For about a century preceding the mid-1960s, Seattle's central waterfront was generally viewed in terms of the industrial and transportation facilities it supported. It served as a key transportation hub, with passenger and auto ferries and oceangoing vessels docking at its piers and railroads, wagons, and automobiles carrying freight and passengers to and from the docks or passing through the area. Large warehouses, fishing suppliers, chandleries, cold-storage buildings, and, before the advent of automobiles, horse-feed stores and stables filled the waterfront district.
When a seawall was built in 1936, a new, wide street, Alaskan Way, atop the filled area behind the seawall, offered the easiest north-south route through downtown, particularly for trucks with heavy loads. The waterfront became a major traffic thoroughfare. With the addition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the 1950s, transportation facilities on the waterfront largely severed it from downtown.
Dealing with Decline
By the mid-1960s, the waterfront was in decline. Most shipping operations had moved south and north on Elliott Bay to new Port of Seattle container terminals and other facilities with larger open spaces on filled tideflats that could be used to store larger amounts of freight and to move trains easily.
At the same time, the downtown business district was struggling. Like other cities across the country, Seattle's retail district lost customers as increasing automobile ownership led to the growth of suburban towns with their own business districts and shopping malls. As early as 1960, business owners, Port of Seattle officials, and interested citizens began discussing how to make use of the waterfront as part of larger efforts to breathe life into the downtown core.
In March 1960, the Conference on Central Business District Waterfront Planning met to discuss the waterfront and possibilities for its future. George Treadwell (1902-1977), representing the Port of Seattle, reported that the area was no longer suitable for modern shipping. Albert R. Van Sant (1901-1978), representing private businesses, wanted connections to downtown improved, and Paul Seibert (1920-1967), Executive Vice President of the Central Association, "stressed that 'uptowners' are increasingly aware of the value of the waterfront and are eager to improve the transportation ties between the waterfront and uptown" (Minutes, 1). Paul Thiry (1904-1993), a local architect and a vocal opponent of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, "declared that the relationship of uptown to the waterfront is poor; that the Viaduct has further split the two areas where they should be closer related; that far more people would visit the waterfront if properly developed" (Minutes, 2). Parks Superintendent Paul Brown (1899-1979) emphasized the need for a nice appearance on the waterfront and "urged that the color and character of the waterfront be preserved, including fish houses, the fishing fleet, etc." (Minutes, 2).
These and other conference participants outlined the four major issues that would be the subject of planning and development efforts on the waterfront for the next 50-plus years continuing through 2013 and likely beyond: the unsuitability of the central waterfront for container shipping; connectivity between downtown and the central waterfront in light of obstructions such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, railroad tracks, and the steep hillside north of Seneca Street; shoreline access for the public; and protection of historical places and uses.
The 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Century 21, brought new interest and investment in the waterfront. Three major waterfront businesses, the Edgewater Hotel, Trident Imports, and the Polynesian Restaurant, all opened in 1962. Other small retail stores and marine animal displays and shows oriented toward tourists joined the handful of existing retail businesses on the waterfront, which included Ivar's Acres of Clams restaurant and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.
Demolition or Preservation?
A 1963 general plan for the downtown area, developed by New York-based planning consultant Donald Monson, included the central waterfront. In the text of his report, Comprehensive Plan for Central Business District, Seattle, Monson emphasized connectivity with the central business district, but he included an additional road along the waterfront, an Inner Ring Road, that would have replaced Western Avenue with a much larger thoroughfare. Pedestrian overpasses would have connected downtown and the waterfront at Marion and Spring or Seneca streets and at the park on top of Pike Plaza, a parking garage and public market space that intended to replace the Pike Place Market. An elevated walkway along the waterfront between Marion and Pike would provide pedestrians access to an air-water terminal, a tourist-oriented area with an aquarium, a marina, and the Washington State Ferries terminal. The plan included very little open space and did not preserve any of the historic structures on the shoreline.
