NEW YORK — It’s a chilly Thursday afternoon, and throngs of people from around the world have come to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood to take a walk on an abandoned rail line. Old railroad tracks obscured by grass and flowers peek out as the path winds among brand new towers. Tourists take selfies, office workers chow down on lunch and others just wander aimlessly.
This 1.45-mile stretch of railroad track, 30 feet above street level, is known as the High Line, and it serves as an oasis of greenery atop New York’s bustling streets. It is an example of taking a relic of infrastructure and reusing it to make a signature spot for a neighborhood. And it seems to be working. Residential towers are going up on all sides of the narrow park, and nearby property values are shooting up much faster than other structures just a few blocks further from the High Line. The park brings in people who might not otherwise come to the neighborhood.
There are hints of the High Line in one of the biggest civic projects endeavors in Seattle’s history. The city is in the midst of a more than $700 million plan to redesign its waterfront — aiming to evolve the area beyond its shipping and industrial history into a picturesque destination for locals and tourists alike that connects previously separated parts of town. The plan is one of the biggest Seattle has undertaken since the 1962 World’s Fair, and it involves redesigning 26 blocks of the waterfront, from CenturyLink Field to the Belltown neighborhood.
James Corner Field Operations, the firm that designed the High Line, is leading the design of the Seattle waterfront project. Tatiana Choulika, the principal in charge of the project for James Corner, told GeekWire on a visit to the company’s office in New York City that the two projects have a few things in common, but Seattle’s waterfront is a unique beast that needs its own signature elements.
The biggest priority for the Seattle waterfront project is bridging the gap between downtown and the waterfront. For decades, the two areas have been cut off by the double-decker freeway through downtown Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but that is coming down, clearing the way for the big waterfront redesign.
“With the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct and the mess underneath and everything else, we felt that the city of Seattle, even though it is a waterfront city, was not functioning as a waterfront city, it was closed in on itself,” Choulika said.
A smorgasbord of waterfront projects aim to help people traverse the big elevation differences between the waterfront and downtown Seattle and make the neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly. The city plans to redo the main road through the waterfront, Alaskan Way, adding transportation lanes and bike lanes while still keeping it viable as a major cargo route for trucks.
The waterfront represents another example of Seattle’s evolution as a city. Transformed by the booming technology industry, Seattle is growing in every way: people, jobs, traffic and new construction projects. New apartment and condo towers in downtown are going up at an unprecedented rate, bringing more people to the neighborhood. The city envisions the waterfront as a series of gathering places for these new downtown residents, a growing cadre of workers and visitors.
What unites Seattle and NYC
One common trait across all James Corner projects, including the High Line and Seattle waterfront, is simple but important, and that is greenery. The firm is trying to bring as many trees, bushes and shrubs, as possible to the waterfront, which today is heavy on industry, roads and parking. Not only does plant life beautify the project, it is good for the psyche as well, Choulika said.
The centerpiece of the Seattle waterfront project is an “Overlook Walk” that will take people from downtown to the water. It will allow people to walk, gather and take in water views where the viaduct now stands.
“With the viaduct coming down, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity for Seattle to reclaim its front porch right on Elliott Bay and transform that into open space that will serve the entire city,” said Marshall Foster, director of Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront.
In addition to the waterfront redesign, some of the city’s top institutions are in the middle of makeovers. Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market is under construction on an expansion project that faces toward the water, and the Seattle Aquarium is also expanding. Colman Dock, where ferry boats travel across Elliott Bay to and from Bainbridge and Bremerton, will be replaced starting next year.
The waterfront redesign is part of Seattle’s biggest engineering project since it regraded significant portions of the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Two ongoing projects, reconstruction of the Elliott Bay Seawall and the deep-bore Bertha tunnel — which precedes the de-construction of the viaduct — are bigger ticket items. But it is the waterfront redesign that residents and visitors will see every day, Choulika said.
As Bertha struggled to get through Seattle’s soggy soil, uncertainty over when the viaduct could come down threatened to slow waterfront projects. Bertha is now more than halfway done, Foster said, and the tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic by early 2019. Then the creaky viaduct can come down, and construction can begin on some of the key elements of the waterfront project. The new Alaskan Way is currently set to open in early 2022, and the city plans to complete the waterfront redesign by the end of that year.
“There’s a lot more clarity now than a year ago because we have such a better handle on Bertha, where she’s at and her progress,” Foster said.
The overall project also includes changes to Alaskan Way, and that plan has drawn ire from some stakeholders. The road mostly features two lanes in each direction. But a four-block stretch near the Pioneer Square neighborhood is planned to be more than 100 feet wide at some points, with up to eight lanes — two for ferry passengers, two each way for general purpose traffic and one each way for transit — with on-street parking as well.
Because of the design of the deep-bore tunnel — it won’t have downtown exits, nor will it replace an exit to the Interbay and Ballard neighborhoods just north of downtown — more cars could be pushed to the new Alaskan Way. The street will also be a major shipping route, Choulika said.
Nowhere is the project’s tagline, “a waterfront for all,” more evident than the new Alaskan Way.
