James Corner Field Operations Fills in Details on Seattle’s New Waterfront Design

by on November 3, 2011
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City Planning Director Marshall Foster and Maggie Walker (Photo: MvB)

James Corner (Photo: MvB)

The current view southbound from Bell Harbor (Photo: MvB)

The current view northbound from Bell Harbor (Photo: MvB)

A generic waterfront view (Photo: MvB)

The multi-use trail north of the central waterfront (Photo: MvB)

Port Side Trail (JCFO Presentation)

West Thomas Street Overpass (JCFO Presentation)

Getting down to the water (JCFO Presentation)

Stage inspirations for the Festival Pier (JCFO Presentation)

A "pier-walk" uncovers a hidden world (JCFO Presentation)

"The Cloud" (JCFO Presentation)

Pool and hot tubs (JCFO Presentation)

See? Theatrical. (JCFO Presentation)

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“We’ve started to see some big changes close to the waterfront,” said Marshall Foster, Seattle’s planning director, at a media preview of the late-October waterfront design update. He wasn’t referring simply to yellow chairs placed on a pier, but also to the Port Side Trail, running south of the waterfront, and construction on the pedestrian/bike West Thomas Street Overpass, which connects Queen Anne with Myrtle Edwards Park and Belltown environs.

(Meanwhile Pier 57’s Hal Griffith is still involved in the permitting process for placing a giant Ferris wheel down there. It could be the safest place on the waterfront if a tsunami hits. You’d just roll it out.)

James Corner Field Operations won the waterfront design contract last fall, and he’s been back to present early ideas a few times since, in February and May. This time, he was sketching in details for the central waterfront area, and also responding to some critiques. At the public presentation (see video below), he elaborated on his vision for the waterfront, which is to punctuate a long, linear geographic strip with a series of “theatrical” gathering points.

That is, you can enjoy the waterfront as a lengthy promenade or bike/jogging/rollerblading/pedicab outing, where you experience it end-to-end, or, though greater integration with the city’s street network, you can simply end up in one spot, following the slope down to the water.

By “theatrical,” Corner means primarily that you take up a perspective–again and again, he’s suggesting putting in steps that can function as formal and informal seating, whether you’re watching an event or a sunset.

But he also means “theatrical”–at the base of Union Street (which is steep, so how about a covered escalator or funicular for extra magic), he’s thinking of a tide line promenade, but also a deck area with a water jet feature that could produce a misty “cloud” (or just jets of water, or a quarter-inch-deep reflecting pool).

His “big move,” the Overlook Fold, would extend retail down from Pike Place Market via “permeable” shops that provide some protection from the weather, whether hot or rain-drenched. Think of a more lightweight, modern take on the Market’s stalls, where a greater number of the city’s craftspeople and food vendors could take up residence. Because the slope is there, he’d also throw in climbing walls and slides on the way down, and–theatrical!–have you cross above Alaskan Way on an encased aquarium-river,  a gateway to the Sound.

Now, “nothing in this presentation is final or fixed, it continues to evolve,” Corner emphasized at the presentation–we are still very much in an illustrative and iterative phase, where ideas are offered, feedback is taken, and they evolve, or perhaps just disappear. So far, the public baths are hanging in there. (“They’d be managed,” Corner explained. “We presented that idea a little naively.” “Oh, no, I’m for them,” I told him. “Well, we’re not holding a vote,” he retorted, to which I wanted to reply, That’s what you think, buddy! This is Seattle. There will be a series of votes.)

Belltown had not been sketched in much yet, except that the focus would be family-oriented, and creating public spaces that families would enjoy (rather than scurry past in fear, I add, editorially).

The “hot tubs” would be in the Pier 62/63 area, which Corner suggests would benefit from an outdoor roller rink surrounded by food trucks, with an adjacent beer garden. Besides the tubs, there might be a pool with retractable roof, floating platforms for seals,  and a kayak launching area. You might reach Piers 54 to 57 via the University Street art walk, passing through stormwater-filtering gardens to a promenade along view spots, looking down the gaps between piers. Stairs act as a grandstand for nature views, or street performance.

