On Wednesday SDOT released initial concepts for the new seawall. These plans don’t actually program the “public space” that James Corner Field Operations is designing, but they do set the parameters for it by defining the waterfront’s contours, and whatever attractions may exist beyond it.

See especially the “Virtual Open House” page. There is a ton of information to sift through and I’ve only scratched the surface. My overall sense is that there’s a strong emphasis on restoring a lot of the waterfront’s ecology and providing vantage points for people to interact with it.

I’m resigned to being a curmudgeon on this project, but for me the crucial question is what will bring people here on a crummy day in February. The waterfront is a pretty bustling place on a touristy day in August, Viaduct notwithstanding. 300 days of damp abandonment a year would be a shame given the large investment. I think the answer is commerce, even if it’s just food carts, but more creative minds may have a different solution.

Anyhow, share your impressions in the comments.

49 Replies to “SDOT Releases Waterfront Concepts”

  1. It’d be nice to have some waterfront access at a place besides the Sculpture Park. This is a project that needs to be done before the earthquake. As a geotechy person, seeing that big slab of “liquefiable soils” scares the crap out of me.

    But it needs more streetcar. That could also help bring more people around.

    1. I can’t +1 this enough. The streetcar that’s being proposed on 1st ave makes no sense to me whatsoever when the waterfront is there and has had a streetcar in the past (and great old ones at that).

      My dream if they actually do build the tunnel, is that a streetcar route runs from the stadium district, through the ID, pioneer square, then to the waterfront, BUT…. when it reaches about the aquarium, it splits: One goes to the sculpture park (low priority in my opinion) and the other? It goes up to the market and then through the battery street tunnel and onward to the Seattle Center.

      It would be the ultimate tourist line, but it would also do a pretty good job of moving locals around too, especially for those people who take the boat. It would connect the ferry to the ID station with a quick and direct link, it would enable Queen Anne (especially the less developed area SE of the needle) and the ID to become more competitive as a small business/office/whatever area, and it would provide service for games. Not to mention all of the future links that will be available via the East Link and the other street cars they want to put in.

      1. I can’t -1 this enough. The rebuilding of the Benson line post-viaduct demolition (which will entail ripping out the existing tracks) makes absolutely no sense to me. I will cost not much less than an extension of the SLUT through Eastlake or to Fremont, or a new line from the I.D. to 1st Ave, and it will move a fraction of the people that any of those lines would.

        Moreover, running streetcar tracks up Broad St — or any street near the market — is physically impossible due to the grade, and the old Benson line rolling stock is incompatible (electrically and in terms of station configuration) with the modern streetcars on First Hill and SLU.

        A 1st Ave line has a much better walkshed, serves people who actually live here in addition to tourists, and touches far more destinations than any possible alignment on the waterfront. My natural inclination towards a waterfront car is that it’s nice to have, but it’s the lowest priority streetcar we might want to (re)build. To be honest, though, I wish the idea would just die so we can focus on building more useful high-capacity local service where people will actually use it.

      2. “The streetcar that’s being proposed on 1st ave makes no sense to me whatsoever when the waterfront is there and has had a streetcar in the past”

        The 1st Avenue streetcar is about moving a large chunk of the downtown population, which is a mix of workers, tourists, shoppers, and residents. 1st Avenue is not only a destination, it’s on the way to somewhere else and an almost-central street. Alaskan Way is not on the way to anywhere, and that’s why most people downtown aren’t there. So 1st Avenue and Alaskan Way serve different transit markets. People would be willing to take a 1st Avenue streetcar to wherever the bridge is to reach the waterfront. They would not be willing to go to the waterfront, take a waterfront streetcar, and come back downtown.

        The main reason people do take the waterfront streetcar/bus is (A) they don’t know about the access points from 1st, or (B) they want to promenade the waterfront. “B” is essential for the waterfront culture, but it’s no substitute for a 1st Avenue circulator.

        I think the waterfront bus is fine, but I wouldn’t mind a streetcar as long as it doesn’t preclude downtown transit improvements. I do think the bus/streetcar should be extended from Alaskan & Broad to the sculpture park and Seattle Center. That would encourage tourists at the Center to visit the waterfront and vice-versa, and it would improve disability access to the sculpture park (which is a 2-block hill plus another block from the bus stop).

