Seattle to Waterfront Architect: Please Think Small, Narrow, and Cheap

by on February 8, 2012

The Overlook Fold (Image: Waterfront Seattle)

Fortes fortuna adiuuat, says Terence, but the fortunes of the bold get short shrift in Seattle. In the Seattle Times, the headline is “Proposal to link Market, aquarium may be too ambitious for Seattle.” Our homegrown quotation is less likely to ring through the ages: “We’re not afraid of bold. We love bold. But now we’re trying to make it fit Seattle.”

That’s Marshall Foster, Seattle’s planning director, packing into a short phrase most of what bedevils local attempts at grander creative gestures.

Prior to the opening of the Rem-Koolhaas-designed downtown library, the previous significant “public” architectural symbol was the Space Needle, constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair. You also had, like it or not, mostly not, Chester L. Lindsey Architects’ Columbia Center, the towering black “box the Space Needle came in,” and more recently, Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project.

The apparent lesson in all of this is that you can be as bold as you want, as long as you don’t try to do it with public money. (Perhaps as a reaction to staidness, the boldness of EMP strays right into silliness.)

So it’s with a familiar sinking feeling that you read the Seattle Times saying “local architects and city planners” are pushing back against one of James Corner’s signature moves for the central waterfront design project, which seeks to stitch the downtown and waterfront together after the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Here’s the situation, described previously:

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.)

At Crosscut, David Brewster opined: “The third large park is the grandest of all, and bound to be a tourist mecca. This elaborate open space begins at the Pike Place Market, at Victor Steinbrueck Park, descends the hillside in sweeping set of stairs and terraces, crosses over Alaskan Way to a large open space around the Aquarium, and then continues outward to a rebuilt Pier 62-63 (former home of Summer Nights at the Pier) for more wondrous views westward.”

But after Corner’s presentation last November, the City Council began the process of throwing cold water on Corner’s vision, largely from an budgetary perspective. Now the Pike Place Market is joining in: “Market Executive Director Ben Franz-Knight said he and other Market supporters were worried that visitors would stream down a grand promenade to the waterfront and not ‘come back for lunch or dinner,'” reports the Seattle Times.

How should the sign read? “Welcome to Seattle! You don’t get to choose where you eat for lunch or dinner, you’re the property of the Pike Place Market. Stay put!” It reminds me a little of Broadway restaurants’ resistance to the notion of a Capitol Hill food-truck corral, which they could only perceive as having a parasitic effect. The idea that foodies might stream into the neighborhood, and that restaurants with roofs and chairs might have some long-term advantage over food trucks in cold, rainy Seattle, seemed not to carry much weight. To hear Broadway’s restaurants tell it, they had absolutely no competitive advantage when it came to someone cooking over a Bunsen burner in trailer. (In some cases, this is, sadly, true.)

Similarly, Pike Place Market, having long benefited from being the “end of the road” for the less mountaineering of tourists, can’t seem to picture tourists streaming up from the waterfront to the Market, now that there would be a much slighter grade, accessible in ways that endless flights of stairs are not. Their bald-faced suggestion that pedestrian access be made as tortuous outside the Market as in the Market proper would be hilarious if it weren’t tinged with so much pathos.

However, even that is not really the issue. The Pike Place Market is not, historically, a power player in Seattle politics, except when fighting for its life. What it is in this instance is cover for a larger, more embarrassing oversight: Seattle hired the boldest architect it could find, James Corner, without figuring out how to afford “bold.” Nothing about the waterfront project, except for the seawall replacement, is funded. Corner’s big ideas would also likely come with commensurate price tags. So, the Design Oversight Committee writes to Corner: “We are … very concerned about the size, impacts, viability and cost of the overlook fold as proposed.”

Note that “size,” “viability,” and “costs” are all ways of saying the same thing: empty pockets.

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