The city has chosen james corner field operations (sic) to design Seattle’s new waterfront, reports PubliCola.

New York City-based field operations was widely seen as the flashier of the two leading contenders for the contract to overhaul more than 20 acres of waterfront space when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down […]

During his public presentation last week, Corner—a native of Manchester—said he wanted to integrate the waterfront’s “gritty” industrial feel into his waterfront design. “We found the work James Corner did to be compelling and relevant to the waterfront,” said SDOT central waterfront project manager Steve Pearce.

JCFO is probably best known for designing New York City’s Highline, and has a history of delivering beautiful and innovative urban park projects. We hope they do something great with the waterfront once the Viaduct is torn down.

We continue to question how an unactivated section of town is going to be activated by just a park. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote in the early sixties that urban parks that aren’t surrounded by diverse uses will inevitably have problems; they are “volatile places.” A park along the waterfront may face these problems if the only commercial activity along its edges are daytime tourist traps — every Cal Anderson needs its Capitol Hill, after all. PubliCola asked about commercial development, and the response isn’t great:

Asked whether the city’s current waterfront “guiding principles”—which say that city-owned land that will be opened up on the waterfront must remain public—will inhibit development (and effectively force the design team to propose a linear park), DPD director Diane Sugimura said, “That’s one of the challenges: How do you make this a real urban area for all the people of the city … and something that’s not just a big park.” However, Sugimura said, “At this point we’re not looking at private development per se,” although the waterfront design could include things like pavilions with restaurants inside.

Perhaps a pavilion for all the quality restaurants that want to sit on city-owned property? Right.

Unless the city, and JCFO, recognizes that people must live, work, and play on the waterfront for it to really click, the waterfront will no doubt be visually impressive but still fall short.

61 Replies to “Seattle Chooses Highline Designer for Waterfront”

  1. Don’t get it, where were you planning on building? From Columbia to Union is already zoned DMC-160 (downtown mixed commercial – 160 ft) for the private land on the east side of Alaskan way, and most of the piers are already occupied on the west side. Once there is a new road and connector streets, plus access to the car ferries at Coleman Dock; there just isn’t much space left.

    1. Phil, I fully agree. I also don’t understand this “go commercial” theme that seems to be building momentum.

    2. Better cafes, beer gardens, maybe even a kayak and wetsuit rental place than a desolate ribbon of brick running down the waterfront.

    3. The better question is, why are we building an urban park if it’s going to be unsafe and underused?

      I think a waterfront park is an opportunity, but we must do serious effort to make sure it’s used. The current development there would not support a waterfront park. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and housing other private development would actually put feet on the park and eyes on the street.

      1. I think it is a bit of a bold statement to say a park will be unsafe and underused. I think the sculpture garden is a good example of a space that is very park like but successful because it is well programed with events and the overall scale of it is well managed. I absolutely doubt a park along the whole waterfront could pull the same thing off but I think a well integrated and alive place doesn’t preclude a park.

      2. I’m arguing a bit to the extreme, sure. But the sculpture park closes at night (i.e. unused), though I agree it is a success. It’s only been a few years though, and it is not a success in the way that Cal Anderson is.

      3. Yes however they are different types of spaces. Cal Anderson is my favorite park but not it is a big wide open grass covered park. It has a lot of dense retail and restaurants around it but not on it. The waterfront could be exactly the same. Lots of things near it, but not necessarily in it.

  2. Do we know how many lanes the new road will be? Any more than one each direction is going to kill any possible vibe of “reconnection with the waterfront”.

    1. That’s not true at all, plenty of vibrant areas have 4 lane roads running through them. As long as traffic is kept slow and pedestrians and bicyclists are given priority, it’s fine.

    2. It will vary along the corridor but in general it will be two travel lanes in each direction, a center left turn lane and two lanes of parking. That isn’t written in stone but from everything I have seen (like models) this has generally been the assumption.

  3. Fact is restaurants are generally happy to rent their locations, including from city governments.

    Agreed that the surface road width/layout is the key issue here.

    1. Quality restaurants, however…

      And should they be allowed a liquor license? And what about bars — should we allow those on city property?

  4. From what I see in the illustrations there is more than enough room for a double-track streetcar or even light rail to run on this ROW in addition to a four-lane highway and parks and greenspace as well as commercial construction.

