Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Maggie Walker and Charley Royer, Friends of Waterfront Seattle

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 3/19/2023
  • Essay 22672
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Maggie Walker, chair of Friends of Waterfront Seattle, joined former Seattle Mayor and fellow committee member Charley Royer on July 23, 2022, to talk about how they designed the process around reimagining the Seattle waterfront. In their interview with HistoryLink's Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott in Seattle, Walker and Royer explain how private philanthropy has played a key role in funding the redevelopment of the waterfront, how they work to ensure that people from Seattle's diverse neighborhoods take ownership of the new public space, and how the project relates to Seattle's recent development history. 

A Focusing Event 

Charley Royer: Seattle is known for its process, the government. My son said, "Seattle can chew. It just can't swallow." And I think he's right. I mean, we take a long time to get things done. Fifteen years on the waterfront, Maggie and I have spent when it's finished in '24. It'll never be finished, but when it's ready to turn over to next generations to make their changes, it'll be 15 years. That's a whole education span for me, first grade through high school. So, we did get an education in this process. But an issue gets started here the way it does in most places.

After I left the Mayor's Office, I taught at the Kennedy School. And, we used to tell our students: you know, you can plan for things, and you should. You can study economics in order to get it right. And in order to, if you're in the government – I was teaching in the government school – you need to know your economics. But really, what is going to help you the most is a focusing event. So, something has to get the interest of people. And so they try to do that with commercials on television, and they're woefully ineffective. But, when Mother Nature and Mother Earth conspire to have a big earthquake, it's a focusing event, like a hanging. And so, we had an earthquake, and suddenly people saw the viaduct as not being viable. And so, there was an urgent need for us to do something.

We had a different experience when urban renewal happened, which is another big planning opportunity for the city that the government created back in the '60s. Urban renewal, which became later known as urban removal, was a federal program to take places like the Market, which was run down and kind of not functioning, and tear it down and build some office buildings on it for the economy and some retail. And that's what they wanted to do with our beloved Market during urban renewal. So, that was a focusing event. The market – tearing the Market out of Seattle would be like tearing your heart out. I mean, it's very much the heart of the city, no doubt about that. And so the people rose up, went to the streets with petitions and saved the Market, one of our great single achievements in Seattle.

With the viaduct, we didn't go to the streets with petitions. We formed a committee. The mayor was involved in forming the committee. The council ratified it. And we went to work with the government to come up with a plan. It was very different than urban renewal, but both ... We ignored urban renewal, really. We said, "No. We want none of that." Other cities tore down their markets, tore down their old neighborhoods. We didn't do that. We took our time. So our chewing saved us from not destroying the Market. And so it was a different approach with the viaduct, but it still took an event to get people's attention and to motivate people to do something they never thought they could do, which is to go out and raise money, work hard on the process and work with the government creatively on a multi-billion dollar transportation project, which had the benefit of giving us a park, which was a great opportunity that we took advantage of.

Fundraising and Public Private Process

Maggie Walker: I have been involved in Seattle's sort of cultural scene, cultural and writ large scene, for probably 30 years, and worked on the Commons, worked on the Sculpture Park, worked on MOHAI and helped raise the money for Lake Union Park. And, all of this had sort of prepared me to think about the next step and the fact that we had missed an opportunity with the Commons. That was a salutatory lesson. And ... 

Dominic Black: What was the lesson that came out of that?

MW: I think, a little bit what Charley has alluded to, which is, you need to focus people on a need. They need to understand the possibility, in a way that sometimes is hard to describe if you don't have that sort of focusing moment. The Commons was an opportunity that was created because we had a part of the city that was no longer functioning highly. And, there was an opportunity to create something great there, but there was no focusing moment. There was no impending disaster. There was nothing there. And, the way it was structured and the way it was brought about didn't fit the moment, I mean, politically and probably intellectually in some ways. It was an interesting lesson because you realize more importantly that Seattle is a place that reinvents itself every 30 years and you have to be part of that process in order to succeed – you have to somehow fit the fabric as it's being woven.

And, when Mayor Nickels called me and said, "Would you be willing to co-chair this committee with Charley?" I was immediately intrigued. It isn't something that I had been focused on. Unlike Charley, I hadn't been engaged in a lifelong battle to rectify the mistake. But it intrigued me because it's almost as if I'd created sort of an education that had led to this moment. So for me, it was like, "Oh, this is a really interesting opportunity for me to play a role, because I'm bringing to it a whole set of experiences and also the ability to tap into private wealth in this town, which I just spent a lot of years learning how to do."

DB: And then, how do you ... So you're sitting down on day one, how do you begin forming the process, and who are you starting to think, "Okay, here's who we want to talk to" – I mean, in a way, how do you decide which voices you want to have in the room?