      3. I seem unable to comment to each of you directly, so I’ll post my comments here:

        Mike: The 1st Avenue streetcar is about moving a large chunk of the downtown population, which is a mix of workers, tourists, shoppers, and residents. 1st Avenue is not only a destination, it’s on the way to somewhere else and an almost-central street Alaskan Way is not on the way to anywhere, and that’s why most people downtown aren’t there. So 1st Avenue and Alaskan Way serve different transit markets

        It’s also two blocks of flat walking to 3rd Ave, and all of the transit treasures there. Not to mention the congestion on 1st. It will be faster to walk to your destination than sit in a streetcar fighting with traffic and taxis parking on the tracks, unless the city decides to take parking/right of way which I doubt will happen.

        Again, why there? In order to get me to stop walking downtown, I have to have a faster/better alternative. This isn’t it. It seems redundant given 3rd ave and uncompetitive for local trips given the conditions on 1st in combination with the holy status of right of ways for automobiles. As it is, it is a tourist line. Locals will use it opportunistically or opt for the better selection of options two blocks away. Hence, to me it makes no sense.

        People would be willing to take a 1st Avenue streetcar to wherever the bridge is to reach the waterfront. They would not be willing to go to the waterfront, take a waterfront streetcar, and come back downtown..

        I don’t quite follow you in your reasoning. Bridges/Connections to the waterfront are fairly evenly spaced throughout downtown, which means any given person downtown is roughly equidistant to one of them, and the waterfront equidistant from that point of access. A streetcar on first seems pretty irrelevant to the choice of going their or not, since any trip with or without the streetcar implies two two block walks over a sometimes steep grade.

        On the other hand, I disagree with your latter statement. I think people would be more likely to visit the waterfront (and return) if they were assured that they had convenient transit to their next destination and did not have to walk back up to 1st. Instead when they are done, they could opt to head to the market and walk back downtown or take it to the ID and transfer to the tunnel. Both are more convenient than the options that exist today or under the 1st street proposal.

        Bruce: Moreover, running streetcar tracks up Broad St — or any street near the market — is physically impossible due to the grade, and the old Benson line rolling stock is incompatible (electrically and in terms of station configuration) with the modern streetcars on First Hill and SLU.

        Sorry I wasn’t specific enough: My suggestion is to run at grade until the aquarium, then transition to an elevated structure/grade to Lenora and where the viaduct is today now, and then into the Battery Street tunnel, emerging by 99 and John, which would then swing west to Seattle center. If it crossed Broad st, it would be by John or Thomas.

        If the sculpture park was serviced, that would be something different. Perhaps a spur from the aquarium to start from what I’m talking about, and then built out to the Ballard via Interbay to West Seattle via 1st that they have on the concept map.

        The reuse of the battery street tunnel, the tight connection with the ferry, and premise that we’re trying to build the waterfront into a place where people will want to be and go all year is what I think makes this interesting. At least, more interesting than what is currently on the table for 1st.

      4. Downtown-Belltown-Lower Queen Anne is the single biggest local service transit corridor in the whole of Seattle. The 1-4, 13, 15, 18, & 36 services that serve that corridor are already at or close to capacity, both in terms of room on the busses and how many busses (especially ETBs) you can run on one alignment (all these services suffer from platooning downtown already.)

        The whole point of streetcars — as transit not as publicly-funded tourist attractions — is that they have a higher capacity per vehicle, much faster loading and unloading (-> less platooning), they induce demand from casual and choice riders, and when coupled with signal priority can move somewhat faster and more predictably than a bus. Quite independently of the waterfront, a streetcar downtown is (in my view) justifiable simply for that purpose alone. A streetcar thus conceived does not need a dedicated ROW as its value proposition to a rider is not to be faster than average traffic, but to be on balance faster and more pleasant than a comparable walk or bus ride.

        We (i.e. commenters on STB) have thrashed this out over multiple comment threads, and it’s true that I’m in a minority of people who think running on 1st is a great idea. Most people seem to like a 4th/5th couplet. My reasoning is that 2nd and 4th should be thought of as fast arterial one-ways for cars and busses, and cars should be encouraged to use them rather than 1st, which is narrower and inherently slower and more accident prone.

        Running on 1st, with improved pedestrian and transit access E-W to the waterfront (imagine another ped bridge near the market like the Bell St/Pier 66 bridge [stairs + elevator at the waterfront] and an ETB circulator from the Ferry Terminal to Broadway on a Madison/Marion couplet) hits all the tourist AND business AND retail spots from Seattle Center to the ID within a couple of blocks. You can’t possibly do that from the waterfront, even if you somehow built an elevated alignment up to Lenora.

