Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Bob Donegan, Ivar's

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 11/10/2022
  • Essay 22583
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Bob Donegan, President and CEO of Ivar's, has been a tireless advocate for the interests of businesses along Seattle's waterfront and beyond. In conversation with HistoryLink's Dominic Black, he recounts his activism around the redevelopment of the Seattle waterfront after the Nisqually earthquake of 2001 damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He talks tunnel boring machines, Seattle process, and his excitement at the vision of James Corner, the architect directing a major part of the waterfront redevelopment.

Allied Arts and Getting Involved

Bob Donegan: In the 1990s, I was a member of the Citizens Advisory Panel on Colman Dock, one of about 8,000 panels on Colman Dock. But then things really started to heat up in 2006, 2007. That's when the first environmental impact statement on the viaduct came out. And Sally Bagshaw, then a deputy county prosecutor, was the head of Allied Arts, and Allied Arts had done a design forum on what the waterfront should look like. She brought it to me quickly, and the piers in the design, at the west tip of the piers they had floats so you could walk among the piers. And I naturally took it to all the people on the waterfront. And when I talked with Kevin Clark from Argosy, Kevin said, "Hey, Bob, if there's floats there, how do I get my boats into the piers?" So that's when it started to get real.

Then when the environmental impact statement came out, I was one of the few non-paid people who read it, 608 pages long. Buried in the document was the notice that the two preferred alternatives, a cut-and-cover tunnel whose western edge was a new seawall, or an elevated rebuild, would close Alaskan Way surface streets for 116 or 117 months. Do the math: that's 10 years. So I called Chuck Kirchner, the mitigation manager for the city. He came down to the pier. I said, "Hey, Chuck, there's 2,500 family wage jobs in these piers. What do we do for a decade?" And he looked at me and said, "You want to stay open?" So that's when I knew if we didn't get involved, bad things were going to happen. 

The first thing I did was after the Nisqually quake, February 28, 2001, the State Department of Transportation looked at more than 70 alternatives to replace the viaduct. And I started to go down the list and identify what was the cost, how long would it take, what's the environmental cost, how much labor would it take, all the things you'd normally look at. And when I came to this one called "deep bore tunnel," I didn't know what that was.

Well, do you know where the machines that dug the English Channel Tunnel were built? Kent? There's a company in town called Robbins Tunnel Boring Equipment that built those machines. So I called Dick Robbins. He came to the pier, we had lunch. "So Dick, when WSDOT was investigating alternatives, what did you tell them about deep bore tunnels?" And he looked at me and said, "Bob, WSDOT never called." The international tunneling industry in the world is based in Seattle. There's thousands of tunnels in Seattle. There's a whole bunch of expertise here. So I asked Dick, "Who is the world's foremost expert on deep bore tunnels?" He said, "Bob, you're not going to like this answer, either. The head of the International Tunneling Consortium is a guy named Harvey Parker." Harvey lives in Bellevue. Harvey and I had lunch: "Harvey, what did you tell the state about deep bore tunnels?" "Well, Bob, the state never called us."

So we continued to investigate that alternative. Then when the governor, the county exec, the mayor, and the port executive appointed the stakeholder committee, I was one of those stakeholders. And halfway through the process, we looked at the 11 alternatives that were finalist candidates, one of which was the deep-bore tunnel, and hired a firm out of Copenhagen called Gehl, G-E-H-L, Gehl Architects, urban planners. And they worked with the University of Washington. And they geo-coded every square foot of Downtown Seattle. And then they evaluated the consequences on every square foot of Downtown Seattle of those alternatives that we were considering to replace the viaduct. And their conclusion at the end of the study was in order to build a waterfront park and make downtown Seattle attractive, Seattle needs to bury its traffic. And that's what swung the interest of the stakeholders from other alternatives to the deep-bore tunnel plus transit solution.

And since then, of course, I sat on the design committee and the seawall committee and the waterfront oversight park committee. So I've been involved a lot since then.

Being In Business

BD: So one of the advantages of the viaduct is it allowed 1,143 public parking spaces below it. On April 1, 1953, as the state was preparing to open the viaduct, Ivar [Haglund] hired a brass band and thanked the state for creating acres and acres of covered parking for his Acres of Clams restaurant. And within a few months, he said, "It's noisy. It's dirty. I want the viaduct taken down."

When we were here in the '90s and early 2000s, there's 85 decibels of background noise coming off the viaduct. You couldn't walk up and down Alaskan Way and have a conversation with someone unless you were shouting. It was not a pleasant place to be. All the tire dust and dirt and concrete off the viaduct rained down on people. It created a physical barrier between the city residents and offices and the waterfront. We got these incredible views: you couldn't see any of them because there was an 80-foot structure in the way.