Monson's plan was adopted by the city council in 1963 as part of an effort to get federal urban renewal funding, but never implemented because of community opposition. As described in a 1977 master's thesis by Caroline Tobin, opposition to the cost of the plan and the demolition of historic neighborhoods such as the Pike Place Market, the central waterfront, and parts of Pioneer Square to make way for the planned Inner Ring Road and parking garages led to a shift to more conservative thinking about urban-renewal projects in Seattle. The increased focus on conserving historic areas also led to the creation of the Pioneer Square Historic District in 1969 and the Pike Place Market Foundation and Pike Place Market Historical Commission in 1971.
While the debate over urban renewal played out during the 1960s, the city continued to move forward with developing more specific plans based on Monson's general plan for the downtown core. John Graham and Company was hired to create a new plan for the central waterfront. Released in 1965, the Technical Report on the Seattle Central Waterfront Development proposed new restaurants and entertainment facilities, including an aquarium. A large overwater park and a long esplanade along a marina would ensure public access to the water. None of the historic pier sheds were to remain on piers located between Washington and Pike streets, Instead, parking lots, motels, a marina and related businesses, a boatel, and retail stores would occupy large piers covering substantial expanses of shoreline. A cableway, or gondola, between Pike Place Market and a park at the foot of Union Street would carry visitors up and down the hillside, along with pedestrian ramps at Columbia, Marion and University.
The Graham plan was approved by the city council, but not funded as a whole. The park element was folded into the larger Forward Thrust parks bond measure on the 1968 ballot. When it was approved, the city had a $5 million budget to create a 15-acre park on the waterfront.
Plans and Criticism
The bond issue only stipulated the size and waterfront location of the park. To develop more concrete plans and a vision for the park and its relationship to its surroundings, the city Design Commission hired San Francisco-based Rockrise & Associates. When the firm presented its first iteration of a plan in December 1969, the public response was tepid at best. David Brewster (b. 1939), then at Seattle magazine, wrote a lengthy critique of the plan in February 1970. He argued that the root of the problem lay in the Design Commission's reliance on the business community for input.
At the start of the Rockrise project in 1968, Mayor Dorm Braman (1901-1980) had appointed the Mayor's Waterfront Advisory Committee, consisting largely of downtown business leaders. According to Brewster and others, this led to a one-dimensional view of the waterfront largely influenced by the urban renewal movement and resulted in a plan that mostly just expanded upon what businesses were already doing in the area. A vocal contingent of critics objected to the plan's lack of connection to downtown, the park's "pastoral" character in an urban and quasi-industrial area, its relatively small size, and a general lack of imagination. At a time when more people were calling for the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the plan did not take a stand on the issue. Finally, critics felt that too much of the Forward Thrust money would be spent on adjacent development projects, not on the park.
The vocal criticism led the Design Commission to send Rockrise back to the drawing board and to convene the Citizens Waterfront Task Force to provide input into the planning process. This was one of the first times that public input was formally incorporated into Seattle's planning process. The task force included people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, including Philip Gayton (b. 1935) of the National Business League; David Brewster; Ruby Chow (1920-2008), restaurant owner (and later a King County councilmember); Bill Olwell (1935-2001), a labor leader; Lee Copeland (b. 1937), an architect-urban designer; Alan Harader, a graduate student; David C. Lefebvre, a Boeing engineer and president of Citizens Against Freeways; and Pearl Warren (1911-1986), Seattle Indian Center director. The newly formed city Department of Community Development held several public meetings at Seattle Center and the University of Washington to get feedback from the general public.
The final Rockrise plan for a waterfront park and its role in the redevelopment of the central waterfront was released in December 1971. The park plan encompassed 16 acres between Piers 55 and 61 and between the Outer Harbor Line and the western 20 feet of the Alaskan Way right-of-way. In keeping with its surroundings and the maritime heritage of the area, the proposed park's character was urban and active, not pastoral. Most of the park was four feet lower than the sidewalk along Alaskan Way, to draw visitors closer to the water. In addition to the city-owned space at Piers 55 and 56, the park included an 1,800-foot promenade along Alaskan Way, with wider sidewalks and landscaping. In a sharp contrast to other city parks, adjacent retail played a significant role in the park's design. Additionally, a planned concession center and aquacenter (featuring an aquarium and an aquacircus with whale and dolphin performances) would be bordered by a water-side esplanade to allow public access to views across the bay.