        Speaking of which, I have the greatest difficulty in imagining an elevated streetcar section would ever happen — it would cost a fortune and wreck the view we’re about to spent billions to regain. I’m a fan of streetcars and would rather build nothing, or build the SLUT out on Eastlake than that.

        Regarding congestion on 1st: I live and work on 1st Ave, and most of the day, traffic flows freely. At rush hour it is generally slow and steady. During Sounders games and other events, it is a parking lot. I get very tired of people who (presumably) don’t live on 1st telling me how it’s a 24/7 parking lot. It’s not, and moreover, it’s no worse than any of the other streets west of I-5, and until we build a subway out to Queen Anne, it’s as good as any other candidate in this respect.

        Bridges and ped access to the waterfront do exist when you know how to find them, but they are awkward slow and low-profile. For a fraction of the cost of building a crazy streetcar-el section you could build a prominent footbridge from (say) Victor Steinbrueck park with stunning views and minimal impact on surrounding property. I guarantee, guarantee that would siphon people towards the waterfront. Couple that with the aforementioned Madison/Marion circulator and continued route 99 service that would be extended to the SE of the Seattle Center and you’ve built a ped/transit system that (a) moves commuters, tourists and residents from the ID to LQA (b) moves commuters to and from the ferries up into Downtown and First Hill (c) moves tourists along the whole waterfront and along to the ID and Seattle Center.

        You can’t top that with a streetcar on the waterfront, no way.

      5. Bruce: We (i.e. commenters on STB) have thrashed this out over multiple comment threads, and it’s true that I’m in a minority of people who think running on 1st is a great idea. Most people seem to like a 4th/5th couplet.

        Sorry for being a “n00b”? I guess I will “lurk moar”.

      6. If a place is more crowded at certain times than others, then it’s a mathematical fact that most people will observe the place to be more crowded than it actually is. This is simply because, by definition, the number of observers is highest when the place is at its busiest.

        To use an extreme example, suppose that a restaurant is open for three hours. 10 people eat there from 11-12, and then 80 people from 12-1, and then 10 more people from 1-2. It’s clear that the restaurant is pretty quiet for most of the time it’s open. But if you surveyed everyone who had ever been to the restaurant, 80% of them would tell you that it’s much too crowded.

        For transportation, the situation is arguably even worse. Not only will most people observe the corridor at its busiest, but because it’s busy, trips will take longer than usual. Thus, the number of person-minutes spent in congestion is far higher than the actual duration of the congestion.

        So, FWIW, I completely agree with Bruce. I hate couplets; I like parallel corridors where extra capacity is needed. To the extent that 1st Ave is overly congested, just apply 3rd Ave-like vehicle restrictions to 1st. That, plus the extra capacity from rail service on 1st, would keep things moving at all but the busiest of times.

      7. I have been opposing the 1st Ave line for years, citing that there is a grade as steep as 40% (last time I measured) from Alaskan Way to First Ave. An able-bodied person can probably climb it with no trouble at all, but a senior citizen or person in a wheelchair can’t.

      8. We need a First Ave Streetcar but it’s proven to be very hard politically. In the meantime, we need a a connection into Downtown from the SLUT and the First Hill Streetcar, so a 4th-5th couplet makes sense. In addition, they’re already completely tearing up the Waterfront, and they have a huge budget for improvements. Would adding tracks and overhead wire to build a tourist streetcar, if you already are tearing the whole street up, really cost that much? I’ve heard that the biggest cost of building a streetcar is the ripping up the street part. Then when we have more political will at some point we can build a 1st Ave Streetcar to serve the LQA-Belltown-Downtown market.

      9. Bruce: the question is not whether a waterfront streetcar is absolutely better. Of course it is. The question is where can we most effectively deploy our limited tax dollars. My criteria is, “Does the option help the most number of people fulfill their weekly trips, both commuting and non-commuting?” I agree that a streetcar on 5th, 3rd, or 2nd would be more effective than 1st. But anywhere from 1st to 6th would be way more useful than the waterfront.

        I posit that tourists are much less numerous than the commuters, shoppers, and transferrers who crowd downtown every day. Tourists will be just as impressed by a downtown streetcar as by a waterfront one. We can make the waterfront bus look nicer, double the frequency, and extend it to Seattle Center. We can replace it with a trolleybus (if new ETB routes are indeed cheaper than streetcar lines), which can climb Broad Street.

        I would not route it through Pike Place and the Battery Street Tunnel. That would leave the upper waterfront and Broad Street unserved.