“We are balancing the need to provide safe, easy access to our waterfront with ensuring we can meet many important transportation needs in a tight space,” Foster said. “Ultimately, the new street has to work well for transit and people coming in and out of the city, as well as those crossing to the new waterfront.”
The origin of the waterfront redesign goes back to the Nisqually earthquake in 2001 and the subsequent realization that the viaduct was not safe and needed to come down. James Corner has been involved since 2010, when it beat out more than 30 firms from around the world in an extensive public process that included a pitch at one of Seattle’s top event venues, Benaroya Hall, in front of more than 1,300 people.
The overall vision for the project hasn’t changed much from the original plan, though the team was forced to chuck some of its more ambitious ideas, like a pool barge on Elliott Bay, as well as downsize the Overlook Walk, Choulika said. One of James Corner’s guiding goals, to create “moments” for people walking along the waterfront, has remained.
“We got so excited about Elliott Bay, so every time you see this opening to the water — whether it’s along the promenade or above or between the slips of the piers — we wanted to make a place for people to stop and gather.” said Andrew Tenbrink, an associate at James Corner.
The Overlook Walk, looming above the new waterfront, will be the greatest example of such a moment. But there are countless examples throughout the long narrow stretch. One pier will have space for concerts, and other areas will feature kiosks where people can grab drinks or get a map of the neighborhood. James Corner worked with various neighborhood associations and the city to tie each part of the waterfront to the history of the adjacent neighborhood.
“Even though it’s a long linear bar, each piece of that bar is like a different place altogether,” Choulika said.
The $700 million waterfront redesign is grander, more expensive, and more complicated than the nearly $190 million High Line. The budget for that project came from a combination of funds from the city of New York, the federal government and private sector donations, including a significant chunk from Expedia chairman Barry Diller and his wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg. An advocate group called Friends of the High Line was instrumental in raising the funds for the park and has continued to lobby for it.
Seattle’s waterfront has its own group of supporters, Friends of Waterfront Seattle, and the organization is working to cobble together a similar stable of funding sources to pay for the projects. A good chunk of the budget — about $358 million — will go to improving Alaskan Way and building the pedestrian promenade. The Overlook Walk and the new parks at the piers are the next most expensive items.
Washington’s Department of Transportation is footing almost a third of the total budget, $218 million. Friends of Waterfront Seattle have secured $100 million in private donations, and other state and local sources cover approximately $200 million.
By far the most significant funding hurdle left is a Local Improvement District, which is expected to account for up to $199 million of the project budget. Referred to as an LID by the more wonky types, this founding source asks property owners who will receive increased value as a result of the waterfront project to chip in an assessed amount to help pay for the work.
Foster said property assessments are going on right now, and the LID will be a big topic for Seattle’s City Council this year. Foster said the city has talked with property owners extensively, and they know what’s coming. Still, the LID is a big part of the budget, and all the funding sources work together.
“The whole strategy with the waterfront funding is it’s leveraged: the philanthropy works with the LID, works with city funds, so there isn’t really a plan B,” Foster said.
Seattle growing up
Choulika grew up outside the U.S. and has lived in several countries around the world. But in the U.S. she has only lived in New York, where she has worked as a landscape architect for more than 25 years.
But she has become very familiar with Seattle. Her team comes to Seattle at least once a month and stays here for about four days.
When she first came to Seattle, the areas around her downtown hotel were empty at night. The nearby Pioneer Square neighborhood, now home to startups of all kinds as well as big companies outside of the tech sphere, was deserted. But that has changed drastically in the last few years. More people want to live and work downtown these days.
Choulika says Seattle’s early identity as a rail hub played a huge role in shaping the city. Later, she said, cars became the key force behind city planning. When Choulika started working on the waterfront project, she got the impression that many in Seattle were stuck in the 1950s because of the emphasis on freeways, cars and parking.
Choulika said the younger generation of Seattleites want to live healthy, active, social, urban lifestyles. And while traffic is certainly an important issue in Seattle, she hopes those who bring up parking and car-centric issues at every turn can see the benefits of a more walkable city.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful city,” Choulika said of Seattle. “We are hoping people will recognize that it’s a lot more than a parking lot.”
Big tech companies like Amazon, which decided to stay in the city versus moving out to the suburbs, helped shape Seattle in recent years. Foster says these companies want the city to think big and aim for the kind of urban parks and amenities that can attract top employers and talent from other major metro areas around the world like San Francisco and Shanghai.
Foster said tech companies and employees have been among the most engaged groups when it comes to planning the waterfront. They have different ideas of what they want in a park, and it looks a lot more like Occidental Park in the Pioneer Square neighborhood — with ping pong tables, live music and food trucks — than a large picturesque open space. The city envisions the waterfront as a bridge between competing desires for such a big park, with active spaces for events like concerts, as well as extensive plant life and a connection to the water.
“A lot of people imagine pastoral neighborhood parks where they sit on a bench and contemplate nature, that’s certainly how a lot of Seattleites think about parks,” Foster said. “A lot of the younger folks coming to Seattle, including the tech community, want parks that are part of the urban scene with music, maker festivals and creative food and drink.”