Rockrise study of redevelopment options for Seattle's central waterfront is presented on January 27, 1971.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/27/2013
  • Essay 10699

On January 27, 1971, George T. Rockrise & Associates presents a study of redevelopment options for Seattle's central waterfront for review by city officials. The plan, funded by the Forward Thrust parks bond measure, is the third in a series of plans to address the overall decline of the central business district and the central waterfront. George Rockrise (1917-2000) and his team of planners apply ideas previously promulgated in 1963 by Donald Monson (d. 1991) and in 1965 John Graham and Company that sought to revitalize the waterfront as a means to bolster the central business district using a combination of public investment and private development. The Rockrise study will be used by the Bumgardner Partnership to develop a design for Seattle's Waterfront Park, but its vision for the area as a whole will soon be eclipsed by regulations developed under Seattle's first Shoreline Master Program, adopted in 1976. 

Addressing Waterfront "Blight" 

By the early 1960s only a handful of passenger ship terminals and a few fishing and fish processing operations remained on the central waterfront adjoining downtown Seattle. No longer needing to accommodate large volumes of freight on the central waterfront, city officials, civic leaders, and business owners began to reconsider what role the area could play in how the city functioned.  

It took some imagination to envision the waterfront as an attraction that could drive tourism or support the central business district. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, built in 1953 between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue, blocked some views to and from downtown and filled the air with traffic noise. Freight trains regularly lurched and clanged along Alaskan Way. Many of the upland warehouses and the pier sheds had grown dilapidated and sat empty. In anticipation of the 1962 World's Fair, several tourist-oriented businesses opened on the waterfront, joining the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Ivar's Restaurant. The Edgewater Inn provided the only waterfront lodging and a handful of businesses offered dining, shopping, and entertainment 

Under federal government urban renewal programs, cities could obtain funding to clear areas deemed blighted and rebuild them with new housing and businesses. In Seattle, the Central Association (precursor to the Downtown Seattle Association), the Port of Seattle, and area business owners all enthusiastically supported redeveloping what they considered to be blighted areas ringing downtown at Pioneer Square, the waterfront, and Pike Place Market. The federal program required Seattle to develop a plan for the central business district that addressed how the "blighted" areas would be redeveloped and integrated into the city's comprehensive plan. 

Two plans addressing the central waterfront emerged out of this process. The first, an overarching central business district plan prepared by New York-based planner Donald Monson in 1963, recommended the waterfront be made into the city's "front door" and better connected with downtown and with the Pike Place Market area, which he proposed be redeveloped. Monson's plan called for a mix of public and private development, with services and spaces for local residents and for tourists. 

After the Monson plan was adopted by the city as an amendment to its comprehensive plan, the city, the Port of Seattle, and private pier owners hired John Graham and Company, also of New York, to address the waterfront portion of Monson's plan in more detail. The 1965 Graham plan incorporated Monson's suggestions for improving connectivity with downtown, utilizing a mix of public and private investment, and incorporating a mixture of uses: "The primary effort should be directed toward acquiring and improving the property designated for public use. Once this development is launched, private investment is sure to follow" (Technical Report, 44). 

Citizen Input 

It would take some time to put together a public funding proposal, but in February 1968, King County voters approved a group of propositions known as Forward Thrust. The parks proposition included $5 million for a waterfront park. The proposition did not stipulate a specific location for the park or how it should be developed, so the city hired George T. Rockrise & Associates to study the waterfront and prepare a report guiding its development using the Monson and Graham plans for guidance. 

Mayor James D. Braman (1901-1980) appointed an advisory group to work with the Rockrise team of planners. The Mayor's Waterfront Advisory Committee included community members with economic interests on the waterfront such as local businessowners, an executive from the Northern Pacific Railroad, and a leader of the Central Association. The study presented to the public in December 1969 was met with heavy criticism that it reflected only the interests of a small part of the city and largely maintained the status quo on the waterfront. 

Community interest in the waterfront and planning decisions had grown during the 1960s. Jolted by the destructive and divisive effects of building Interstate 5 and State Route 520 and the threat posed by urban renewal plans for Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, community activists demanded a new advisory committee and a revised study.  

To that end, new mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) appointed a new advisory group, the Citizens Waterfront Task Force. This group, representing a broader cross-section of the city, discussed how the park should relate to the private businesses along the waterfront, most importantly on the privately owned piers adjacent to the park area. Some members of the committee wanted the park to extend inland and out over the water to create an oasis of open space in the midst of the working waterfront. Others felt it should be more linear, focusing primarily on a promenade along the privately owned piers. The city's new Department of Community Development also held a series of public meetings at the Seattle Center and the University of Washington and gathered comments from the public about the waterfront and how people wanted see the park developed.  

When Rockrise released its final study in January 1971, it represented the views of a broader range of the city's residents and reduced the amount of commercial development proposed within the park. The study recommended that the park embrace its urban, quasi-industrial surroundings rather than attempting to create a pastoral green space, and emphasize public access to the water and views. 