    Hopefully when the viaduct is torn down the space there won’t be lifeless and empty like the illustration.

    1. The illustration is just using the brick pattern as a placeholder because they have no idea what’s going to go there! No one is even remotely suggesting that we make a space that looks like that along the Waterfront!

  5. There can and should be some variation in the building frontages that now line the east side of the Alaskan Way corridor. Otherwise, over time, it will become a flat wall of buildings, all on a single plane.

    I’m a Jane Jacobs fan — we need people to activate this grand public space, and not just tourists like today. Some strategically placed commercial structures, more than just restaurant pavilions, could help achieve that. Let’s see what these folks can come up with.

    And beyond that, everyone should get behind a full two-track restoration of the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar line. The historic cars are still in storage. There will be plenty of room for new tracks on the waterfront.

    1. I think modulation of buildings is overrated. Some of the most attractive urban places are defined by extremely rigid and straight building facades. I think a more nuanced perspective needs to prevail. We are getting all of these buildings with faux modulation.

      1. I agree. Design-code mandated modulation has helped produce really ugly buildings over the last couple decades. Everyone loves the classic brownstone, which are not modulated but are elegant and symmetrical. Down with modulation!

      2. Yikes. Not modulation on individual buildings; on that I agree with you. I was referring to the entire strip, from King St. to Virginia or wherever the north end of this project is located.

    2. It’s important to raise the question about the Waterfront Streetcar line. Parks enthusiasts and bicycle purists may turn their noses up at it for one reason or another, but mass transit is fundamental access, and, rail transit attracts the most diverse ridership. I’m for reinstalling the streetcar line, but can’t see it happening without sacrificing a significant amount of space for its ROW. Toward that end, I support a 2-lane frontage road on the east side of a 4-lane Alaskan Way. It may seem like excessive road space, but suitable access for motor vehicles does not seem possible with the 4-lane Alaskan Way alone.

      SDOT threateningly supports a 6-lane Alaskan Way with the surface/transit option, the same amount of roadspace less ideally configured. Separating thru-traffic from motorists trying to park is better achieved with this ‘separated’ configuration. The extra island may host a sidewalk and completely separate bikepath, instead of a damn painted lane in traffic; more curbside parking becomes possible; the frontage road can host “turnarounds” for east/west bus lines near Coleman Dock; at least 3 sidestreets can terminate at the frontage road instead of reaching Alaskan Way thereby reducing the number of Alaskan Way stoplights from 13 to 10, increasing its capacity which may be necessary; enough space remains for the seawall plaza to be enhanced to working waterfront status. I’m afraid a wide seawall plaza will ultimately become makeshift and permanent parking lots.

      1. Agree with you on frontage roads, but they can be one lane, mainly for bicycles and horse carriages, and also for slow-moving cars and taxis there to drop off and pick up. These would nicely complement a 4-lane roadway for motor vehicles.

        The GBWF streetcar line should have its own ROW, perhaps adjacent to the NB frontage lane.

    3. Look at the face of buildings along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue adjacent to Grant Park, or even along the perimeter of Central Park in NY – nothing wrong with an edge.

  6. I’ve thought in the past that preserving a section of the viaduct and turning it into an elevated park would be a good idea – it would preserve some of the unique views of the city and sound that the viaduct affords, and would also be an interesting infrastructure to park conversion along the lines of gasworks. Seeing the designers of high line selected to redesign the waterfront makes me think of it again – I wonder if anyone has considered it? They’d have to find a way to make sure it wouldn’t collapse in an earthquake, of course…

    1. I saw this idea proposed in a document some UW students made a few years ago with ideas for South Downtown. They would just have one section, meaning between two pairs of columns, preserved, and make it a little museum on the lower deck and an observation point on the upper deck. Underneath could be a couple little restaurants or something. I think it’d be awesome.

