The invitation on the website comes with an open-ended question: What makes a great waterfront? The significance of this open-endedness can’t be overstated. Don’t expect any direct answers from the design team just yet. The challenge is to engage the public by highlighting the reality and the forward motion of the project, but at the same time keeping an open door to their dreams
The question also reflects the amorphous nature of the project itself. The area is hard to define. The size currently being used for reference is 26 blocks—a potentially buildable and landscapable area made of leftover land after the Alaskan Way Viaduct has been removed in 2016. But the reach of the design is much wider—up in the city and out to the water’s edge and into the bay. Guiding principals from the official stakeholder committee include “Reconnect the city to its waterfront” and “Embrace Seattle’s past, present and future.”
The lead design consultant, James Corner Field Operations, is perhaps best known for the design of Manhattan’s High Line, a feat of reclamation that turns an outdated piece of major infrastructure (an elevated rail line) into a pedestrian realm like no other—a combination of park, promenade and running track. It has been a powerful catalyst for development around it since the first section was completed in 2009.
The Seattle Central Waterfront, on the other hand, is about a system. There’s no strictly delineated site, much less something specific to be built. The plan will identify a “system of public spaces, green connections and related facilities that integrate the waterfront into the urban fabric of downtown,” and it will “identify potential projects on the waterfront and connections to the waterfront,” according to the city’s description.
There’s not yet any construction budget for the improvements and art that might go along with the plan. That’s how open ended—and long range—it is. But at their simplest, the short and long-term goals of the Seattle Central Waterfront project are the same: Get people down to the waterfront.
The open house in the aquarium is a start. Those who attend the February event, or just want to see how the project is unfolding, should pay special attention to a map with the color-coded bars and bells that reach into the grid of city. These odd-shaped patches of Seattle’s downtown and south downtown (including the stadium district), might be called “neighborhood-sheds” because they show how different parts of the city actually relate to the water’s edge through current or future pedestrian routes and views. Each points to a location for art or other physical features on the waterfront, features that evoke the spirit of the neighborhood.
This kind of research and analysis builds on a decade of informal and formal planning and “visioning” from students, civic activists and city staff. We should expect to see more of this kind of thing at the open house this week.
What we will not see so clearly are the strategic partnerships that will be necessary to keep the public engaged, keep the bar high and advocate for acceptance of a bold vision over the next year and a half. The successful urban spaces we point to over the last decade—The Highline, Millennium Park in Chicago and the Olympic Sculpture Park here, to name three—all happened for some similar reasons. In addition to bold visions and great design, they had support from the public—and lots of money from private benefactors.