        I would also invest in a bridge from the better elevator at Alaskan/Pike to the Market. Something that mitigates walking across the parking lot, and has a HIGHLY VISIBLE sign from 1st Avenue.

      10. I have to agree with Alexjohn, as long as we’re tearing up the entire waterfront to rebuild the seawall/demolish the viaduct/rebuild Alaskan Way we might as well do the work to put the Waterfront Streetcar back. If we don’t then there simply won’t be another opportunity.

        Look at the Embarcadero in SF if you don’t believe a historic streetcar line would be a wonderful asset to a revitalized waterfront. It certainly would help prevent it from being a series of windswept plazas.

        As others have pointed out the old W-Class trams had a certain panache no bus, no matter how much you tart it up, will ever have.

        Other than loving the old Benson line trolley I must admit part of why I’m so passionate to see it come back is the rather dispicable way service was “suspended”.

    1. I think it is wrong to expect buildings to abut directly up against the water.

      Regardless of what happens behind the seawall, the seawall should be designed to maximize interaction with the water and accessibility on the part of the public.

      1. Right-o. Let’s not confuse the seawall with the waterfront as a whole.

        Separate projects, for better or worse.

      2. Not really. How they rebuild the seawall directly affects what we can do with the waterfront.

        The seawall open house had a guy from the waterfront redevelopment project. They’re not as far along, and the projects are separate, but they’re reasonably well integrated.

      3. Of course there’s some project integration or coordination, but they’re still separate, and nothing on the table for the seawall prevents the fundamental urbanity folks like John and Martin want for the central waterfront as a whole.

  2. I agree. There needs to be something more there than just open space given Seattle’s weather issues. We’re not San Francisco, we don’t have the density and perfect weather that will ensure every empty patch of grass gets used. I could see adding more roofed structures and space for food carts or small businesses. And I might as well plug the waterfront streetcar here while there’s the opportunity. I’d rather have a bustling space with business than a serene park that isn’t used 2/3rds of the year.

    1. SF has “perfect weather”? Give me a break.

      This isn’t Southern California and the locals up here don’t go into hiding at the first hint of rain or cold. Put a nice promenade along the waterfront, add in a healthy mix of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, and there will be street life a plenty. It would be the same as every other open space/neighborhood in the city.

    2. “I’d rather have a bustling space with business than a serene park that isn’t used 2/3rds of the year.”

      The concrete 1970s “park” south of the Aquarium must be the worst attraction in the city. It doesn’t make you think, “Ahh, the waterfront is so pleasant and relaxing.” It makes you think, “Ugh, I want to get away from here.” Taco stands there would mitigate but not fix this problem. Martin and Bernie are right that we need a people-place on the waterfront, not a park devoid of vendors or a large space without small buildings. Another thing the waterfront needs is businesses catering to locals as well as tourists. There are only so many T-shirts or souveniers I can buy. About the only time I go to the waterfront is to go to Experience Shoes because there are few other Doc Marten shops in the city. That’s the kind of thing the waterfront needs more of.

      “San Francisco has “perfect weather”? Have you ever been there?”

      SF is regularly given a “perfect” weather and liveability index in city rankings. Not too hot or too cold, and not humid. Of course we know about the rain in winter, the acute homeless problem, and overcongested Geary Boulevard. But you can’t have everything, so it’s a relative scale compared to other cities. Of course, not everybody will agree with the criteria, and that’s why a lot of people move to San Diego with year-around sun.

  3. Am I understanding that drawing correctly — that they are going to fill in part of Elliott Bay to extend a “gathering place” out into what is now water? In this drawing it looks like they plan to fill in around 60 feet of the bay, and have the new seawall about 60 feet west of the current seawall.

    If this is the case, that would get people a lot further away from the viaduct, and mitigate a lot of the “noise” factor from the viaduct that some people complain about. They could do this without eliminating the viaduct, or with a new viaduct. I don’t see anything in this plan that could not be done with a new viaduct.

    1. Norman,

      Again, this is the seawall project, not the public space behind the seawall. So by definition anything here is orthogonal to an elevated or surface option.

    2. That’s a concept for one small section of the Seawall, but the vast majority of it will be right around the same location it is right now.

  4. I sometimes imagine how cool a neighborhood the waterfront would be if the viaduct had never been built. All those old, brick warehouses… it’s a shame they were demolished in the first place. Interesting neighborhoods draw crowds, not isolated urban plazas.

