Seattle Central Waterfront: Fast Forward

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This time it is happening, really. After decades of visions, plans, and discussion; studies, input and concepts from panels, commissions, committees and thousands of individuals; and the bumps, grinds and halts of Seattle "process" - now there's a deadline, and a short one at that.

It has to happen now. Why? Because of this infamous visualization and the facts behind it. The seawall is unsafe now, right now, as you walk or drive along it, dine on the waterfront, board a ferry or other vessel. Seawall alternatives are being designed, now. The waterfront framework plan and concepts have to be far enough along before April next year, that's right, April 2011, to help frame the design of the new seawall, because construction starts in 2012. That's a short fuse, unrealistically so, but public safety (lives - yours, mine) is at stake.

Those are just some of the reasons why there was so much excitement over the four shortlisted Central Waterfront design teams last night at Benaroya Hall, with a good crowd of around 1200 turning out for the show, even though no designs or concepts were to be presented. This show was about process, our infamous Seattle process, and how well equipped the teams are to work with, under, and around that process. Questions were submitted by the public and again by the audience for the teams. The main question in my mind was: How will you deal with the different and conflicting public stakeholder desires and needs? In other words, can you produce magic under the constrictions of our process?

We the Public are not part of the selection process

The four finalists are the best of the best. They were selected out of a field of 30 applicants. The selection panel has already decided that each team meets the essential qualifications, including design ability.

But physical design is not their only task, or even the biggest one. The biggest task is a 50-year Framework Plan to guide what will happen when, and the "if...then" sort of arguments. Something that takes so long to complete can't be designed all at once.

Second is a concept plan, guiding principles, overall vision and sort of "rules of play" for how future elements will be designed as part of the whole.

Then, the winning team will actually get to design, in full, some central piece of the waterfront which will be determined as part of the previous processes. That's the gravy.

The purpose of the exercise at Benaroya was for the teams to show the selection panel how they approach public interaction as part of the design process. Any one of these teams could do the job, presumably - but only one will be selected.

Following is a brief rundown of salient points and first impressions for each of the four teams, and the particular questions they were asked (for answers, view the presentations). Anything beyond straight observation is strictly subjective personal opinion, colored by my own experience or lack of, and won't affect the final choice in the least as it is not up for vote. To form your own opinions (which should be preferable) view the presentations in entirety here and visit the websites of the leads and subs as well.

There were some basic elements that all the teams covered - green sustainable design, diverse uses rather than big park or open space, multiple neighborhoods and the importance of east-west connections. 

Wallace Roberts & Todd

First Impressions: Going first is a tough spot to be in but they presented strongly.

Positives: Impressive team. Knowledgeable, locally rooted - 4Culture and the artists behind the last big waterfront design push. SRG - practical know-how plus good design sensibilities. Good engagement philosophy, with understanding of the strength of the "right design" and that you can never please everyone "100%". This is important - design by consensus doesn't work; how does the strength of the design team come into play?

Negatives: Couldn't see any, which makes me suspicious of my own judgment.

Some points:
  • Thick Seam concept of waterfront edge
  • Not just a park or open space, layered, intelligent continuity of movement
  • Rain is an event and a celebration, a reason to go to the waterfront
  • Engagement: The Table is Set
  • Every phase of the planning and design is a citizens festival on the waterfront
  • What Ifs?
  • Walking environment experts from Atkins as a sub (big deal for me)

Questions for the team (This team had some of the better questions):
  • How will you respect, address all previous design efforts, that history?
  • What are your principles for designing with democracy?
  • How do you balance an urban working waterfront with natural ecosystems?
  • What are different types of "Gathering"?
  • What are other shore elements to address, different neighborhoods?

james corner field operations

First Impressions: The Outsider. Playing the outsider game to great effect.

Positives: The Outsider. "Coming in without preconceptions - we'll learn from you". The Hi-Line is the great success story of the moment, and he showed understanding of the principles of success there (vistas, perspectives, people places to observe urban theater) that might also apply here. Experience with other water projects as well, and a Green Urbanism, with green finger/tributary/green infrastructure systems that cleaned the water on the way to the bay.

Negatives: The Outsider? This was James Corner's show, the cult of personality, building on success and popularity of Hi-Line. Audience darling - winning the popularity contest. Not so much asked from rest of team - not much evidence of well-integrated collaboration.

Some other points:
  • Early Wins - Get some benefits in place now, not just 20 years from now
  • Video of people on waterfront, saying what they want there (with huge background viaduct traffic noise!)
Questions for the team:
Can you describe your approach towards transit integration for all modes?
What is your approach to our debt to the history of the First Nations?
Architectural habits turn to sedimentation over time - how do you change those habits?
How do you keep public spaces safe, active and vibrant?
Would you be interested in recreating the topography, emphasizing the historic bluff?
What was your biggest surprise in this process? (Answer: This question!)