    2. I’ve long thought this is a great idea and hope the design firm proposes it. They seem bold enough.

  7. I really disagree with this attitude that parks are bad and don’t contribute to making a place vibrant. There are so many examples of great parks in dense urban areas that make the neighborhoods what they area. I will admit that there are also many examples of bad parks/plazas in urban areas. So all we have to do is look at the good parks and look at the bad parks, and make ours like the good parks! And it’s not like it’s going to be a park surrounded by vacant industrial parks; on the western side is the already vibrant Waterfront that will only get better, with lots of attractions and retail and the ferry terminal and everything. On the east side of the Viaduct are lots of old brick warehouses that will make great candidates for yuppie loft conversions with hipster retail out of the old shipping entrances on the ground floor. So the park will be surrounded by pedestrian-drawing and -providing development.
    As for the park itself, it can be made conducive to street food and street musicians, with periodic lawns and fountains and public art and other treatments to draw people there. It will be full of business people eating lunch during the day and area residents taking walks or going to restaurants at night, and, of course, tourists at all times. I have a lot of faith in this designer to create a great park that can really draw people (the Highline is just incredible), and I think ten years from now we’ll be really happy we made this new public space along our Waterfront.

  8. I think people are really overreacting about the lack of use here and “too much park”. For some perspective, Volunteer Park, sitting at the edge of a dense urban center but generally surrounded by SFH, is a little larger than 40 acres. I would say that it gets a decent amount of use and provides a comfortable, quiet place for many Capitol Hill urbanites.

    This project consists of 20 acres, half that of Volunteer Park. Further, it is adjacent to the economic, retail, and tourist centers of Seattle. There are literally THOUSANDS of people within walking distance of this space everyday, from at least 9 am to 10 pm. As long as JCFO can create an alluring space, something they have shown they can do with the High Line, I think it will be fine.

    Not to mention that more green space has been a priority of Uptown, First Hill, Belltown, and Pioneer Square residents for years. The failure of the Seattle Commons is commonly (pardon the pun) considered one of Seattle’s biggest mistakes. Adding interesting and environmentally engaging public space within reach of downtown workers and residents, in a city that refers to itself as the “Emerald City” is probably not such a bad idea.

    Even more, the space in question, a long but narrow section of land, is unfortunately not really that great for development. The only physically possible configuration would be a row of buildings in between Alaska Way and a new street under where the current viaduct is, nothing particular spectacular and really creating only a bit more density in the vicinity.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of empty or underutilized lots that front right up against this space and will inevitably be highly sought after properties if JCFO does their job correctly. I think the real opportunity lies in working with any future developers in some public/private partnerships that could complement and add to the vibrancy of this space, not to mention help fund the grand vision we all hope is developed in the design process.

    1. Volunteer Park was carved out when land was cheap and I’d argue shaped development around it.

      In 1876 the City purchased 40 acres for $2,000 from a sawmill engineer, J. M. Colman (Colman Park) without specifying purpose other than “municipal”.

      Starting anew with a “park” in the middle of a city is an entirely different proposition. Plus, Volunteer Park is home to the Volunteer Park Conservatory, Seattle Asian Art Museum. The point being that it’s a park with not just green space or a single purpose but multiple purposes that have evolved over decades if not centuries. It’s also a great place for a criterium ;-) If there should be waterfront park, what is it’s purpose? Seattle has lost it’s wharf district. Ivars and the Officers Club at Pier 91 used to be “the” place to go (cira 1966). I don’t have the answer but it seems some combination of establishing the wharfs as “a place to be” with a marina and low rise (because of view issues) high end residential along with signature destinations that attract “locals” (does Bellevue count as local or yokel?) is the key. If you establish an identity tourists will flock to the area in far greater numbers than any contrived scheme could create.

      1. I agree with you, but we shouldn’t presuppose that jcfo won’t build a park without Volunteer Park-like amenities.

      2. Just on the periphery of the waterfront park we are talking about will be the Seattle Aquarium, the Seattle Arm Museum, Pike Place Market, one of the heaviest utilized ferry terminals in the nation, a working marina, and many restaurants and bars. Have you been down there lately because it’s not exactly dead. I go to Ivar’s regularly for happy hour and frequently you have to fight for a table because its so crowded.

      3. “… the Seattle Arm Museum …”

        I’ve never been to this one. Weaponry or prosthetics?

        Oh, maybe you meant Art Museum.

    2. I wouldn’t raze Volunteer Park, but its size and relative inactivity at night have given rise to some problems (…or solutions). The waterfront is a stone’s throw from Occidental Park; that park’s inactivity at night has also given rise to problems.

      I think there are nuances here. I’d love to see what the designer does with our waterfront, but to me commercial activity isn’t meant to displace that work but to activate it. If the waterfront had the density of Midtown Manhattan this may be a different conversation.