And then the biggest concern was all the utilities for Downtown Seattle were hung from or buried below the viaduct. Few people know it, but the major transmission lines from BC Hydro and the Bonneville Power Authority were hung from the viaduct to feed Seattle, Oregon, and California. And if the viaduct had come down like the viaduct in Oakland, it would've disrupted the power grid on the West Coasst. Natural gas was below it, fiber-optic cable, the internet for Seattle, sewer and water were all buried in the shadow of the viaduct. Those are big issues.

Dominic Black: So then I'm trying to get an idea of what it's like to be a business person when you're in those consultations and meetings and things. How much is about your business, how much is about representing all of the businesses on the waterfront?

BD: So I'm really lucky in that I'm surrounded by supportive partners and really good staff. So in tomorrow's payroll, we'll have 950 employees. So they allow me the time to help with community matters, and I can do the research, and I can be involved in all these committees because there's people who will cover for me. But if you go next door to Pier 55, where Burgundy, the artist is a sole woman practitioner, she doesn't have time for this stuff. If you talk to Andy at The Frankfurter, between us and Pier 55, he doesn't have time to follow this stuff. So the Historic Waterfront Association, which is about 110 members on the waterfront, including the 45 businesses, meets in this room every month. And we meet with city, county, state, port, contractors, everybody who's doing everything to make sure that they know what matters to us.

So you saw that earlier this week, the roadway cut-over and the biggest concern for the waterfront businesses, how do we get the trucks in to deliver beer and food and take away the recycling and compost and garbage? And because of the meetings we've had in this room, that went without a hitch on Monday morning. So ... the whole process for me started as a clearly personal interest. We're five inches away from the seawall in the park, and if we'd had to shut for 10 years, it would've cost us a whole bunch of jobs with people who've worked in this pier for 20, 30, 40 years. But then it expanded to representing the whole waterfront as well.

The process of dealing with the city and the state is cumbersome. It's focused on process and participation. It's not focused on outcomes. So on the private side, we do analysis. We make a decision, we implement it. If it's wrong, we fix it. On the public side, the process is long at the front because they're so risk-averse. They want to avoid problems by planning for them. But the result is, we're now in year 15 of this process. If the private sector had handled this, this whole process would've been done in a couple of years.

DB: Yeah. I hear what you're saying about that. But I have a different take on it, I guess, because I feel like that's important. The public accountability is important and private sector isn't the answer to all solution, to all problems rather.

BD: We fully agree. But one of the rules I've evolved in this process is the less you know about a problem, the more of an expert on it you are. And I'll give you an example. When the new park opens, the number of visitors to Seattle's waterfront based on Candace Damon, the municipal finance expert we hired from Brooklyn – who's done 50 park financings like this around the country, around North America – has told us the number of visitors to the Seattle waterfront will triple.

That means we're going to see 18 to 20 million people on the waterfront compared to the six and a half million people we saw in 2019. Many of them will be at the Pike Place Market. And on a summer day, 73,000 people will walk between the market and the waterfront, or the waterfront and the market. So the clever solution that James Corner Field Operations came up with is a bridge from the market across new Alaskan Way onto the roof of the new aquarium, because we don't want those people crossing a grade: 35,000 vehicles, 73,000 people; we're calling for a disaster.

Many people who have seen the design of the waterfront say, "We hate pedestrian bridges. We want people to be at grade." Well, that's because they don't know there's going to be 73,000 people a day. Think about a Seahawks game getting out. That's 70,000 people and they got to get across Alaskan Way. It's much safer to have them on a bridge than to have them at grade. So people who don't know things, they can easily solve problems because they don't know what all the issues are.

2008 Stakeholder Meeting 

BD: About December 8, 2008, we had a stakeholder meeting. The 24 people from the Alaska Way viaduct and seawall replacement project, and the governor, Gregoire, and the mayor, Nickels, decided to come to the meeting. And as you can expect, the media followed them along. They thanked us for our work and then they left. And when they left, the public observers and the media left the room. And that's when things blew up. The city, the county, the state, and the port recommended two alternatives to replace the viaduct. And the stakeholder committee rejected them ... 23 of 24 people in the meeting said, "We don't accept these alternatives."

DB: Just spell out what those alternatives were.

BD: The elevated rebuild, and take the viaduct down and let the traffic find its way through the city. But with no media in the room and the governor or the county executive, the port staff not in the room, 23 people said, "We don't want this," Including the people who later came out in opposition of the deep-bore tunnel. City Councilmember Mike O'Brien from Ballard and Cary Moon from the People's Waterfront Coalition said, "Yeah, we want to look at the tunnel plus transit solution."

