage with them via Facebook. Or even catch the latest tweets. It’s time to join the conversation.