What’s a Working Waterfront Worth, Anyway?

by on July 18, 2012

From July 2012 Waterfront Design Summary: Sustainability

Now that dollar signs and decimals are being kicked around for Seattle’s central waterfront project, there’s a growing chorus of disapproval at how expense this “bread & circuses” park geegaw is shaping up to be. The city itself led the tsk-tsking way back in February, when city planning director Marshall Foster said, “We’re not afraid of bold. We love bold. But now we’re trying to make it fit Seattle.”

More recently, after a public presentation (pdf) updating the waterfront design, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat had this to say:

I about spit out my $4-dollar latte when I read that just the park portion of the waterfront after the viaduct is gone is slated to cost $420 million. Improvements to the area, which at 9 acres is only one-eighth the size of Seattle Center, are expected to top $1 billion.

This produced a follow-on from Crosscut’s grizzled sage Knute Berger, which begins, “Those who are exercised about the potential risk to the public of a new basketball and hockey arena in SoDo should wake up and smell the costs looming for a renewed waterfront.” Berger takes a look at the project funding, throwing in some tunnel work for good measure, and concludes, “It might look like a park, but it’s a public-private investment that isn’t going to be cheap.”

Berger is right to call for due diligence in inspecting funding assumptions, and he’s half-right about using Seattle Center as a cautionary tale–it may be called “Seattle Center” but when it comes to funding maintenance and improvements, the City of Seattle generally runs the other way.

But to call what James Corner Field Operations is designing a “park” is like calling a space shuttle a “thermal tiling system.” Let’s return to Westneat’s column briefly, because the source of his “bread & circuses” quote is the head of SoDo’s Pacific Iron & Metal, Doug Glant, who was referring to the basketball arena proposal. Paciron, which recycles scrap metal, is proud of its environmental protections, including “industry-leading water protection.”

In this way, Glant’s company distinguishes itself from Seattle Iron and Metals, which is being sued by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance for dumping zinc and copper in to the Duwamish River, a Superfund site.  KCTS’s Earthfix, Ecotrope, and InvestigateWest collaborated on a report that details how the EPA has been delegating Clean Water Act enforcement to states, with less-than-clean-water results:

For at least the last four years, this automobile shredder and metal recycler has dumped more pollutants into the river than allowed under the federal Clean Water Act, government records show. The levels have ranged higher than 250 times above what’s known to harm salmon that migrate through the river.

Washington’s Department of Ecology now “plans to grant the company what’s known as a ‘mixing zone,’” which relies on dilution to reduce pollutants to safe levels. An over-optimistic belief in the power of dilution is of course how  the Duwamish River became a Superfund site, because even today it’s very busy diluting pollutant-bearing discharges from a multitude of sources, including the King County International Airport‘s stormwater runoff.

From July 2012 Waterfront Design Summary: The Mist!

What’s all this got to do with the waterfront? you ask, patience near an end. Basically, all the “park” qualities of the waterfront design sit atop a complex series of ecological interactions that, fundamentally, are interested in healing the way Seattle oozes its way into the Sound. In a more academically turgid piece on Corner’s thought, I paraphrased him saying: “Because a landscape is always doing something before you get there–channeling water, wind, light–you can’t hope to impose major changes without seeing environmental responses.”

In our case, the landscape means things like Seattle’s gribble-infested, ad hoc seawall, and the acres of impermeable surfaces (roads, parking lots, roofs) that direct polluted stormwater downhill straight into the Sound. Corner’s designs work very hard at restoring a natural filter for run-off, broadening the stretch between land and Sound so that an enormous amount of natural work can take place. This includes rethinking the way, for instance, piers cast shade on the water, since migrating salmon want to hug the shoreline and are perturbed by dense shadows.

Level upon level of thought (besides ecological impact, human-traffic flows, infrastructural connectivity) has gone into this design. It’s disrespectful, certainly, but also disinformative to label this entirely necessary and much-delayed remediation as an example of “bread & circuses” because, presumably, it also includes things like “mist clouds” and a barge with a heated pool. (Not, anymore, hot tubs. Shiver proudly in the winter rain, killjoys.)

It’s instructive to consider the ways, then, this is not Seattle Center. In what ways does the Center provide remediation of its ecological impact? In what ways does the Center improve upon its immediate surroundings (rather than provoke a chorus of neighborhood complaints)? How much forethought was put into its main connections being equally-clogged Mercer and Denny? How planned versus haphazard does the Center feel today, with not one but two white-elephant arenas with prohibitive demolition costs and a brand-new glass museum?

Go ahead, flip over to Berger’s column again. It inveighs against the cost of prettifying the waterfront for the benefit of tourists, but never once mentions the much more basic “work” of not killing the Sound. Why is that?

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