MW: So, we did not have that option, they were appointed by the mayor. There was, I think it was 45. And what happened is, there was a subset of that group who really became engaged. And there were a bunch of people who were not as interested and fell away for whatever reasons. And so, what we did is we formed a collaboration with the city staff, who were in charge of managing us, and so they were a combination of planning, transportation and parks. And, a number of those people are still involved with the project today, and that's one of the reasons why it's so successful.

So what we did is we formed sort of a very powerful collaboration of private citizens with the city staff, to think through, how do you do this really well? How do you make this a really powerful process that gives you a really great product, and isn't just about a design, it's actually, how do you implement and get it done? So there was this process that we created, in partnership with the city, but frankly, really driven by the experiences and the intelligence of a lot of very senior private citizens who had been through a lot of different things, who were bringing all kinds of skill sets to the table. But that it was clear we had to embed in a public process that the city was running, because it is a public asset, and it needed to be owned by the city. So, it was this really interesting, very powerful energy creation and trust that was built between the city staff and ourselves. And that's what made it successful. I mean, there's no question.

Surviving Political Change

MW: We've been through seven mayors actually. And, from the very beginning, one of the things that we did that was actually brilliant – and it was during the beginning of [Mike] McGinn's tenure – is we met as a committee, and with the city staff we created a set of principles about how we would operate. And we also established very strong working relationships with the city staff. We also had very strong relationships with the council. And, by doing this, we were able to sort of manage the project through a somewhat turbulent period, where decisions had to be made about all kinds of things, about the sea wall for one thing. And, one of the things that we did recommend, and which the city did, was to take the whole project – sea wall, road, bike trail and the park elements – as a single project. And if it hadn't been managed that way, it would've cost a lot more and it would not be the same product that you would've gotten.

So there was this whole set of principles that were created with this advice to the staff, and the staff's willingness to trust Charley and I and a number of the other committee members to kind of navigate and try to mitigate McGinn's negative approach to this, so that the council, in effect, kept this project whole. They voted 9-0, 9-0, 9-0, 9-0 all through his tenure. And they kept it intact. And particularly – that was the design and public process period. And the overwhelming popularity and the turnout that we would get at these public process meetings where designs would be vetted with the public, I think, insulated the project from a more, what is the word, sort of almost knee-jerk political behavior, that … it was never subject to any particular mayor's personal … and, we deliberately built that insulation, frankly, through this public process, and also through the ability of us to win the trust of both the bureaucracy, frankly, and the council.

LID Raises All Boats

CR: The one area where I think we had controversy, I would call it controversy, was the LID. That's the Local Improvement District that said that people who are closer to the project will pay something in their property taxes because of the public benefit that they take advantage of in their property values. It's a very common tool, used all over the country, is not a new, radical thing at all, but it just says that those who benefit the most, who sit in the front row at the basketball game, they pay a little more for their ticket because they get more out of it. 

DB: What does an LID allow you to do ... ?

CR: It means that you work with a tax assessor, who creates a formula for the benefit that you will derive as a property owner. And the closer you are to the project, it stands to reason, the more benefit you get. But, we made this pretty big. So I think it went all the way up to the freeway, didn't it?

MW: Yeah.

CR: Almost.

MW: So it's basically all of downtown. So I think, I believe it went from Royal Brougham to Broad, and the Sculpture Park up to I-5.

CR: Yeah.

MW: And, that was very deliberate. And, the folks, there was actually a subcommittee of our committee that engaged a lot of the large developers in town, who would end up paying significant amounts into the LID, and had them help craft the plan. And, it is state law that the city council can impose the LID without a public vote, and that's the route we chose to take. So, the city council, again, 9-0, imposed the LID. And, it was negotiated with the large developers to be less than the original budget had called for – that was some negotiation. The nonprofit picked up some of the slack, and the city picked up the rest of it. So, in the funding plan, there was some negotiation at the very end, before it was locked down.

But this was a process by which we were negotiating with everyone who would be affected. They were in the room helping to design it. Again, this is a trust building exercise, that everybody could understand, this is where we're headed, and this is how we're going to do this, so.

Jennifer Ott: So, I didn't realize it went all the way to I-5. Did that include the International District?

MW: I don't believe there's much in the International District that's included, for whatever political reasons, but it was ...

CR: The waterfront plan didn't go as far south as the International District. I think that was the rationale.

MW: There was no connection.

CR: Right.

JO: Were there any exceptions?

MW: Yes.

JO: Okay.