  5. Between the ferry terminal, the Aquarium, restaurants, other tourist stuff, a smattering of offices, etc., there’s actually a fair bit of pedestrian activity year-round (I work nearby). The re-do is a great opportunity to add more activity here and there, but I wouldn’t worry about activity level in general.

    We need plenty of shade of course. Seattle folks don’t do well with direct sun for long periods.

  6. I just hope the new waterfront does not include some hoity-toity sculpture park or glass museum.

  7. To be 100% honest I don’t want the state/city/county/port authority spending one more cent on this project than absolutely necessary for safety reasons. There are so many more important projects than making the waterfront marginally more inviting…. I don’t even see what’s wrong with the waterfront today. There’s lots of activity during nice summer days, and during non-summer days no amount of planterboxes or stepped seawalls is going to get people to go there. Basically I see this is a huge waste of money.

    I feel the same way about the viaduct replacement (which is a related, but not identical issue). I say knock down the viaduct and call it a day.

    1. Actually, since this project is a clear “go” and there is already a signed contract for the main element, I hope that the state/city/county/port spends all the money required to do this project right. Because I’m tired of this region’s propensity for doing things half-arssed.

      Spend what it takes to do it right.

  8. I agree with Nicholas R: NEEDS MORE STREETCAR!

    Looks like there is plenty of room for a 2 way track, and push it out towards Royal Brougham and ethier have it stop at the Market Hillclimb or or push it out along western, up Queen Anne ave for a stop around the Center

    1. We should ban comments suggesting waterfront streetcars that connect to Queen Anne unless they identify funding sources for the winch/counterbalance/hovercar that would be necessary to get them up Broad Street, or any of the E-W approaches to Queen Anne.

      1. The technology is easy. For example you could simply latch onto an underground pull-line of some sort, much like the system that gave the Counterbalance its name. This would be in addition to the trolley’s own propulsion system for flat use.

        The tough part would be ensuring safety. You’d need everything-proof redundant braking systems.

        If that’s possible, I’d love a tolley every three minutes on First Avenue from the stadiums to the top of Queen Anne.

      2. Sure, the technology is pretty easy. We had it a century ago with the counterbalance. Doing it to modern standards of safety on budget the won’t break the city’s bank is NOT easy, and not remotely justifiable given the alternative of repainting the current “Waterfront Streecar Line” busses in a different outfit — call it “The Seattle Shuttle” — and extending its route up Broad St to SE corner of the Seattle Center. Such a bus — with the obvious connection to a 1st Ave streetcar, plus the normal busses at 3rd Ave — covers everything a 1st Ave streetcar misses in terms of destinations.

      3. Har har. Personally, I was planning on using one time rockets fired off at each stop as propulsion, along with maglev cars.

        But seriously, I’ve addressed this in the previous thread: Broad doesn’t come in to play. I’m not saying that what I suggested earlier is cheap or as straight forward as going on 1st, but mainly what I’m saying is that 1st is a complete waste. We should be looking for alternatives over that, and if we really want a streetcar downtown, 1st isn’t the place for it.

      4. Well run the streetcar up north on Alaskan way, swing east on Broad then north again on Elliot. It doesn’t look like too much of a grade; I bet the streetcars could easily travel on it. Then, turn east again on Harrison; it looks about the same as Jackson grade-wise.Lo and behold, you’re at the Key Arena to travel around Seattle Center as you please. If you don’t like Elliot, you can always consider extending the tracks beyond Broad Street along the current BNSF ROW/Elliot Bay Trail.

    2. First would be a waste? It has multiples of the activity level the Waterfront has, including a good mix of residential, 8-5, retail, tourist, and restaurant/bar use. It connects major tourist attractions. It’s the right distance. First is about as good as it gets as a potential streetcar location from a demand perspective.

  9. Nice post as always, Martin, but when you say you’re resigned to being a curmudgeon on “this” project you’re erroneously conflating the seawall with the waterfront as a whole. For better or worse, they’re separate issues, and being a curmudgeon about one doesn’t mean, ipso facto, you’re a curmudgeon about the other. Whether you prefer a habitat bench or a beach doesn’t have anything to do with whether your prefer to view it from a forest preserve or a Nordstrom’s cafe.

    1. You’re absolutely right, but my general grumpiness about the waterfront is spilling over into this issue.

  10. Any chance of sending all the fill dirt back to Denny?
    There’s probably a pretty nice beach under all that crap.

  11. I hear what you’re saying about August. Seems like the waterfront is already full of big open spaces that have 2 orders of magnitude more seagulls than people most of the year…and they end up being “whitewashed” daily by those same birds.

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