Seattle Commercial Real Estate News of the Day

Monday, May 23, 2011

Seattle Times Daily Journal of Commerce Headline
Regence Blue Shield puts HQ tower up for sale James Corner: reconnect people to the waterfront
Developer proposes 174-apartment building in South Lake Union When James Corner presented his big design ideas for the Seattle waterfront last week, there were lots of grand gestures: a Victor Steinbrueck park extending to the water, thermal pools on piers and a park roof over Colman Dock. But the big goal, Corner said, was to stoke the public’s imagination.

Landscape architect Corner said the waterfront has been severed for decades from the rest of the city psychologically and physically by the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the area’s topography. Once the structure is removed, the city can begin to reknit itself. For that to happen, people need to care about the waterfront and see its potential.

“We believe that if you can open this waterfront up, it will become the defining identity of Seattle. It will become its face, its front door, its front porch and … begin to cast a whole new identity for the city.”

James Corner’s initial big ideas for the waterfront are meant to stoke the public’s imagination.

Last Thursday night, Corner, of New York City-based James Corner Field Operations, presented his ideas to a packed hall of about 900 at the Bell Harbor Conference Center. He and Seattle Planning Director Marshall Foster emphasized current plans are “foundation ideas” from which conceptual design will be built in the coming year. The framework plan and concept design are scheduled to be complete in mid-2012 with construction beginning in 2016.

Funding is unclear. Cost estimates will be developed as part of the concept plan. Viaduct demolition, closure of the Battery Street Tunnel and construction of a new Alaskan Way is estimated to cost $290 million.

Corner said his team’s final design will attract people to the waterfront while deepening their relationship with it. There will be many ways to enjoy the area — from spending time in small, intimate spaces, to gathering for a large concert to wandering walking paths and interacting with the water.

Corner’s team is concentrating on presenting its progress and ideas to Seattleites, so locals understand where the final design comes from. His team is presenting specific ideas to get people excited for major changes.

“One of the challenges with this sort of project is you’re trying to make the outcome inevitable,” he said. “Engage people with ideas, provoke their imagination, stimulate their desire and try to build a sense of positive optimism for creating this together. It’s going to take a long time; it’s not going to be easy. Cynicism and pessimism is the disease that can kill it.”

Corner highlighted three concepts that will guide design: The cityscape concept aims to reorient Seattle back towards Elliott Bay; the urban framework concept aims to reconnect individual streets and neighborhoods to the waterfront; and the waterfront concept aims to mark tide changes and reflect the fluctuating nature of the city’s waterline.

Within these concepts, Corner identified a series of big changes. They include extending Victor Steinbrueck Park down to the waterfront and adding a rooftop park above the parking area at Colman Dock. Another idea would cut away the sides of the state’s Pier 48, turning shore area into beach. The pier itself would become a park over different planes while its end would have a concert area.

Balancing interests

Seattle is known for being overly involved in projects and concentrating too much on process. Corner said Seattleites may be more involved than other cities but he would rather have people care about a project than be indifferent, and that the city’s passion for the project is a good thing.

Corner said he’s never had a public meeting with more than 450 people. At the waterfront team’s first public meeting in February, there were 1,000 attendees.

There are many different groups interested in the waterfront and each has their own agenda. Corner said he hasn’t sensed a “vulcanization” among the different groups, and that there is a sense the project should focus on the greater good. Everyone seems aspirational, he said.

In order to address so many interests, it’s critical to listen. Corner said his firm may spend more time listening than others do, and there is a concerted effort to meet with groups and hear concerns and ideas. It needs to be an open-ended process, he said, but ideas move forward at the end of the day.

Already, important decisions are being made. At Thursday’s meeting, audience members asked about two popular ideas for the waterfront: retaining a piece of the old viaduct as a viewpoint and re-creating a waterfront streetcar line. Corner said it would be too expensive to retrofit a viaduct section and his design would provide far superior views on a safe surface. He said his team believes the streetcar makes more sense on First Avenue, as it would crowd space along the new Alaskan Way.

Currently, the team plans to have a separate biking and walking path along the waterfront.

When Corner presents waterfront ideas, he highlights things many Seattleites haven’t thought about or take for granted. Because he is an outsider, Corner said he can see Seattle innocently for what it is without being tainted by histories, cultures and politics. His team tries to maintain the outsider’s fresh viewpoint, he said, while learning about the important subtleties that those who live here already understand. The team does this by immersing itself in the city. It spends a lot of time walking.

One subtlety he’s focused on is the different neighborhoods and 29 streets that connect to the waterfront. Corner said his team is trying to identify the moods, character, and ambiance of each street, to better connect them to the waterfront and create a more nuanced scheme moving forward.

Some of Corner’s ideas may seem pretty farfetched. At Thursday’s presentation, he showed images of thermal pools on Piers 62 and 63 for people to soak in and enjoy views. In response to audience laughter, he responded that lest the audience get too skeptical, the idea could easily be tested in a year or two with a few hot tubs, paint and some lawn chairs.

Corner said he’s hired to envision a future for a place that people, if left to their own devices, don’t create. It’s easy, he said, for cynicism to take over.

“Part of our job is to envision and put on the table alternative possibilities and even then, it’s hard for people to imagine what those could be,” he said. “Many other cities have had great success creating new places that could never have been imagined before and that’s what we’re hoping to be able to do here.”

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About CRE Northwest

Specialist in office & investment real estate in Seattle & the Eastside
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