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Originally published Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 8:39 PM

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Big Ferris wheel eyed for Seattle's waterfront

A waterfront property owner wants to build a Ferris wheel on Pier 57 to lure visitors during the coming disruption of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement.

Seattle Times staff reporter

One business owner, worried about losing customers during construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, has an idea he hopes will draw people to Seattle's waterfront despite the disruption.

A Ferris wheel.

"We'll be disrupted for a period of time," said Hal Griffith, who owns Pier 57. "We need to have activities, people-oriented activities during that time to attract people here so we don't die on the waterfront."

The Ferris wheel, at 175 feet high — equivalent to a 17-story building — would be the second one of its size in the U.S. The first is in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Griffith's big wheel wouldn't come close to competing in the arena of giant Ferris wheels around the world. London's Eye is 443 feet high. Just for comparison, the Space Needle is 605 feet.

The ride would be customized to accommodate Seattle's sloppy weather: Gondolas on the Ferris wheel would be enclosed, Griffith says.

He couldn't say exactly how much the Ferris wheel will cost, but he knows it will be in the millions of dollars. He hopes to have it running in 18 months on the end of his pier.

"We were scratching our heads to come up with something to add momentum to the waterfront," said Griffith, who already has a merry-go-round at Pier 57. He said he's been thinking about a Ferris wheel for 30 years, and the viaduct replacement spurred him to action. "It's a big commitment, but we decided to do it," he said.

From the top, he said, riders will have a view of the Olympic Mountains, downtown Seattle and West Seattle.

His son, Kyle Griffith, is part of the family business. The younger Griffith said he went to San Francisco years ago after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He wanted to learn how that city's waterfront was transformed after it demolished its Embarcadero freeway — San Francisco's version of the viaduct.

"The biggest thing we took away is we shouldn't make mistakes," Griffith said.

While the viaduct is being replaced in Seattle, parking will be lost under the existing viaduct and there will be debris and disruption.

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"The context of the wheel project is to try not to have our waterfront die," he said. "We know it will be difficult for people to see us after construction starts. Hopefully we'll have it up and going before it gets to construction bad times. We think it's the perfect time to try to make it work."

Before the Griffiths can build their big wheel, they will need permits from the city.

Bryan Stevens, with the city's Department of Planning and Development, said a Ferris wheel would be allowed under the existing zoning in the area, but he said the Griffiths still need to go through an environmental and shoreline review. And the pier, at 1301 Alaskan Way, is a landmark, so it will also have to go through a landmark review, too. Typically, such permits take four to six months, Stevens said.

"We're excited," said Hal Griffith. "It will be a people pleaser, one more reason to come to Seattle as a tourist."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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