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Originally published Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 11:06 PM

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'Big ideas' aired for making waterfront Seattle's hub

Landscape architect James Corner on Thursday night presented his teams' "big ideas" to re-center the city of Seattle around Elliott Bay, create opportunities to experience the views and to touch the water.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Agree that any plan that fails to restore George Benson's Waterfront Streetcar is just... Read more
quotes This is all pipe dreams and wishful thinking -- For a city that cannot fix the... Read more
quotes This idea and design are obviously too good for Seattle... expect people to kill it... Read more

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On a cloudless night, with a sparkling Elliott Bay for backdrop, the unveiling of a plan to transform the Central Seattle waterfront with parks, public spaces and easy pedestrian access from downtown wasn't a hard sell.

Landscape architect James Corner presented his teams' "big ideas" to re-center the city around Elliott Bay, create opportunities to experience the views and to touch the water. And he made his presentation to an audience of about 1,000 at the Bell Street Conference Center, which overlooks the Olympic Mountains and the working port.

"You guys have a beautiful waterfront," he told the audience. "Our job is to make it more open, more accessible and more beautiful than it is today."

The audience, heavy with urban planners and landscape professionals who knew of Corner's work internationally, including the acclaimed High Line project in New York City, were mostly enthusiastic about the vision.

"I think it's wonderful," said Lara Normand, a Seattle landscape architect. "He's tapped into what's visceral about the city. When the sun comes out, and the mountains come out, the waterfront is where we want to be."

Corner's plan calls for several new parks that descend from First Avenue or Western Avenue to the waterfront in a series of landscaped ramps that he calls "folds." The grandest would descend from Victor Steinbrueck Park at the Pike Place Market to a large public plaza at the Seattle Aquarium.

Each section of the waterfront, from Pioneer Square to Belltown, would reflect the specific history and character of the adjacent neighborhood.

Several blocks at the western edge of Pioneer Square would be turned into a beach with an adjacent launch for kayaks and small boats. Pier 48 would be rebuilt for public concerts and civic events. Colman Dock would feature a rooftop garden with overlooks onto the ferries and the working port. The public piers north of the Aquarium would offer thermal pools for soaking and taking in the views.

"We can test it out," Corner said. "Get some deck chairs, some umbrellas and some off-the-shelf hot tubs. We're serious," he said to laughter.

Corner would like to see the former waterfront streetcar run along First Avenue and for the new waterfront parkway to be served by "lighter, more nimble" forms of transportation such as bicycle cabs or jitneys.

But the overall focus was on restoring the shoreline, creating access points for people to get close to the water as well as high vantage points with sweeping views.

Several in the audience said they were reminded of Vancouver, B.C., which has extensive walkways around its inner harbor and Stanley Park.

"They can walk all along the bay. We can't do that now," said Matt Morrison, a businessman who works on Alaskan Way.

Jo Ming Lau, a University of Washington urban-planning graduate student, is from Vancouver, B.C., and noted that Seattle has a much more challenging topography, with steep hills and escarpments between the waterfront and downtown. He liked the concept of folds that created a more gentle grade and easier pedestrian access.

The "folds" were also appealing to UW landscape-architecture student Josh Morrison, who echoed Corner's vision of the terraced parks as active stormwater retention and filtration systems. But Morrison said he was hoping to hear more ideas about activities that would attract people to the waterfront.

Pete Pilkington, a builder who lives downtown, was one of the few skeptics in the crowd. While he supported the "big plan," he said, he didn't like the folds and thought they created too many shadowy, hard-to-see areas underneath.

"They're too big, too out of scale for the city. There's too much space under them for vermin to hide," Pilkington said.

The tentative project timeline calls for the detailed waterfront design to be completed in 2016, when the Highway 99 tunnel is completed and the viaduct demolished. Construction of the waterfront project would be finished in 2019.

No one is talking yet about cost. The city is considering a local improvement district that would tax property owners who stand to see substantial increases in value once the viaduct is removed. City officials estimate this could raise $225 million.

To replace the decaying sea wall, the city is considering a property-tax bond measure in 2012. Removal of the sea wall would allow for the restoration of shoreline habitat, the creation of some beaches, and more public access to the water's edge.

Members of the Central Waterfront Committee — a group of city officials, community leaders and architects — say that this stage of the project is about vision and ideas, not potential constraints.

Maggie Walker, co-chair of the committee and the president of the Seattle Art Museum board of directors, said, "Right now, we're not thinking about budgets, we're thinking about solutions." She said a powerful design vision could unite the city behind it and create the political will to see the project through to completion.

"Great design can solve problems that look unsolvable," Walker said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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