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Originally published June 19, 2013 at 5:17 PM | Page modified June 20, 2013 at 12:01 PM

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Seattle’s waterfront: mayor’s race most important topic mysteriously absent

Seattle’s waterfront is about to go through a major transformation in the mayor’s next term. Why aren’t the candidates talking more about it, wonders columnist Jonathan Martin.

Times editorial columnist

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The most lasting legacy of the next Seattle mayor won’t involve police reform, or the road-maintenance backlog, or education, or anything else dominating the nine-candidate race so far.

In the next mayor’s term, more than $1 billion will be spent reshaping the Seattle waterfront for the next half-century. You have to go back a half-century, to the 1962 World’s Fair, for an opportunity, and civic obligation, this huge.

That sum, by the way, doesn’t include the cost of the Highway 99 tunnel. This $1.1 billion will wipe clean the noisy, dark hulk of the viaduct, rebuild the seawall and Alaskan Way, link the Pike Place Market with the Aquarium and, in theory, reconnect the center city with its sea-salt roots.

Most of this should happen by 2018, when the mayor’s position is next on the ballot.

So I keep waiting, and waiting, for this issue to rise to the fore of the mayor’s race.

Instead, it’s an afterthought in candidate forums. If it is brought up at all, it is usually as a jab at Mayor Mike McGinn and his work to scuttle the tunnel.

The Seattle City Council in 2011 greenlighted a conceptual design by famed architect James Corner — remember those public hot tubs on the pier? — and passage of the 2012 seawall-bond measure filled out some of the financing plan.

But much will fall to the next mayor. He or she will have to pitch other massive elements of the financing plan, including a proposed $200 million to $300 million downtown-property levy, and help set limits on redevelopment. How tall do we want the inevitable condo towers to be? Will a wall of development obscure stunning public vistas?

And then there’s the reason I voted for the tunnel: the sudden availability of 20 new acres of public land on a spectacular deep-water port. Architect Corner’s design is basically a sketch, calling for pocket beaches and broad promenades. None of it will be built until the viaduct comes down in 2016, giving time for bold ideas.

This is a dream-big moment for Seattle. And that may be part of the problem.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark says the waterfront is seen politically as an expensive amenity for downtown, and an “unseemly” play for tourism. “We have a split personality” about tourism, she said. We know we need it, but how many more cruise-ship oafs in khaki shorts and Tevas can we stand?

Former Mayor Charley Royer has another theory. “The reason it’s not being talked about much is because much has been done,” he said. “There’s not much controversy left.”

He is co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee, a blue-ribbon committee empowered by the council and mayor to quietly plug the holes in conceptual plans. That work is so behind-the-scenes that I doubt most voters know much about the most transformative element of the future waterfront plan, a $150 million sloped “overlook” walkway linking Pike Place Market with the Aquarium.

Royer is fine with the waterfront’s low profile in the mayor’s race, because reopening debate could lead to what he calls “mischief.”

“In Seattle, mischief is process,” he said. “If they’re not talking about it, it’s not a bad thing.”

But mischief by another name is vision. In the mayor’s race, candidate Kate Martin has been chief mischief-maker, advocating for preserving the top deck of the viaduct for an audacious, three-quarter-mile landscaped park modeled on New York’s High Line.

Leaning on a Pike Place Market balcony above the viaduct last week, she envisioned it as a grand central park, with public space below the vaulted top deck and a priceless view from above.

“When else are we going to add six acres of green space in downtown Seattle?” said Martin (no relation). “This would be the first thing everyone comes to. This would get Seattleites back downtown.”

The idea was aired in early planning for the waterfront, but wasn’t included in Corner’s plan. The cost of retrofitting a structure so unstable that we’re spending $3.1 billion to replace it may be prohibitive. And it would mess with plans for a rebuilt Alaskan Way.

But it is a dream-big vision worthy of the biggest reshaping of Seattle in a half-century. If this doesn’t work, what would? Where is that vision in the mayor’s race?

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. On Twitter: @jmartin206. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com

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