It was the most powerful public meeting I've ever been to. And there was nobody there to observe it. So because it was December, the governor heard about it and over Christmas vacation, she called close to 80 people and said, "Hey, Dominic, were you serious about ... You want us to look at the tunnel option?" And to a person, everybody said, 'This is an alternative that we need to look at.'

We had assembled a coalition of 197 different groups and organizations that said, "We like this tunnel idea. Let's do some more research on it." One of the reasons WSDOT rejected the deep-bore tunnel was it estimated the cost of building the tunnel at $12.8 billion. Do you know what the contract that was signed with the Seattle tunnel partners was worth? A week before the final viaduct stakeholder meeting, we convened across the street in the Puget Sound Regional Council offices, a group of experts from Mitsubishi in Japan, Jurgen Laubichler from Germany ... tunnel boring experts – to train us in what the issues were and what the successes could be with a tunnel. And at the end of the meeting, I gave each of the experts a piece of paper and said, "Would you write down on this what you think the cost of the tunnel would be?" We use that technique at Ivar's when we open a new store. We ask everybody, "How many customers are we going to serve in the first year?" And that Delphi analysis is often more accurate than the real estate site prediction model we use. So I decided to try it.

And the consensus of the experts at that time was the deep-bore tunnel would cost $969 million, 8 perent of what the state estimated. The value of the contract signed with Seattle Tunnel Partners was a billion and 300 million dollars. Who was right? WSDOT early, or the experts? So none of that made it to the public, but all of that, all of those things were factors in why ultimately the state, the city, the county, and the port agreed that the tunnel, plus transit – because there is no exit in the tunnel to downtown, you have to find a way for people to get into town – why that solution was ultimately selected.

Coalitions and James Corner

BD: What did it for us was, the 197 people and organizations we assembled who supported the tunnel plus transit solution. We had biking, we had pedestrians, we had all the neighborhoods in Seattle and in the suburban donut supporting it. Bill Bryant and Gael Tarleton were port commissioners. They went to the farmers in Eastern Washington and said, "Hey, if we rebuild the viaduct, those 2 million truck trips a year that go into the port that take your stuff in, your hay and your cherries and your apples for Asia, they're going to continue to struggle." So we had support from Central and Eastern Washington. We had the contractors, we had all the labor unions, the King County Labor Coalition was a part of it. And as a result of building that wide coalition, 200 different groups, we could talk to any city council member, county council member, state legislator. You may remember in 2008 and 2009, the economic situation was dismal. And we were requesting from the state, the largest capital budget in the state's history, and the state's in a deficit?

The vote in the House was 77 to 19 in favor, because of the breadth of our coalition. But that took an enormous amount of work by hundreds of people to get there. But the result is what you see outside right now, we're getting there. It will be gorgeous.

DB: Just on that. The design process itself with James Corner and the beginnings of the grand vision, if that's the right way to put it. What were your experiences with that? What was that ... How did that work? What was it like for you?

BD: So all you had to do three months in was sit in a room and hear James talk about his vision, whether it was the grand vision or little tiny things. So for instance, when you walk from the Pike Place Market to the waterfront, there's about a 200-foot elevation loss. With the Americans with Disabilities Act, the slope of the walkway can't be greater than 2 percent. Well, how do you do that? Well, the pathway goes from the northeast to the southwest, to the northwest to the southeast. It's back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth.

Well, many of the people who walk from the market to the waterfront have kids. You think kids are going to like going back and forth, and back and forth? So you know what James proposed? There's slides. There's big stainless steel and plastic slides from the market down the pathways. So while mom and dad are going back and forth with the stroller, the kids are sliding down. It's brilliant.

The view from the Market, and from the top of the aquarium west to the Olympics, south to Rainier watching the ferries and the cruise ships at sunset will be incredible. Where do you want to spend incredible time looking at sunsets? In porch swings. So the design has porch swings in it. You just let him think about creative ideas.

DB: How many of those kind of more playful creative ideas have survived ...

BD: All of them. The best ones are in the process. So, many people are moving to Downtown Seattle with kids, and they want playgrounds for kids. So new Pier 58, which is between the great wheel and the aquarium, has a triangular playground. And that playground is designed by a firm that creates playgrounds that integrate with the community. So what do you think that playground features on the Seattle Waterfront? Crabs and octopuses and whales. It's a place for people to hang out.

Another thing we discovered in the process when we visited the best parks and public spaces in the world was a revelation to me. And that is if you're ever in a public space where there are no women, you're in trouble, because women's sense of safety is much better than men's sense of safety. And one of the things that women look at in public spaces is the quality of the restrooms. So the new restrooms that will be built just east of Pier 58, 19 stalls as I remember, accessible from a common area, each stall is private, includes fresh flowers, granite countertops, and a concierge that cleans everything up all the time, because that makes women feel comfortable. And if women are comfortable, we'll get more people to visit the waterfront. Those are all ideas that the committee and James Corner came up with and we're going to have a very nice project.

