Marshall Foster has helped shape Seattle's reimagined waterfront as the city's director of the Office of Waterfront and Civic Projects. In this 2022 interview with HistoryLink's Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott, Foster discusses his early impressions of the central waterfront, how he helped build key partnerships to fund the waterfront project, and the events that led to the creation of the Office of the Waterfront.
Memories of Seattle and the Waterfront
Marshall Foster: My name is Marshall Foster and I'm the city's director of the Office of Waterfront and Civic Projects.
Dominic Black: When you first moved to Seattle, what year was that again?
MF: It was 2005, 2006.
DB: All right. What impression or if any, did you have of Seattle and Seattle's relationship to the built environment on the waterfront?
MF: Well, I had spent a lot of time here. One of the things that honestly I had always loved about Seattle was the working scrappy, little bit gritty aspects of Seattle. When I was in a high school, my parents were trusting enough to let me and a bunch of friends take a big road trip all over the United States for the better part of a summer. And one of the high points – this was during the high period of grunge when that was happening in Seattle – and so we spent a lot of time here actually at getting to know the music scene and we spent a lot of our time in Pioneer Square and the clubs there were actually pretty popular in that scene.
So that was my first impression of Seattle was this pretty scrappy, very interesting, very culturally rich place where also you could be young and not have your act together and have a pretty good life. So that was my impression and then I went off and did school and did a bunch of other things and then came back however many years later. Obviously the city had changed, but it still had that.
DB: So can you describe a little more of that scene and the waterfront from what you remember of it?
MF: Well, you know at that time ... so it's funny that you say that because I do remember really clearly that trip having kind of an initially negative impression because of the freeways, coming in. We came in from Vancouver, B.C., and so much of the experience was about I-5, and I think we came in the middle of rush-hour traffic. And then got to know the city and fell in love and had a fabulous time. But I also actually remember driving the viaduct then, which was a remarkable experience. And I think it's one of the things that Seattleites still hold onto and have nostalgia for is that elevated – anyone can drive the viaduct, anyone can have that incredible view. And so that stuck in my head, and then I went off and I had a whole career in other places, and then coming back here was a really interesting moment because I had just really started getting involved with freeway removal projects.
I'm an urban planner by training and had been very involved in removing a couple of different urban freeways in San Francisco and, you know, was really here at the right moment when we were deciding about how to deal with the viaduct structure, which was impacted by the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, and our seawall. So it was just an interesting moment to have had that personal experience of sort of falling in love with Seattle and the music and frankly Pioneer Square and that part of Seattle. And then putting all that on pause and having had this really great memory of the city: going and doing all these things, learning urban planning, getting involved in urban projects, and then being able to decide, "Oh, let's go back." I didn't know when I came here what opportunities there were going to be, done a lot of different things, but within a few years, the waterfront became the big opportunity.
The Viaduct and Urban Planning
DB: How do the previous highway removal projects inform how you begin to view what's going on here? And particularly the discourse about it and the discussion about it, because I came here in 2007 and I remember visiting over the previous five years and every time I'd come back from Scotland, I'd be like, "Well, is that thing still there? Wait, they haven't made a decision yet?"
MF: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's a travesty that the viaduct stood as long as it did. Well, it's good that it stood as long as it did, but that it was allowed to remain as long as it did. I guess for me, in thinking about cities and what cities needed in my generation ... I don't want to call them failures because in the '50s and '60s, there was good reasons for those projects, but it just became really clear to me that one of the most powerful things I could be involved with to help cities in my generation was to pull back urban freeways. And the projects I worked on in San Francisco were every bit is egregious as the viaduct in terms of cutting neighborhoods in half, separating people racially and economically. A lot of the blight that they created was what we were dealing with in San Francisco.
I also learned some things ... about how to work with State Departments of Transportation versus cities and how to build power for cities to make these projects happen, which is a lot of what has been interesting and I've enjoyed about the work, is helping Seattle lay claim to that waterfront again. So yeah, there's been this really rich dialogue mostly in my own head between these experiences of the Bay Area and how it's dealing with its urban freeways and what I got to participate in and what Seattle is going through.