Though the plan envisioned the eventual removal of the viaduct, the park was planned around it, acknowledging its likely continued presence. Rockrise included pedestrian overpasses at Marion and University and a funicular (a cable railroad) from the aquacenter to a lid over the viaduct and on to the planned redevelopment of Pike Place Market. Alaskan Way would move under the viaduct north of Marion Street where it merged with Western Avenue. All railroad traffic would be removed from the waterfront and put into the train tunnel under downtown.
Waterfront Park was dedicated on October 25, 1974, largely according to the Rockrise plan, but not completely. The Bumgardner Partnership design for the park did not include the waterside esplanade wrapped around the piers, the aquarium was still several years from completion and the aquacircus never materialized, nor did the improved connections to downtown. A free bus shuttle service started in 1973 as part of the "Magic Carpet Service" free-ride district in downtown Seattle, but that seems to have been a change in service, not an expansion of it. The funicular idea never gained any traction. Importantly, railroads and automobiles continued to use the waterfront as a thoroughfare.
In addition to the lack of full implementation, the park itself did not function as planned. Just more than a decade later, a new plan for the city's waterfront described the problems that had emerged: "The park has a large concrete wall separating it from the street, dead-end corners, and a poor circulation pattern -- all of which result in underutilization of a potential asset" ("Mayor's Recommended Harborfront," 16). By trying to shield it from the busy arterial street running alongside it, the park's design shut it off from the surrounding neighborhood.
New planning efforts quickly supplanted the Rockrise plan. As that plan was being finalized, the Shoreline Management Act had been working its way through the state legislature. Because of concerns about the potentially dire consequences of haphazard development on the state's shorelines the legislature stated in the Shoreline Management Act that, "There is, therefor, a clear and urgent demand for a planned, rational, and concerted effort, jointly performed by federal, state, and local governments, to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state's shorelines" (1971 Wash. Laws) A number of cities in Washington faced the same situation as Seattle: Changes in shipping and other marine industries led to the abandonment of old facilities and high demand for waterfront properties for non-water-dependent uses such as hotels or offices. Those types of uses pushed out water-dependent uses and blocked public access to the water and to views across it.
The Shoreline Management Act explicitly stated, "Permitted uses in the shorelines of the state shall be designed and conducted in a manner to minimize, insofar as practical, any resultant damage to the ecology and environment of the shoreline area and any interference with the public's use of the water" (1971 Wash. Laws) This gave protection of the state's shoreline public assets the highest priority in any planning decision. To implement the protections, the act required cities to inventory the freshwater and saltwater shorelines within their limits and develop shoreline master programs to guide their development.
The City of Seattle adopted its shoreline master program in 1976. The top priority, for the first time since the city's founders settled on the bay in 1851, was the protection of natural areas and systems, followed by protection of shoreline access for water-dependent uses such as fish processing, recreation, and ferries. Non-water dependent uses could be allowed only when the first two priorities had been considered. The master program also emphasized the restoration of degraded shoreline areas and the preservation of historic resources and uses. It did not change zoning laws, but shaped how they could be applied.
Rezones and Redevelopment
Despite nearly two decades spent trying to reinvigorate the waterfront, the area continued to struggle. The Office of Policy Planning noted in a 1979 report that the "the deteriorated area is so large, it is difficult for development to begin on a small scale. A single new building could be dominated by negative influences of the total area" ("Draft Guidelines," 4). The planning office recommended large-scale developments to turn the tide.
To address both this demand for development and the need for consistent rules while the city considered larger zoning issues, Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) asked the Office of Policy Planning to develop guidelines for contract rezones in the central waterfront area. The contract rezones would allow project-specific variances to the manufacturing zoning rules then covering the area. The guidelines that resulted encouraged the redevelopment of the existing warehouse and commercial buildings along Western Avenue into residential, retail, and office buildings through renovations and redesigns of interior spaces.