DB: That sounds just so exciting to be in the middle of that, and so inspiring. I mean, were you inspired by that?

BD: Exciting is not the right word because this process has taken so long. There was excitement when I saw the image the first time, and I've given the speech on the waterfront hundreds of times. Exciting is not the word anymore.

DB: What is the word?

BD: Anticipatory. 

We're two years out from the park opening. We're 18 months out from the new aquarium ocean pavilion opening. That'll be at the center of the waterfront. It'll be an opportunity for us to triple the number of people we educate about ocean health and climate change and ocean acidification. It will be very exciting when we cut the ribbons and we welcome the first guests into the aquarium and the first kids play on the play structure.

The Nisqually Quake and Mosquito Fleet 

BD: Interestingly, you remember it was 10:55, February 28, 2001. I was walking through the restaurant. And because of all the stuff I had been involved with, I ran to the front of the pier because I wanted to see the viaduct come down. And Francis Ramillio, who was a busser here. grabbed me and said, "What is wrong with you?" And he pulled me under a table, so I didn't get to see anything.

Interestingly ... this pier had less than $500 of damage. There's 1,969 wooden piles, at the time, below the pier, and it shook like a surfboard, but it didn't go down. We didn't lose windows. On the top of the half walls were ship controllers – half reverse, full speed ahead – and they had a glass face on them. And during Nisqually, they fell off and the glass faces broke. That was the extent of the damage here. And it was similar on 55, 56, 57, the aquarium at 59. There was virtually no damage.

Now, the new seawall has about 8,000 jet grout columns: think of a Kidd Valley milkshake machine that extends down to the hard pan and it extrudes concrete, and that concrete spreads out. And instead of independent things and a lot of soil that can liquefy, there's a single concrete rail that extends from Pioneer Square all the way up to Pier 62. And in the earthquake, that'll all move together. It won't liquefy and cause the problems with utilities or facilities falling down.

DB: How did your ideas about the redevelopment of the waterfront then change over time?

BD: Some things remain unchanged. There's too little parking in the new Waterfront Park. We talked before about the 1,143 public parking spaces that have expired. In the new park, there are 48 public parking spaces. According to the research done by the Downtown Seattle Association, the Pike Place Market, the aquarium, Argosy, and Ivar's, 73 percent of our guests come to the waterfront in family groups by car. There is no public transit to the waterfront. Try to get to a cruise ship at Pier 66, you can get to 2nd or 3rd Avenue.

The No. 1 visitor to the aquarium this afternoon will be a mom with two preschool-age kids. If she's coming from Ballard and gets off on 3rd Avenue, she can walk down the 250 steps to get to the aquarium. But when the kids start to cry at 2 o'clock and she's got to get back up the steps, that doesn't work. So one thing that hasn't changed is the need for parking down here. Things that have changed are the analysis showing the number of people who have to walk from the Market, the creation of the overlook walk. That was a revelation. We talked about the need to have women in public spaces. I was entirely unaware of that. So, designing things to make them attractive for women, that was news for me.

Originally, the aquarium expansion was supposed to be on a new public pier between Pier 59 and Pier 57. And by moving the new aquarium off the water and onto the landside, we saved tens of millions of dollars and we'll be right at the middle of the waterfront. And as we talked about, we're now the pedestrian connection from the Market to the waterfront. So that was a revelation.

And then the last big one is passenger ferries. So, we have the passenger ferry finger off the south end of new Colman Dock. The day it opened, it was out of capacity. In another few weeks, a new passenger-only ferry will start running from Des Moines to the Seattle Waterfront Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, four sailings in the morning, four sailings in the afternoon. There was no place for it to dock in Downtown Seattle.

There's a coalition that's been assembled that's trying to get more passenger ferry service from Vashon in West Seattle and Downtown Seattle: there's no space for them. Kitsap Fast Transit has had enormous success with its three routes from Kingston, Bremerton, and Southworth coming into town. They need more places to dock, that doesn't exist down here. So one of the long-range things we're working at on the Waterfront is Pier 48. The old Alaska Marine highway terminal is owned by WSDOT.

The Port of Seattle has the right of first refusal to acquire it. It's on what used to be Ballast Island, Native fishing grounds. We are trying to develop a Native cultural center, a public pier with six or eight new fingers to bring passenger ferries into. And because it's in Pioneer Square at the north end of Terminal 46, we can put a transit hub to get people easily to the university and into uptown. So, that's a revelation for me, the increase in passenger ferry traffic.

DB: It really sort of goes back to those images very early on of the waterfront with lots and lots of ...

BD: The Mosquito Fleet.

DB: Yeah, totally.

BD: Yeah. We need the Mosquito Fleet to come back. 

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