DB: When you mention about building power and laying claim to this space, what does that mean in the context of the city?
MF: Well, I think literally from shortly after the viaduct was created, the city realized what an enormous … mistake – I don't know, I shouldn't say ... I'm using too-negative terms, but the city realized that it had cut itself off from Elliott Bay and it had cut itself off from a human, a tremendous dimension of its own history as a city, and the things that make it unique as a city that all frankly came from our relationship to the water and trade. And so I think "lay claim" for me is almost actually more about reclaiming that space, and having the confidence and the vision to realize that there was a way to find a different transportation solution that didn't require handing it over to a highway system and that we could, in fact, restore that shoreline and reclaim that part of our history and reconnect to people back to the water in that place.
DB: But when you talk about building power, I'm just curious as to how you do that? Am I right in thinking that what you're talking about here is the ... maybe creative tension between a city and a state and a state Department of Transportation and who gets to decide what?
MF: Yeah. Creative tension is a really good way to put it. We have a great relationship with the state and especially, what's called WSDOT, the state highway department here in Washington. But the city and the state really had to wrangle out who was in charge and who had the right to the waterfront, who had the right to establish the vision. And that was a very messy public political process for a good while, at least five or six years, if not a decade of wrangling over that. Several public votes where the city had to really assert the will of the voter, if you will, over finding a solution that didn't involve rebuilding the viaduct structure, which was discussed for quite some time; a number of different alternatives of other ways of building a highway underneath the waterfront that would've been much more impactful on the city, that were ultimately set aside through that wrangling between the city leadership and the state.
And ultimately out of that, a really strong partnership was established, a positive one. Once the vision was agreed to of who's going to ... each of us took major pieces of responsibility. The state agreed to build the deep-bored tunnel. The city agreed to restore the surface street and build the park. And everyone played a major role. We brought a tremendous level of private philanthropy and direct corporate support from our downtown community. All of it came together because there was frankly a moment where everyone, after a lot of fighting, agreed to stand together around a vision for how to do all those pieces at once. And that's really what set the path forward.
Committees, Partnerships, and Funding Big Ideas
DB: So when some of this is playing out, I believe you were a planner in the city, you weren't sort of directly working in the waterfront. How does something that has such a huge center of gravity in terms of attention and money, how does that pull on the other priorities of city planning?
MF: Yeah. So it was an interesting back and forth. This all started without a lot of big high-level political buy-in. It started actually as a partnership between some community organizations who were really invested in the vision and the planning, the city planners, the parks department, and the transportation department. And it was this decentralized, we’re all … we're behind this idea and that just grew and grew and grew.
But a key thing that we understood from the beginning was that the scale of what we wanted to do on the waterfront and the opportunity for public space and the opportunity for reconnection was going to cost a lot more than the city alone would be able to afford, because of all the other things we needed to do. I could go on and on just about that: affordable housing, other major infrastructure projects, all of our basic public services, all of which have been ... you know, it's a struggle to run a city and to have the resources to do everything.
So we realized we had to build a partnership that would not only design and agree on the vision, but would fund it in a totally different way than we've ever done. And yes, there are a lot of public dollars in this project, but there is a level of private funding and state funding that is matching Seattle, that's never been done in another project. So it's about a $736 million total capital budget. About [$270 million] of that is coming from the private sector; $270 million is for Seattle. Nothing like that has ever been done. And then we have a very large state commitment as well. And those things all ... actually, one of the interesting things about it is they leveraged each other: our conversations with the private funders especially really required the clear public mandate and the public willingness to put the core funding forward for the basic infrastructure.