The guidelines allowed large redevelopment projects to go forward in the early 1980s. Cornerstone Development Company redeveloped several buildings along Western Avenue and Post Street, including the Pacific Net and Twine Building at Western and Madison, which became the home of Immunex, a pharmaceutical company and, on the ground floor, a furniture store, Adobio. Though there was controversy about government subsidies for the project, it helped launch a redevelopment of the long-neglected area. Several projects converting the old commission houses and warehouses along Western into offices and condominiums followed it. The redevelopment of the Olympic Cold Storage Building into offices for the Pacific Institute followed in 1986. The Oceanic Building at Western and University that once housed a factory became apartments in 1987.
In addition to the improvements made to buildings along Western Avenue, the Pike Street Hillclimb, completed in 1977, provided a pedestrian route between the Pike Place Market on the bluff and the aquarium, which also opened in 1977, and the Waterfront Park area along Alaskan Way below. These changes did not fully overcome the challenges posed by automobile and train traffic and the noise from the Alaskan Way Viaduct. City planners saw those issues as continuing to plague efforts to form a cohesive downtown core that included the waterfront because, writing in the contract rezone guidelines that "a public decision was made which helped seal the fate of the Waterfront District as the city's back alley instead of its front door" when the viaduct was located on the waterfront in the 1950s ("Draft Guidelines," 3).
As work on a new comprehensive plan for downtown began, a citywide discussion ensued about what the waterfront should be. Some advocated for a working waterfront that provided facilities for fish processors, the fishing fleet, shipping, and other industrial types of uses. Others argued for the development of recreational facilities, including bike paths, parks, and more retail stores. A group of people representing fishing and labor interests formed the Friends of the Working Waterfront while the Seattle Shorelines Coalition advocated for more open space and public access to the water.
Harborfront Public Improvement Plan
In 1982 the city sponsored a Waterfront Symposium in conjunction with the Washington Sea Grant program at the University of Washington. Held at the Seattle Center, the symposium included panel discussions about various possibilities for the waterfront. Advocates for various visions offered opinions ranging from some calling the waterfront an "abandoned industrial harbor," and others saying they didn't "want Seattle to copy the slicked up waterfront facades of San Francisco and Baltimore" ("City Waterfront Future at Stake").
At the request of Mayor Royer, city planners developed the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan as part of a new comprehensive plan for downtown. The new plan mirrored the goals of the Shoreline Master Program, calling for the city to:
"work to revitalize the Harborfront in order to strengthen maritime activities and enhance opportunities for public access. All reasonable efforts shall be made to encourage water dependent uses which are compatible with a high pedestrian use of the waterfront, to meet the needs of waterborne commerce and provide an active, working waterfront character. Public access on the piers shall be encouraged to the extent that such access can be designed to accommodate existing and proposed water dependent uses. The historical and cultural significance of development in the Harborfront shall be preserved and enhanced. In the upland Harborfront areas, a diversity of uses and buildings of small scale shall be preferred. A combination of public and private improvements shall be undertaken to unite the Harborfront with downtown and encourage public access and enjoyment of the shoreline. Use of the Harborfront as a corridor for through vehicular movement shall be discouraged. Access for vehicles including trucks to serve water dependent uses on the piers shall be retained" (Mayor's Recommended Harborfront ...).
The means to meet these goals varied somewhat from earlier plans, however. The Harborfront plan organized the waterfront into use zones. The southernmost zone, from Pier 48 to the ferry terminal, would serve ferry traffic. The central zone, from piers 54 to 57, would feature retail stores and restaurants catering to tourists. The next zone to the north, from Waterfront Park to Pier 65, would feature educational and recreational facilities. The northern end of the waterfront, extending to Pier 71, would remain mixed commercial.
To address the larger, systemic issues on the waterfront, the Harborfront plan proposed a number of solutions. The barriers between downtown and the waterfront presented by the transportation facilities would be addressed by diverting the trains to the tunnel, reducing Alaskan Way to two or three lanes, and realigning ferry traffic holding lanes to under the viaduct south of Pier 48.
This plan also called for improving pedestrian routes between downtown and the waterfront. The street ends of University, Union, Spring, and Madison streets at First Avenue offered places to create pedestrian-friendly environments that would encourage people to traverse the slope to the waterfront like the successful Pike Place Hillclimb.