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Some disclaimers here. I worked for Via Architects until recently, and I worked with Ken Greenberg in Ontario.

First Impressions: This was the local heavy hitters team, exemplified by Peter Steinbrueck - who has ultimate insider knowledge of Seattle process. Lots of easy joking banter.

Positives: MVV very impressive, knowledgeable, lots of waterfront experience besides Brooklyn Bridge Park, a focus on feasibility based on maintenance costs - an important understanding. Collaborative team, water harvesting experience locally (Rainier Vista) and in Canada, extensive Ontario waterfront experience. Great transportation experience. Important understanding of maintenance costs and governance as part of design.

Negatives: The first slide read as "white guys posing on the waterfront" and it was kind of offensive, as well as pointless. Please don't ever open like that again.

Some points:
  • Large models and other visualizations for engagement and public process.
  • Start with program.
  • Grit and soul.
  • Different types of places.
  • History.
  • Best line of the night with Regrade slide - "NIMBYism started here".
  • Surface road pedestrian sovereignty.
  • Figure out maintenance and governance in advance. (extremely important)

Questions: (This team was hit with some of the toughest, trickiest and most obscure questions of the night. The audience was groaning.)
  • Long quote from an article re: ...social justice is not part of the language of design...there is a sensitivity to the realities of administering open spaces, ecological realities of successful development...how would you speak to the leaders dealing with those issues? (paraphrased...groan)
  • Coleman Dock is a large element on the waterfront - how will your approach deal with design opportunities there?
  • From the waterfront, in what direction are Mt. Constance, Glacier Peak, (etc.)...and how will you respond to view opportunities?
  • We locals tend to hibernate in the rainy months. How will you make the waterfront attractive to us year round?
  • Are there bones of place, with potential for re-imagining portions of the existing infrastructure?
  • How will the waterfront connect to the overall fabric and network of other important public spaces?
  • What is your approach to integrating our Pacific Northwest transportation infrastructure?

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

First Impressions: Showy entrance - foreboding more style than substance?

Positives: Strong team, and I have a soft spot for Foster+Partners stemming from my school days. The Trafalgar Square example is a powerful reference, and was done using Space Syntax pedestrian analysis, another of my weaknesses. Atkins is also a subconsultant on this team, a big positive.

Negatives: The initial focus on "flash" seems to be the unfortunate influence of the sub leading the artistic conceptual input (Lead Pencil Studio), and it was detrimental to what is otherwise a strong team of local and international influence. One other knock against Kathryn Gustafson, who was either betraying her own ignorance or assuming that of the audience. Kathryn, we've already done the damage which ensures that a six-inch sea level rise is the baseline, the minimum we can expect. If we don't do the things you were mentioning to reduce climate change, the sea level rise could be much greater than six inches. I know your heart is in the right place, thus you are forgiven, maybe.

Some points:
  • Healthy City concept/approach
  • Elliott Bay as Central Park - first city to do this
  • Pugetopianism - people are here for different reasons, it all needs to be there
  • Contextualism, local materials and ecology, for small informal spaces
  • Edge of nature, scale breaks down, streets at finer scale, more crossings
  • Many types of public space
  • Some east-west streets can be pedestrian
  • A city of neighborhoods
Questions:
  • How has public process ever reshaped your final design?
  • How will you address the infrastructure opportunities of the seawall and Alaskan Way?
  • How will you design to deal with sea level rise?
  • How will you connect the great civic spaces of the city?
  • Can you guarantee opportunities for fresh insight and fresh discovery?

Final Take: This is strictly personal and therefore of no consequence. Any of the four would suffice, but who might push it to world-class and yet uniquely Seattle? I'm tied in preference for first spot between the WRT team and the MVVA team. If pushed, I might lean towards MVVA because of confidence from familiarity with their work; I might then lean back to WRT because they brought Atkins on board for pedestrian space analysis. I'm a citywalker, when all is said and done.

Final Notes: Thanks to Seattle Parks Foundation for hosting the event, and kudos on the opening of Lake Union Park next week (September 24th-25th).

Shame on everyone involved with the business of the public who insists on conducting that business via Facebook page. You might as well publish it in Mandarin - the majority will benefit, but a significant minority will not, including Facebook refusers such as myself. I don't - and will most likely never - speak Facebook. If I see one more blurb that says "Join the discussion on Facebook!" I may commit an act of violence.

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