And then the private sector basically said, "You know what, there's huge value created, not only for the general public, but also for our real estate in this park. And we're willing to be assessed to do that." And also, frankly, Seattle's fortunate to have a really great philanthropic community who cares deeply about parks. I mean, parks are one of our ... If you look at what our philanthropy steps up for, parks are the top of the list. And they basically bought in at a level that they've never bought in before. And we can talk about how we built that partnership, it's kind of interesting, but it was very rich. And that's what allowed the city to have the ambition. If we hadn't had that partnership, we would've never signed on for the level of investment that we're making now.
DB: So I do want to ask you more about that: So how did you go about building that partnerships?
MF: Yeah. So this is the thing, honestly, that I think is the most valuable lesson for Seattle is how that partnership happened. I mean, we build big projects, every city does, but this was the unique thing is: we had a mayor, Mayor Greg Nickels, who was leaving office, and he had believed in the project and he realized that he needed to create something with long term staying power – a way of having civic leadership that would bring these sectors together that wouldn't disappear with changing of administrations, right? A lot of projects in cities come and go with mayors. And we knew this was going to take at least a decade. So he created a civic committee, what was called the Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee that started in 2009, and that committee built a collaboration between government, philanthropy, business, that has lasted to this day.
And that committee, it's taken a few different forms, but it still operates and it's still helping to drive the project. To be clear, the city is very much in the driver's seat and is making it happen, and we're the ones out there building it and we're the lion's share of the funding. But that group has been essential to keeping the political commitment across administrations, you know, bringing those outside resources together. And frankly, at the end of the day, as we get close now to finishing the construction, to making sure it's well operated and maintained, because that's really, in some ways, the biggest challenge with this, is how to make sure that this thing is incredible five years after it opens, 10 years after it opens. I'm pretty confident it's going to look great on opening day, but we want to make sure it's got that staying power.
And that committee is basically the conscience of the project. It is the "eyes on the prize; we defend the vision; support the city staff, make sure that this thing happens as planned."
The Civic Committee was created by the city, by Mayor Greg Nickels at the time, and has continued on and we still have it, and they have the formal oversight over what's called Waterfront Seattle, which is the program. "Friends" was actually created out of the committee. One of the things it did in the very early days was it created a strategic plan that said, "Hey, you know what, the city's now out there initiating the design development and doing this huge public process and bringing the whole community together. That's great stuff, we wanted that, but that's kind of the easy part. What's harder is the money and the long term operations." And they said, "Why don't we create a nonprofit organization dedicated to nothing except raising money for the project and operating it?" And so the committee actually said, "Why doesn't someone go out there and create a Friends of the Waterfront?"
So sure enough, the chairs of the committee then turned around and created Friends of the Waterfront and formed that. That's the kind of incredibly tight relationship between an idea and like what's the right civic goal and then like, let's go do the thing. One of the things that happened when we created this committee that doesn't always happen in government is, there was a level of giving control and authority to this civic partnership, where the city actually said, "You know what, we're not going to just take your advice. You're going to actually have authority to work with the city staff." And I was their lead staffer, so I was sort of front-row seat for all this. How to do the selection of the design team? How do you make sure we have really top-shelf design talent develop this? How do you ensure the city brings its resources and talent to the table? How do you leverage the private sector? It was responsible for all those pieces. And so we basically worked all that up and then they essentially presented how to do it to the city leadership. And it was essentially like that's ... The assumption is that is what we are going to do. I shouldn't generalize, but sometimes the city creates advisory committees because we think we need to have shown it to community and we know what we want to do.
And we want them just to agree. That happens sometimes. This was totally different. This was truly generative work. And out of that, because it was more authentic and real, the level of investment from that committee was unbelievable. I mean, the two people who led that committee, one of them is now the chair of the board of Friends and is out there leading the fundraising campaign. And I would say 75% of that core original group of people is still directly involved to this day, whether they're literally working on the project or they're on boards, the staying power has just been remarkable.
Jennifer Ott: Were they all volunteers?
MF: Yes. They were all volunteers. There were 45 people on the original committee. The tribes were on the committee, every corner of Seattle, it's taken four different lives over the last 10 years, or more than 10 years, 13 years that it's been in existence.