To improve public access to the water and to connect Myrtle Edwards Park north of the central waterfront with Waterfront Park, the plan proposed a 25-to-30-foot promenade along Alaskan Way. By narrowing the street to two or three lanes, the street would be less of an obstacle and the promenade could be expanded into the reclaimed right-of-way.
To encourage access for boaters, the plan proposed the development of public or private moorages. The Washington Street Boat Landing, which had opened in 1973, offered temporary moorage to small boats, but planners envisioned larger facilities that could offer more moorage for recreational boats.
City planners and a majority of the people involved in discussions about the waterfront embraced this new vision that largely excluded industrial uses from the central waterfront. A Seattle Times article quoted Greg Peterson of the Puget Sound Gillnetters Association discussing the feasibility of a working waterfront:
"It's a nice idea ... [but] fish buyers are at Shilshole, and most fishermen are set up to work on gear at Fishermen's Terminal. And ... it would be dangerous to leave fishing boats unattended in such a public place" (Morrow).
By the mid-1980s, the Port of Seattle was at work on a plan for its properties along the central waterfront, some of which had become increasingly derelict as traditional uses moved to other Port facilities. The Port's project, which was designed to integrate with the city's Harborfront Public Improvement Plan, included moving the Port's headquarters to make way for waterfront development that would ultimately include a marina as envisioned in the Harborfront plan, new shipping berths, and a conference center, along with office, condominium, and hotel development on the far side of Alaskan Way.
Under both plans, residential and hotel uses were excluded from the shoreline area. The Edgewater Inn at the north end of the waterfront was grandfathered in, but other hotels, condominiums, apartments, and homes were excluded in order to preserve public access and views of the shoreline. Such uses were allowed, and encouraged, on the uplands east of Alaskan Way.
To retain the historical elements of the waterfront, the Harborfront plan called for marking historic places and events along Alaskan Way and encouraging the berthing of historic vessels along the waterfront. The city would also work with civic groups to increase awareness of the waterfront's role in Seattle history and incorporate historical maritime themes in the design of public spaces. In particular, the historic character of piers 54 to 59 would be maintained.
The city council adopted the Harborfront plan on June 13, 1988. A bond measure to fund it went before voters in September 1988, but it was roundly defeated. In analyzing the voters' response, local newspapers cited the high cost of the project and the perception that the measure only benefited the downtown core as the causes for its failure.
The city moved forward with elements of the plan that could be paid for out of the regular budget. In 1987, city officials signed an agreement with Burlington Northern Railroad to move its trains to the rail tunnel under downtown. Improvements to crosswalks and sidewalks made the Washington Street route between the waterfront and Pioneer Square more pedestrian friendly. A parking garage added below Pike Place Market made it easier to park on the waterfront. The city acquired piers 62 and 63, though the sheds on them had to be demolished in 1989 and plans for them remained undetermined.
Central Waterfront Project
In addition to city efforts, the Port of Seattle proceeded with its Central Waterfront Project, which completely remade a substantial section of the waterfront. The Port began by moving its headquarters in 1993 to a stylishly refurbished existing pier shed on Pier 69. This cleared the way for it to make the site of its former Bell Street Pier (Pier 66) headquarters, along with Piers 64 and 65, into the centerpiece of the Central Waterfront Project.
When the Port cleared Pier 66 in preparation for redevelopment, the last two fish processors, Pacific Salmon and Dressel-Collins, left the central waterfront. The Port included space that could be used for fish processors in the new building, but surrounding development made it unlikely that they would return. Instead, the new Bell Street Pier, which opened in 1996, featured the 70-slip Bell Harbor Marina, a conference center, the Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, restaurants, and 11 acres of public waterfront space, including plazas and a rooftop park more or less on the site where the Port had (briefly) established the central waterfront's first park eight decades earlier. In 2000, the Port opened a cruise ship terminal at Pier 66, which was expanded the following year.