At Aquarium Plaza, you might sit down for outdoor dining, or get down to see the seawall, learning about estuarine ecology and intertidal pools. (As design work on the seawall progresses, Corner is coordinating more with the seawall team to see how the wall can be an interactive feature, rather than a barrier. “We want to thicken the experience between water and land,” he said.)

While WSDOT ultimately drives what happens with Colman Dock, which sees some eight million people per year, there might be new Marion and Yesler Street bridges, leading to a retail gallery in front to activate the street. A rooftop sun lawn and “ferry balcony” could offer views to those who are waiting for passage, or just came to see the Olympics on the horizon.

WSDOT also owns Pier 48, but that may be “deaccessioned” and become public property, accessed by Main Street. In that case, Corner sees it as a large-scale event opportunity, because of its proximity to stadium parking, built to handle tens of thousands of drivers. Events aside, there’d be a landing, perhaps a “discovery” interpretative walk, a picnic lawn, boat dock, and then the amphitheater or stage.

At Pioneer Square Beach, the goal is the restoration of Washington Street boat landing, with a beached tugboat as interpretative feature. “It’s a place, programmatically, to come and touch the water, to fish, to beachcomb, to see what the tides bring in,” mused Corner. There would also be concessions, maybe a diner, because, you know, you get hungry and you don’t always catch fish.

As exciting, or at least conversation-starting, as some of these ideas are, it’s structurally where I find the Field Operations team’s work most thoughtful. They’ve been wrestling productively not just with how to knit the waterfront back to the city in terms of access and usages, but also to reappraise the land’s role as a buffer zone between city and Sound. (A transportation focus is coming in a future update, but I am starting to feel sympathy for Corner’s contention that a waterfront streetcar isn’t needed in this plan, with its emphasis on people-powered locomotion.)

So when Corner talks about “getting down to the water,” he’s also talking about the necessity for that intertidal area in terms of ecological relationships. Currently, juvenile salmon migrate along the waterfront’s edge in safer, shallower water but are forced out toward predators in deep water by the piers’ shadows. In re-establishing a gradual transition–this is where the seawall design in crucial–they hope to establish a border ecology that’s good for salmon.

Similarly, the gardens fronting the piers would keep raw street runoff from hitting the Sound; architecturally, Field Operations is looking roof structures on pavilions that would collect and channel rainwater, rather than direct it to storm drains or the street. This is a level of complexity that the thought of a “new waterfront park” doesn’t quite communicate.

If it feels like the process is dragging on slightly, that may be all to the good. If you watch the City Council get briefed on the design update, your heart will sink a bit, and not just because the Council displays perfectly how to be a “bad client.”

Not all the comments are terrible, but they often seem to ignore the fact that one of the world’s leading design firms is working on the proposal, and has probably thought of little things like, you know, rainy weather. (Corner’s rejoinder, when asked this question at the presentation, rightly flipped it on its head: When it’s nice in Seattle, do people seek outdoor places to enjoy the sun? Right. So this design maximizes that, while building in covered spaces from which to watch the elements, as well, if people are not in fact heading to the water’s edge to feel a squall blow in.)

But more to the point, the visible alarm with which the Council reacts to the notion of a public pool (to deal with budget deficits, the Council has been more in the position of closing public pools) gives you some idea of what Corner’s feedback is going to be: “How much can we get for…[Council pulls out wallet, counts out ones]…this?”

I want to push back against this knee-jerk reaction, a bit. Yes, city revenue isn’t what it was, but this isn’t a waterfront for this year, or next year, but a waterfront for 50 or 100 years. Some of the jewels of Seattle’s public infrastructure–its famous network of stairs and parts of its Olmsted park system–were built during the Great Depression and its aftermath.

One thought on “James Corner Field Operations Fills in Details on Seattle’s New Waterfront Design

  1. Reading about this makes me wish that we had a benevolent wealthy dictator or a mayor who could just make sure that Corner could do whatever the hell he wanted to with the waterfront. I dread the dilution and compromise that’s in store for this project.