Creating The Office of the Waterfront
DB: So we'll probably touch on it a bit more of that in a minute but what made you want to be the director of the Office of the Waterfront? So you see this huge process going forward and then what prompts you to decide, "Okay. I want to be there?"
MF: You know honestly, I'm not sure if there was a moment where I said, "I want to be the director of the Office of the Waterfront." So my role was I was sort of the lead urban-design staff, and as I mentioned, I was really the lead staff for the committee, so I was really involved in organizing how we were approaching the work.
The work of that original version of the committee really culminated in after we had hired James Corner Field Operations to do the design – in 2012 to 2013 we finalized the design, which there's a whole conversation there about how interesting that process was to get to an actual specific vision, which Seattle doesn't always do. City council and the mayor endorsed it; the strategic plan that I mentioned that laid out the how are we going to do it; all that got endorsed. And the mayor at the time said, "You know what, if we're going to do this, we can't just throw it at all of our city departments. They've got a lot they're already doing. I'm going to create an Office of the Waterfront. It's going to have one mission. It's going to think about nothing but how we deliver on this vision." And I was one of, probably five people that got tapped to be part of that. And then long story short, trying to figure out the right leadership to be a good fit with that mayor at the time, about a year in the mayor ended up asking me to be the director.
DB: Which mayor was it?
MF: This was Mayor Murray. And yeah, it's just been ... What has it been? That was late 2014 so it's been a plenty of time now, seven, eight years. It's been incredible. The thing I've love the most about doing this has been we built this off everything about it from the ground up. We do everything under one umbrella, from planning and design to real estate, to negotiation and agreements and all the public/private infrastructure financing. So I had this really unusually nimble and interesting group of public servants who care deeply about the city and are deeply invested, and some of the most creative people I know who have been just dogged and laser focused on this. And we have a great time and we get to work on one of the most interesting parts of the city. I mean, I keep looking at Jennifer [Ott] because I think of her as like the keeper of the history, and just the richness that we get to work with every day.
The way we see these dimensions of Seattle, like I think a lot about our work on Ballast Island. We're building infrastructure as part of the project, a ton of stuff that people don't think about a lot: drainage, storm water utilities, power lines, all the stuff that you need to run a city that gets hidden under the concrete. We're building it through this city's historic waterfront. And so all these layers come out. And so we had to figure out, there's a really interesting and frankly, very difficult piece of the city's history down at a place called Ballast Island at the foot of Washington Street. Sorry ... I get a little intense about this, it's heavy for me, it's a heavy topic, but a lot of negative stuff that happened with the tribes at that particular location.
And we had to find a way to build utilities through that space without harming this, what's an archeological resource for the tribes. So, you know, just having this really creative group of engineers and planners find ways of threading that needle and giving the city the infrastructure it needs for the next generation, if you will. We're actually working on ways to bring that history out in the right ways, which is tricky, because it's, frankly, some of the city's more ugly history with its settlement and the way it treated the tribes when Seattle was formed.
Anyway, that's the stuff that I love is just seeing all those pieces when they really come together. When we're able to use the waterfront as a platform, I guess, to tell the history and to make that history reveal itself, but also to let the city sort of write its next chapter a little bit. It's pretty great to see like ... Sorry, I'm probably going on too much. I'll just say one last thing.
DB: No, no, not at all. Not at all.
MF: One of the things that's really powerful today for me in addition to knowing all those things were there and seeing it some of it come out is just seeing the way like a whole new generation is finding the waterfront and discovering it. Like we do these events. We just have built our first piece of the new park. There's one little pier. It's about an acre of the total 20 that's being built. And we didn't know how much people would want to use it. Would it be something that we could really attract people? It's meant to be a place for festivals and music. The rest of the whole waterfront is under construction. I mean, it's just frankly a mess. It's not a particularly easy place to get to.
