First Look at James Corner’s Waterfront “Ring”

by MvB  from The Sun Break

First Look at James Corner’s Waterfront “Ring”

by MvB on May 23, 2011

“If you squint your eyes,” said James Corner at the initial design presentation for Seattle’s central waterfront, “this, too, almost has a sort of circularity, where it’s embracing and enclosing the city and looking out to water bodies. […] It’s really a device to bring together a sense of the collective and focus it.” (Watch the presentation here.)

He was talking about the Olmsted Legacy, Seattle’s park system, and how he hopes to recapitulate that with an Elliott Bay ring. “Seattle has in a sense turned its back on Elliott Bay over years,” Corner argued, “it’s now going to become a frontage.” Covering eight districts and tying into 29 streets, the new central waterfront would sit inside a larger ring, giving impetus to the creation of even more connections outside the scope of his project. In the end, Elliott Bay would be a “centerpiece for the city,” a “theater for weather.”

If he’s seen Seattle Opera’s “green” Ring, he gave no sign of it, but even if he tapped into it by accident, epic outdoor theater (and incestuous politicking!) is inarguably what makes Seattle Seattle.

Corner and his team were back in Seattle May 19 with a response to Seattle’s input on defining our waterfront. A few things were clear. On the DO NOT WANT list: view-blocking structures, large-scale private development, huge roads and parking lots, touristy shops. DO WANT: views, parks, outdoor activities, places for public gatherings like markets and festivals.

On Corner’s to-do list: remake the psychology of Seattle as a city on the water, and restructure the city’s mental map so that the waterfront is known as an easy place to get to.

Aware that the waterfront is “poorly serviced with public transit” and also has “parking challenges,” the team is looking at a multimodal access strategy, that may or may not include a First Avenue streetcar, but will definitely include filling in “gaps” that keep frustrate pedestrian access. Priority will be given to pedestrians, though bicyclists get a bike path as well. Alaskan Way will be tree-lined and “fully signalized”–i.e., not a fast trip during tourist season.

Summing up what he’d show the audience, Corner said, “It isn’t a one-liner, it isn’t a singular move, it’s episodic.” He backed off his earlier suggestion that part of the Viaduct could be preserved as a public outlook, saying that the cost of structural reinforcement and safety elements was looking prohibitive. (This is a bitironic because his work on New York’s High Line Park, reclaiming an elevated structure, is one of the reasons he won the Seattle job.)

But he has not backed off the outlook notion, and, looking at his overall plans, you can see that investing heavily in a single structural element isn’t in the cards. Instead Corner has four areas (“folds”) where he and his team are considering making “some bigger moves.”

The biggest is the Overlook Fold, connecting Victor Steinbrueck Park to the Aquarium. On earlier visits, Corner had mused about the challenge of the height differential between downtown and the waterfront. Here, he’s thinking about attacking the 86-vertical-foot differential directly, with an enormous terraced slope that would cross above Alaskan Way, giving pedestrians views all the way down to Aquarium Plaza. “Beneath” the slope is room for commercial space, storefronts and cafés.

(A note on that “thinking”: “We wanted to make these ideas visible, and compelling, but they are not finished or final.”)

“Down” at the waterfront, he surprised the audience into (delighted?) laughter with thermal pools (aka public hot tubs) at Pier 62/63, in a nod to Seattle’s cooler weather. Corner has always talked about “early wins”–ways to engage people with the waterfront before the project is finished–and this would be one. Some deck chairs, a few pools, and you’d have a chance to see if Seattle is really as Nordic as we like to think when visiting Ballard.

At Colman Dock, Corner wants to take advantage of an existing destination point, and amplify what people do there anyway, which is to take in the water view. He’s suggesting a green rooftop “sun lawn” (think Cal Anderson transplanted), and out front, Colman Dock Gallery, a covered canopy area for small markets and carts. (Interestingly, the transparent canopy roof would channel rainwater like an aqueduct, rather than shed it.)

For the Belltown Balcony, Corner went the other way. Rather than mitigate the bluff, he embraces and extends, creating a public space with a variety of sightlines.

Beneath the balcony is ground-floor room, for use TBD (“storefronts and cafés” are the usual placeholder at this stage of the design phase). At the North End, Corner tries to knit the waterfront to the Sculpture Park, crossing above the railroad tracks to a bike path. This element feels the least developed, but perhaps that’s because the Sculpture Park already exists–all Corner may want to do is allow for a “desire path” that people can use.

Down at Pier 48, he has in mind a Festival Pier, again a green-space viewpoint that would also function as an amphitheater. (I know we said “no view-blocking structures” but is there a way to work a band shell into this? Seattle sorely needs a summer venue for Symphony and Opera performances that could engage a much larger community than a hall can hold.) South of Pier 48 would be rock and gravel beach, pier stumps poking up cinematically.

Other supporting design considerations include a more “dynamic” waterfront edge–Corner is leaning on the seawall team to come up with something less like a wall. He envisions a terraced waterfront that both processes stormwater before it hits the Sound, and also allows people to interact with the tidal flows.

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