MW: So, the exceptions were not so much ... There were no nonprofit exceptions, but there were the ability, for the folks who were doing affordable housing and so forth, there was a whole formula that you could argue with, and also you could take 20 years to pay it. So, that was the piece that ... There was this whole process by which we tried to figure out the most equitable way to make this happen. Because the values were going to increase, there was no question. And our tax system does not allow the public sector to reach into the incremental value creation that public investment makes to get some of that back. And, that's a problem with our [inaudible] yeah, and we don't have that ability in any other way, except this. We researched it. I mean, this was all … that was part of what our committee did is we were constantly looking for ways to solve the problem of how to pay for this asset.

So the hotels in downtown Seattle, even though they may have been uphill, ended up having a fairly large LID bill because their benefit was going to be huge. The benefit to them for tourism was going to be significant. And so, they were part of the negotiation.

DB: In that negotiation process, what do you do when passions run high? How do you manage that?

MW: So, it was important: We had advocates within the developer community who understood, not just the monetary value, and most of them understood the sort of civic value of this project. It's getting people to focus on the positive end, rather than the negative end. "What is it," they would say, "this is going to cost me?" Well, in most cases, you pass that cost onto your customer, to your renter, et cetera. So, really, the cost to the owner developer is not as big as one might imagine. It does affect the marketplace. But it's always trying to get people to focus on what the outcome is going to be. And it literally raises all boats. Yeah, that's the thing.

James Corner’s Vision

MW: One of the best pieces of advice, and one of the earliest pieces of advice, the committee gave to the city staff was, "You need to hold a design competition." And that's what we did with the Sculpture Park. And, it ended up with an excellent product. So, the staff appointed a design committee and put out the project for a design competition. And, the four finalists presented at Benaroya Hall, and you can find the date: 3,000 people showed up for that, which is amazing. And Jim Corner won that presentation. And it was very clear, he understood the city better than anyone else. And he understood sort of our principles. And he had just finished the first phase of the High Line, so he was at this moment in his career where his career was about to take off and he had sort of credibility. But at the same point, he wasn't so successful that he was arrogant, yeah, arrogant. So that's where we first encountered him.

DB: And what were your first impressions? What stuck out for you as you were watching that presentation?

MW: Well, everybody in the audience was wearing a black turtleneck, because they were all design professionals. So, it was pretty entertaining. But, with Jim, Jim is from Britain, in Manchester, and he came and he walked the waterfront, and he said: "This is a working port, and we need to remember that about it." He was "big nature, big city, but also, you're a working port. That's your DNA, and you need to recognize that." And he presented that in a way that I think was very compelling. He understood that because of his own blue-collar roots, I think, and also that he was from a blue-collar city. Manchester was a working, was, what we would call, a rust belt city now. And with the High Line, he had taken an old piece of infrastructure and repurposed it. And he was very clear, very early. He said, "You don't want to do that here. This viaduct is not the answer. It blocks the view, blah, blah, blah, blah." The fact that he had such a clear design understanding of the problem, I just think it was so obvious from the very beginning. It's interesting you asked that question.

CR: But he loved the grittiness of this place. And he swore that he wasn't going to make it look like L.A. or some other city with a lot of neon. It was going to be Seattle. And he convinced people that he knew what we were talking about when we wanted this to be Seattle, not some other city, not even Manchester.

DB: How did working with James Corner, how did his vision ... Did it reveal anything to you that you hadn't previously realized about the nature of the waterfront and the nature of the city, the nature of its relationship with the topography and just the three dimensional space? You know what I mean?

MW: The difficulty of looking at the place that we were thinking about was that the viaduct was still standing. We were operating with a standing viaduct, which was blocking the view in both directions, where it was really difficult to envision anything. And for me, that's what he brought to the table, because I'm not sure any of us who live here would have that capacity. It's an effort of imagination that only someone who's really trained to do that.

DB: Yeah. Because it was so embedded in the space.

MW: But we had one of our first major committee meetings, sort of strategic plan, where we created our principles, if you remember on the top of the World Trade Center building? Your view down there is actually you're outside the viaduct. You're not looking at the viaduct. You're looking back at the city and you're looking at the harbor. And, that actually, to me, was one of the most formative experiences, because he kept saying to us, "You have one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. Do you know that you have one of the most beautiful harbors in the world?" And none of us understood what he was talking about because you couldn't see our harbor from any place that made sense. And, that view from that World Trade Center across from Bell Street pier was relatively new. And, we were meeting at that top of that building. And looking out at it, you realize, "Man, this is one of the most beautiful harbors in the world."