And this pier is thronged, every weekend we have thousands of people coming out for concerts and we had a festival celebrating K-pop music last weekend, which is Korean pop music, which is like a phenomenon that I'm not even cool enough to understand, right? It's just incredibly inspiring to see people adopting the space and loving it. And I'm just like, really, this is all going to hang together. People really want this. You know?
The Waterfront and Neighborhoods
MF: I’ve always had this worry, I guess a little bit, and I think other people have talked to me about this of like, Seattle is a city of neighborhoods. We love our neighborhood parks. You live in Ballard, you live in West Seattle, I'm from the CD and you have your stuff there that you love. Are we really going to be a city that comes to downtown parks together? Like, if you go to Chicago, people come to Millennium Park, they go to Grant Park in the tens of thousands or even more, right? They've always had that culture. And I've always had this question in my head, like, will Seattle actually embrace a more of a Central Park idea? And I think because of a lot of creativity and a lot of effort, I'm starting to see that the roots of that starting to get laid, which is pretty cool to see.
DB: That's really interesting because that is something that I've heard lots of Seattle people say is really it's for tourists. People from neighborhoods probably won't use it. Who's going to go downtown to ... You know what I mean? That's fine.
MF: I mean, that's a totally fair question. And I've been trying to reserve judgment.
DB: And how do you do that as a planner, though? I mean, that's like a riddle for a planner, isn't it? How do you create those?
MF: It's hard. Yeah. I mean, the things that we're trying to do are make the destination infectiously exciting. Maybe infectious is not a good word these days, but make it just so compelling – there's something going on there that I couldn't get anywhere else. And I got to give the Friends of Waterfront Seattle a lot of credit. They've got a really interesting team that's bringing a diversity of perspective on how to ... So the things they're doing down there like I would never be able to dream up, and they're bringing a cross section of the city out that I've never seen in one place. Like it's more diverse than other places in the city, like Seattle Center, it's this really unusual mix of people, which is great. So yeah, there's no sort of special recipe we learn in planning school, that's for sure. But I think they're just bringing really interesting stuff that you'd never see in your neighborhood.
Yeah. Sorry. There's kind of a ‘see-and-be-seen’ dynamic, like ... it's a big place where you can get together, the setting is incredible, the views are incredible. I think like, especially when I see groups of teenagers, which I'm seeing a lot of this summer, like you can mix it up, you can get friends from different parts of the city together; you can use transit, you can get downtown easily if you don't want to drive those; things do play into it, especially for youth, for young people.
Collaboration and Innovation in the Design Process
MF: First and foremost, there was a lot of work that took place before what we call Waterfront Seattle, which was the design process and now what we're building on the waterfront. There was a lot of planning initiative taken. There were groups like Allied Arts, People's Waterfront Coalition, other organized community efforts to envision a waterfront without the viaduct, which really sparked the public imagination and got people dreaming and realizing that the viaduct didn't have to be there forever. Also frankly, the fact that we had ... not Loma Prieta … we had Nisqually and we knew something had to change. So the public imagination had been lit. And then we had the decision to build a deep-bored tunnel, which is a whole chapter of the history I'm not going to try to cover, but I'm sure you're going to be covering it elsewhere.
Once that decision on the tunnel had been made, it enabled the city to really fully invest and embrace doing the design. That committee helped us make some really key decisions that we probably wouldn't have made as a city without them. We said, "Let's hire the best design talent we can. And then we'll hire the engineers and the rest of the team after that." What happens a lot with big public works projects is you end up hiring a really big civil engineering firm that has the insurance and the scale to be able to manage what it takes to deliver all that stuff, and then they just pick a designer that they like working with. And they're usually pretty good, but it's not design driven. And so we said, "Let's go out and do a ..." – we didn't do a competition, but we did a really public selection where we frankly, we had 40 firms from across the world who applied to do our design, and we tested them in every way possible. You know: rigorous interviews; they had to do a public presentation, which we did at Benaroya Hall in front of several thousand people to make their case for why they were the right ones.