  9. I’m mildly confused by this opinion. Isn’t Central park awesome? Isn’t it a huge park? Why is putting a big park downtown bad?

    1. The area “opened” up by the removal of the viaduct is tiny. Nothing like Central Park which would pretty much consume all of downtown Seattle (the part with the tall buildings). The other obvious difference is that a waterfront park is not “central”.

      1. Brilliant comeback.

        Did I say “opened up”?
        Is Central Park “central”?

        Did you miss my point entirely?

      2. Maybe I did miss you point entirely. I read it as saying we need a huge awesome park like Central Park in NYC along the water front. I’m merely pointing out that what ever is done with the waterfront, even if the entire area is turned into a park it won’t in any way resemble Central Park. I’m all for park space but I don’t see any comparison in scale, purpose or location to Central Park. So why do you use it as an example?

      3. Here’s what I was trying to say:
        John said:

        “We continue to question how an unactivated section of town is going to be activated by just a park. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote in the early sixties that urban parks that aren’t surrounded by diverse uses will inevitably have problems;”

        John also quoted Publicola who quoted Diane Sugimura who said

        “That’s one of the challenges: How do you make this a real urban area for all the people of the city … and something that’s not just a big park”

        I’m saying, what’s wrong with having a big park. Big parks can be awesome. Central park is HUGE and is awesome. It’s also pretty much just a park full of park-ish things.

    2. Central Park isn’t in the business district and it’s not really downtown unless you consider all of Manhattan downtown. And it’s surrounded by great commercial activity, right? It’s not like parks are always bad, but I do think that always pursuing parks or green space is contrary to urbanism.

      I’m not sure if you’d consider the Waterfront “downtown” or the CBD, I guess, but right now it’s dead at night. Is a park going to change that? If not, what prevents this park from being a beautiful Occidental Park? And let’s keep in mind that though Central Park is awesome, it wasn’t a park one walked through at night for decades.

      1. “And let’s keep in mind that though Central Park is awesome, it wasn’t a park one walked through at night for decades.”

        Which parks are walked through at night? From Dolores Park in SF (which I lived next to) to Volunteer park (which I lived next to) Ueno Koen in Tokyo (which I lived next to, and is in Japan) I can’t think of many urban parks that I’ve ever felt very safe in the middle of the night.

      2. Also, Central park is not surrounded by an amount commercial activity that matches it’s size. It’s huge, and mostly surrouned by hotels and residential buildings.

  10. It seems like every few days I encounter an example of someone completely misreading Jane Jacobs. It’s very frustrating. Please remember that “Death and Life of Great American Cities” was primarily a critique of “urban renewal” housing projects, where old low-rise neighborhoods were torn down and replaced with high-rise residential towers covering superblocks with parks in the middle. These parks became underused and unsafe places primarily used by criminals because they served no public function whatsoever. They were just giant private lawns with no commercial space and nothing to make them destination parks. Her point was that public space either needs to be a compelling destination unto itself (like Central Park) or it needs to be surrounded by other vibrant uses so the park is like a crossroads (think Union Square in Manhattan).

    The James Corner folks pointed out that many people doubted the High Line would work because it doesn’t really have anything nearby. I’ve been there, and it really is out of the way. You don’t naturally use it to get from point A to B. However, they did such a good job with it that tons and tons of residents and tourists make a point of going there as a way to experience the city in a different way and just to relax.

    The question with our waterfront is whether we can make it a destination or not. Right now as a resident, I never have any reason to go down there unless my family is in town visiting and we want to go to the Aquarium or something. We want to get to a place where when I have a day off and I don’t know what to do, the waterfront becomes an attractive item on the shortlist. One way to do that would be to cram it with interesting shops, but we honestly have plenty of that downtown, especially in Pike Place Market. Another way would be to make it a beautiful, interesting place with lots of people and water and art to look at. A place to relax and either be alone and introspective or social and outgoing.

    1. Her point was that public space either needs to be a compelling destination unto itself (like Central Park) or it needs to be surrounded by other vibrant uses so the park is like a crossroads (think Union Square in Manhattan).

      I don’t know if I misread her, because I wrote basically what you did: “[Jacobs] wrote in the early sixties that urban parks that aren’t surrounded by diverse uses will inevitably have problems.”

      I discounted the possibility that the waterfront park will be like Central Park, but I think that’s a reasonable assumption.