But also, the port is a really interesting part of it, because a harbor is a port, often, right? And his ability to kind of push us to see what was there, not just what we were used to seeing. Do you know what I'm saying? That's what great architects and designers are able to do is to get you to look beyond what you see every day. And to me, I think for a lot of us looking out at that meeting, we were kind of stunned at how beautiful it really was, and how the port actually played an important role in that. He kept saying that over and over and over again. And he recognized that. And I don't think another designer would necessarily have been able to articulate that back to us. And I think that's his brilliance as a designer, he's able to have that relation. He's not imposing an artistic vision. He's actually reflecting back to us, "This is what you have here. I think this is what you can make of it."

Waterfront For All

MW: Well, actually that hasn't panned out, because we're programming Pier 62 right now, and 80% of the people coming to our programs, even during COVID, have been locals so ... when we built the park, we deliberately said it was a waterfront for all and we went out to the neighborhoods and talked to people about what they wanted. And we tried to build a park that fit those wishes. And, part of it is just programming it.

Because the problem now, or in the recent past, has been, there's nothing for anybody to come down there to do. And the interesting thing in COVID is it was packed when nothing else downtown had people in it. And the reason was, it was perceived as safe and a place where you could go for a nice long walk, because you can walk to Magnolia Bridge, safely. And so, I think it reintroduced a lot of people back down to the waterfront, because it had always been, in the last couple of decades, a place for tourists and the cruise ships. So, we have done a great deal to reverse that point of view, which I think is an out-of-date point of view.

CR: Maggie has done 300 walks on the waterfront, showing people what the waterfront is like – 300, in the last year and a half or something. And, you couldn't have a better tour guide because she created it. And so, she's probably got a bunch of stories about how people are reacting to that notion that you raised, which is really important. This is a public place. 

DB: What do you hear from people if you're doing these walks? Yeah. What do you hear from people?

MW: Well, I began the walks, because in COVID, there was no other way to raise money, and we had committed to raising a couple of hundred million dollars for this project. And, in COVID, it was an interesting challenge because we couldn't be tone deaf to the fact that this city had a lot of other needs besides building this park. But at the same time, they were building it. It went forward, and so we needed to move forward with our part of it.

MW: So, I started taking people for walks and asking them for money. And, they would often begin the walks, and Thatcher Bailey was our executive director through this as well, in a very bad mood about the city of Seattle. As you know, there were a lot of people who had lost faith that this, particularly the downtown, was capable of being a place that anybody really wanted to come, right? I mean, from the beginning of COVID to today, there was a tremendous loss of trust and faith in the city. And, so we had to deal with that, because we were building something that was an integral part of the city.

And what we came to realize is, on that walk, by the end of the walk, this person was telling me, "This is going to save the city. This is going to recreate what this city is." This is universal, with almost every person I took on those walks. They realized that this was Seattle reimagining itself and thinking about itself in a different way, because what we were proposing was a model of taking care of the city that was different than the one that was operating, frankly, through most of the rest of the downtown.

So, we are a nonprofit partner. There are business partners down there. We're all providing security. We have three social workers on staff to deal with folks who are in crisis, to get them the services they need. We do not want folks to pitch a tent and create an encampment down there, because that is not an appropriate use of a public space. But, we also want to make sure that those people are taken care of. So, it's this layering of all kinds of service are – the pier that we currently operate is 24/7 staffed. There are people there all the time. We have programs running all the time, with all kinds of things.

But what strikes people when we walk through it is, this is a chance for us to take a look at ourselves as a city, recreate the whole image of who we are and how we can solve our problems. Because I think everybody lost confidence that we could actually deal with what we were faced with. And of course, we can deal with it. There's no question. It's just a question of being open, willing to have these conversations, and also willing to have principles about things, and doing what we can to solve the problems.

So, that was my experience in this process is that, this park turned out to be really important to this city. It was going to be important always, but it's actually probably multiple times more important to the city in this moment in time, which is kind of a revelation to us. Because we were concerned that we would be seen as in competition with homelessness, building new housing, all these other things. And we were very careful to position ourselves that this was not our intent, that this was something different, and that it fit in to how the future of the city needed to be managed. So, that's our read of it.

And of course, we had deliberately cultivated many neighborhoods out in the city who would not normally be seen as partners in a downtown park or a downtown asset. We have been programming Pier 62. Eighty percent of our programming is by artists of color. We've brought their constituents, their neighbors down to the waterfront, and have earned the trust and confidence of those neighbors, because we started doing it before COVID hit. This wasn't some sort of box we were checking. It was actually, from the beginning, the principle, this is a waterfront for all. It means we got to go out there, and we got to recruit the city down to seeing themselves here. So, we're just delivering on the promise, and it turns out that that promise is pretty important right now. So, that's kind of what we've learned.

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