For the upland portion of the Central Waterfront Project, the Port sold a parcel of land on Alaskan Way across from the Bell Harbor Marina to Marriott International Hotels & Resorts for a new hotel. Marriott planned to build a nine-story hotel between Blanchard and Lenora streets, though public opposition led to a lower height in the final project. Just to the south, Intracorp built Waterfront Landings, a 20-unit condominium development, on land it bought from the Port. And north of the hotel, a World Trade Center complex containing space for meetings and events as well as offices was developed.
Obstacle and Opportunity
Private development continued elsewhere along the central waterfront during the 1990s. Harbor Steps, a development by Harbor Properties at University Street between First Avenue and Western Avenue, opened in 1994. Like the Pike Street Hillclimb, Harbor Steps featured public seating and retail development at different levels along steps that traversed the hill.
One proposed element of the Harborfront plan proved particularly difficult to implement. Though regular traffic flow on Alaskan Way could be accommodated by the two- or three-lane street proposed in the plan, a wider street was needed for oversize loads. Alaskan Way, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and Interstate 5 were the designated truck routes through downtown; Alaskan Way was the only city street so designated. In the downtown core, it offered the most direct and level route for large trucks.
The city reiterated the goals and plans of the Harborfront plan in its 1994 comprehensive plan. Funding remained an obstacle, as did the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The elevated structure was aging, but no plans to replace it appeared feasible. Planners continued to regard the viaduct as a nearly insurmountable barrier between the waterfront and downtown because of the noise around it and its obstruction of views.
The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake shook up more than just the ground on the waterfront. Damage to the Alaskan Way Viaduct made it possible to consider what could replace it. Allied Arts, an advocacy group that sought to replace the viaduct with open space, began a campaign called "Waterfront for All." Allied Arts members David Yeaworth, Sally Bagshaw (b. 1951), and Laine Ross wrote in 2006, "Fifty years ago, our civic leaders made a serious mistake. They cut off Seattle from its waterfront by building the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Now, the people of Seattle and the Northwest have an opportunity to correct this error and redirect the future of the region. We have the choice of giving future generations a vibrant Waterfront neighborhood, or cursing them with an even larger viaduct ripping through some of the most significant urban land in the Northwest" (Waterfront for All).
The office of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) produced a brochure describing a vibrant viaduct-free waterfront neighborhood with the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park (which opened in 2007) at the north end, new views from Belltown and downtown, a new civic space centered on the Pike Place Market area, and a renovated Washington State Ferries terminal at the south end. According to the report, the city would gain economic and environmental benefits and a new sense of place.
A series of disputes over whether a tunnel, a new viaduct, or a surface street should replace the old viaduct were resolved in a 2009 agreement between the City of Seattle, the Port of Seattle, and the State of Washington that authorized the construction of a tunnel under downtown and the removal of the viaduct. After further legal wrangling and a public vote in 2011, the project began to move forward.
Public involvement continued and citizen advocacy led the city to form the Central Waterfront Committee in 2011 and hire James Corner Field Operations, a New York firm headed by landscape architect and urban planner James Corner, to develop a plan to develop the space on the waterfront that the viaduct's removal would open up, and to replace the Alaskan Way seawall.
Corner's team worked with local landscape architects and Waterfront Seattle (an oversight group formed by the Seattle City Council that included the Central Waterfront Committee) to gather public input and research earlier visions for the waterfront. A draft proposed plan was released to the public in July 2012.
Elements of earlier plans could be seen in the new proposal, including shifting Alaskan Way to the viaduct's former footprint; a wide, landscaped promenade along the shoreline; a pedestrian connection to Pike Place Market that passes over Alaskan Way and Western Avenue; public open space and water access; and retail development. New elements include park space on the hillside overlooking the waterfront and Elliott Bay, many more trees along the promenade and Alaskan Way, and a beach south of the Washington State Ferries terminal.
Perhaps more than at any time since 1851, Seattle in the 2010s has the opportunity to decide how it will make use of its downtown shoreline. There are many visions for how the area will be used and those visions often conflict with each other. Seattle's robust and long-running civic discussion over the central waterfront continues.
To see Part 1, click "Browse to Previous Essay" below.