Park Design 

The Waterfront Park design subsequently developed by The Bumgardner Partnership, a Seattle firm, incorporated most of the Rockrise study's concepts. To buffer the park and adjacent areas from traffic, the city extended the promenade area into the Alaskan Way parking lane from the vicinity of Pike Street to Madison Street. This created space for a row of trees along the edge of the promenade between the planned Seattle Aquarium at Pier 59 and the ferry terminal at Pier 49.  

The park area between piers 57 and 59 offered visitors a closer connection to the water with its overwater decking placed seven feet lower than the street and promenade level. A planned floating breakwater proved too costly to implement, but elevated walkways, a pier-edge esplanade, and an enclosed pier-end viewing area on the city-owned Pier 57 (later the site of Fisherman's Restaurant) provided unobstructed water views. 

The Rockrise study addressed concepts for the types of development adjacent to Waterfront Park that would shape the character and environment of the waterfront. Through this development, it suggested, the waterfront could provide "supporting services, entertainment facilities, and protection of westward views" for the central business district (Seattle Central Waterfront, 131). The study recommended the formation of a design district that would limit the height, bulk, and uses of structures. Height limits could be used to protect views and to retain the relationship of the buildings to the landscape by increasing height limits as the hill climbed inland.  

To the north of the park, the study recommended the construction of residential and hotel buildings on the inland side of the planned promenade, in place of a rerouted Alaskan Way that would run along the eastern side of the viaduct. A funicular, a type of cable-driven railroad, could be built at the planned aquarium to carry pedestrians up the hill to a landscaped lid across the viaduct. In the area of piers 61 through 64, Rockrise suggested locating maritime commerce, including a large marina and related businesses, and one of the primary pedestrian connections between the central business district and the waterfront.  

Farther north, around the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Pier (Pier 66), Rockrise envisioned more industrial and commercial development. A cruise ship port, which was eventually built at Pier 66, a fish processing plant, and a trade center would attract business interests. A pedestrian walkway along the eastern side of the piers would allow public access to water views in that area. To the south of the park, the ferry terminal would be joined by additional passenger-boat operations and low-rise buildings with tourist-oriented businesses in them.  

Slow Evolution 

As it happened, the impact of the Rockrise study on waterfront redevelopment was reduced by two factors. First, just as the study was completed in 1971, the state legislature passed the Shoreline Management Act. The act required cities and counties to develop management plans for their shorelines. Seattle's first Shoreline Master Program, adopted in 1976, established three priorities for shoreline uses: environmental protection, public access, and maritime uses. This shifted the city's priorities and vision for the central waterfront enough that the Rockrise study no longer fully met its needs. 

The second factor was that the structural challenges to rehabilitating the waterfront remained in place. Alaskan Way could not easily be moved to the east side of the viaduct. The train tracks along Alaskan Way served an important role in the operations of the rail yard south of Royal Brougham Way. It would be costly and complicated to shift that traffic to the railroad tunnel under downtown.  

The central waterfront slowly evolved during the 1970s in keeping with the Monson, Graham, and Rockrise principles. Waterfront Park opened in 1974 and the Seattle Aquarium followed in 1977. In 1977, the city also opened the Pike Street Hillclimb, a cement stairway just below the Pike Place Market with businesses located at the landings between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue. It was not the envisioned funicular and lid across the viaduct, but it was a vast improvement over the rudimentary wooden staircases that preceded it. 

In the early 1980s, when developers began to look at the former warehouses along Western Avenue for redevelopment, the city would again try to formulate a plan for coordinating development on the waterfront and enhancing it with public projects, but progress would remain disjointed until the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake damaged the viaduct and wholesale redevelopment of the waterfront became a real possibility.

Sources: David Brewster, "Whatever Happened to Elliott Bay?," Seattle, February 1970, pp. 26 – 31; Polly Lane, "Waterfront-Park Plan to Be Previewed at Meetings Wednesday, Thursday," The Seattle Times, January 24, 1971, p. H-1; Donald Monson, Comprehensive Plan for Central Business District, Seattle: Technical Report (Seattle: Seattle Planning Commission, 1963); Caroline Crane Tobin, "Planning for the Urban Waterfront: A Historical Case Study of Seattle's Waterfront," (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1977); "Report of the Mayor's Waterfront Advisory Committee," March 2, 1970, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library; "Seattle Central Waterfront Study Advisory Committees," Folder 5, Box 56, 5804-05, Project Construction Files, Facilities Maintenance and Development, Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Seattle Municipal Archives; The Seattle Central Waterfront: A Study for its Future Comprehensive Development (Seattle: City of Seattle Department of Community Development, 1971); Technical Report on the Seattle Central Waterfront Development (Seattle: John Graham and Company, 1965).
Note: This essay was corrected on July 1, 2014.

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