      I like the High Line and I think it’s cool and its designer makes me optimistic about our waterfront park. That said, it’s in Manhattan — the densest part of the nation — and opened just over a year ago, so we cannot declare it a time-tested piece of urban landscape. I also suspect the novelty of the High Line is significantly different from the waterfront, but then again I could be proven wrong.

      1. A couple of questions:

        Is Occidental park not surrounded by diverse uses? I seem to recall housing, retail, nightlife, etc.

        I don’t think you will keep any park from being compared to occidental park easily by building housing or anything else. I also don’t think you can reasonably expect many parks to match Cal Anderson in terms of safety or use. That doesn’t mean we don’t need a park downtown.

      2. On the north side, Washington, there are bars and restaurants. Inside the park there is a comedy club.

        At night, the south side (Main St) has nothing going on. Most of the West side faces the back of a building (besides Comedy Underground). The East side is a parking lot with the back of some retail. There are apartments all around, which at least may prevent the park from turning into the complete disaster of Yesler & Prefontaine, a few blocks away. But the waterfront will not have housing all around.

        Maybe the waterfront won’t fall into the failings of Pioneer Square, but it’s closer in distance to and the character of Pioneer Square than any other neighborhood.

    2. re: the high line – right now its still in novelty stage
      i highly doubt that over time it will be a place that people (well, nyc’ers at leat) will go out of their way for, the way Central & Prospect parks are.

      Its actually a great elevated sidewalk if , for example, you wanted to get from Chelsea Piers to Union Square w/o having to stop for lights, etc…But otherwise, unless one lives/works nearby (or is a tourist) it isn’t all that much of a magnet.

  11. My concern is that instead of making the waterfront park a destination for both tourists AND residents it is simply going to be another open-air daytime homeless shelter…

  12. I can’t believe that in this many comments on Seattle Transit Blog, there’s only been one minor mention of the worst thing missing in any plan so far- and possibly the key to integrating a beautiful park into a live city: serious transit.

    Also can’t believe I’m the only one who’s not going to accept spending four billion public dollars on anything that doesn’t have a lot more grooved rail and catenary than simply putting back the Waterfront Streetcar as was.

    Look at any map from the turn of the last two centuries, and you’ll see a very live waterfront, with a lot of trains on it, freight and passenger. Granted, not much for beauty, peace, and quiet, but nobody’s talking coal-driven freight here- just some electric light rail integrated into either the proposed city streetcar system or LINK- or both.

    In Oslo, Norway, the street rail Route 12, running articulated cars maybe 60 feet long, rolls right across the plaza between the harbor and City Hall, without even a paint stripe for separation- just grooved rail in the flagstones, and single wire overhead. Didn’t notice any bloodstains or roosting vultures- or personal injury-attorney’s offices- nearby.

    From this morning’s article, the chosen developer might like this idea too. Where does somebody get started for a posting on this theme- maybe call it “Get the Waterfront On Track?”

    Mark Dublin

    1. That thread has been rehashed a lot in the past. Why would we spend more money on rail infrastructure along the waterfront versus any of the other corridors in the area? The case is just not as compelling given the relative lack of resident, jobs and utility to the overall network. For now at least existing bus service works fine and there are plenty of more pressing areas to invest in.

  13. This was the first team that presented? I think so. That was the one I was rooting for because they were asking the right questions and had the right kind of experts. It doesn’t matter so much what their specific past projects were (e.g., I liked the water-cleaning idea from another team), because techniques can be copied if the client says, “We like this.”

    As for a park, it would be more like Cal Anderson Park than Volunteer Park. A downtown location needs lots of pedestrian walkways and benches and openness, not rows of trees that segment the area into isolated pockets.

    1. I find the comparisons to Cal Anderson Park or New York’s Central Park to be a bit off. If this space is left open it will be relatively narrow and long and cut off from the rest of downtown by the cliff and relatively few east west through streets at its northern end.

      More analogous spaces would be the Tom Mccall Waterfront park in Portland (although I think even that is wider and has much better access to the rest of downtown) or for that matter Myrtle Edwards which this will connect with.

    2. This was the second team that presented, and I thought it was the most polished, well-thought-out presentation of the four. The first team (Wallace Roberts and Todd) seemed to be a collection of experts rather than a cohesive, well-led design team.

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