Will Seattle Swallow Its New Waterfront Park Design?
Former Seattle Mayor, Charles Royer, is commonly credited saying that Seattle is a city that knows how to chew, but does not know how to swallow—and if it does swallow, it retains the right to regurgitate whatever it has swallowed. Never has that perception been so accurate as to decribe the process surrounding replacing the viaduct that runs along Seattle’s waterfront. In the end, as part referendum on Mayor McGinn’s leadership, and part exhaustion with the process, the city voted overwhelmingly—and symbolically, since the most recent vote would not have stopped the project—to proceed with the deep bore tunnel. Part of the spoils of victory for tunnel advocates, such as myself, other than a one-term mayor, is the chance for Downtown Seattle to finally be connected to its waterfront in a meaningful way with the removal of the viaduct.
A yet-to-be funded park is now slated to occupy the space where the viaduct once stood, and is yet another once-in-a-lifetime project currently underway in Seattle. Getting past the acrimony engendered by the endless viaduct debate, the number of high impact projects underway in Seattle—Yesler Terrace, the tunnel, Link light rail, 520 floating bridge replacement, Seattle Center re-design, etc—is impressive, and reminiscent of the Forward Thrust initiatives of the 1960s and 70s.
However, with the selection of James Corner Field Operations, of New York’s High Line fame, over Seattle’s own Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd (GGN), as the landscape architect for the waterfront park, I am concerned about the suitability of the eventual final design. And now find myself in the unenviable position of chewing, and not liking what I may have to swallow. There is a great amount of research on how parks actually get used. It (should) go without saying that bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to parks, and that they should really about how the space is activated by the surrounding environment. The initial proposals coming from James Corner show a grand, flashy (read=un-Seattle) promenade extending from Pioneer Square, nearly to the Sculpture Garden. It is my opinion that a park this size will not get used. GGN’s proposal, on the other hand, and the direction it would have likely led through its design process due to its much more intimate familiarity with Seattle, would be a park more in scale with Seattle, and one on a scale that would likely be used. In their proposal, they highlight the fact that Downtown must connect with the water through East-West connections, through the park. They highlighted the very real concern, not mentioned by the other three contenders, that the park must not act as a new viaduct. Or rather, that the park design must be porous and a smaller scale, and bring Elliot Bay to Downtown, and not be another barrier.
It is my opinion that they would be the most likely to make a park to the proper scale. The design should not be one, continuous green space, but rather punctuated with smaller, intimate spaces, that would actually be used, with new buildings and businesses integrated into the design. They pointed to the habit of Seattle residents to appropriate public spaces into private, such as the neighborhood p-patches, or the spontaneity of small spaces such as the gum wall in Post Alley. While it may not be the vision generally espoused by leadership in the city, for better, or for worse, Seattle residents have a distrust of grand schemes, and would be much more likely to embrace the direction GGN would have taken the design process. Fortunately, it is early in the process, and there is ample opportunity through the lengthy design review process for residents to give Corner plenty to chew on.
Bo Zhang and Brian Kalthoff are two Seattle residents in the real estate industry. We began this page as students at the University of Washington, on our desire to better understand the efforts of thoughtful developers who wish to better serve the neighborhoods they care about.