We didn't ask them to design the waterfront or propose a design because, frankly, we knew that they wouldn't have enough time or bandwidth to really get it right. And we were frankly worried if they put some half-baked idea out there and the public fell in love with it, were we going to be in trouble? But anyway, we allowed that process to play out and I think we really honored it, and it led us to a place to select a firm – James Corner Field Operations – and Jim Corner specifically just had a great way of connecting with Seattle. He is from Manchester, England, and he immediately got us in terms of our working waterfront, the city's grit. He sort of fell in love with the industrial waterfront, the cranes. He always understood something that I think was important to Seattleites, which is that we did not become sort of just a recreational waterfront like San Diego or parts of San Francisco; that we would not lose our working character; that we would not become sort of this anesthetized, passive post-industrial city. Let's keep the waterfront real, let's keep the trucks, let's keep Colman Dock. And that's part of what's been so fun and interesting about working on this waterfront is that it is not ...
I mean, yes, we call it Waterfront Park, but I really think of it as waterfront. The waterfront is a place that people come and go, it's a place of business, it's got culture. Yes, it has parks, but that's part of what makes the parks interesting is that it's this active, real waterfront. And he just got that and so he was selected. And then once we had his firm in place, then we built the rest of the team around them.
DB: So it's funny that vision is oddly enough, it's served by the restrictive nature of the geography because you have the port still in eyesight right there.
MF: You're totally right.
DB: Because you've got this narrow ...
MF: Yeah. That's a great point. Yeah. Seattle's really lucky because our natural geography has all this stuff in such close proximity that you can't ... you're on our waterfront and what you're awestruck by are the Olympics and the scale of the port and all those things all on top of each other. And he used a metaphor from, Jim Corner did from very early in the design process, of basically big urban and big nature colliding, that that was what the waterfront was about was these two things hitting each other, not hitting literally, but right up against each other. And that dynamism was what he wanted to reveal and bring forward. And that just he went over one over very quickly with that idea. Like people were like, "Oh, thank God. I was worried you were going to give me like just the passive park with grass and it was going to be like any city I could go to with a waterfront," but no, this is going to be Seattle.
DB: What other parts of that design evolution were unique to this? Like what were the other things that were sort of innovative?
MF: I'd say one of the most innovative things, in addition to just understanding that dynamic was how to deal with the topography. Seattle's pretty unique among waterfront cities in how steep our downtown slope is. And we've struggled for 200 years with how to overcome that topography. And we've had lots of interesting attempts.
DB: Kind of why the viaduct was there in the first place, isn't it?
MF: Well, the viaduct kind of went around the topography, but different ways like the trestles on Pike Street. I mean, I keep looking at Jennifer. She could give you all this, but we had so many different ways of trying to connect 1st Avenue and the downtown street grid better to the waterfront. And Corner basically, in addition to what should happen on the waterfront, from right out of the gate understood that he needed to have some dramatic strategy to overcome that transition and the hill. And so he proposed from early on a series of connecting points where he would build elevated parks that would bridge across and overcome the topographic differences between them. And so those are a core part of the project and they're definitely a big part of what makes our waterfront and will make our waterfront unique once it's finished, is how we're connecting the downtown, the heart of downtown and the street grid, to the waterfront.
Layers, History, Memory, Injustice
MF: I think part of what gives the public space richness and depth is actually understanding the layers of what's there and what was there before you. And everybody's different, but I find when you can bring those layers up to the surface and help people see them, it's almost like you're just putting a whole another picture into what this place was. Like the foot of Washington Street, right? Which so much happened right there in the city's past. You could walk by that and not have any idea what took place at the foot of Washington Street on the waterfront. So in bringing those pieces forward, it's not to like lecture people or like be didactic about it, but just to make pieces of what that history was with Yesler's Mill and Chung Wah, and all those different things that were there, Ballast Island.
So that for people who are interested, you can suddenly understand there's like 10 more dimensions to what this place has been. I think people enjoy seeing that part.
Part of what's so challenging about it and we're really trying to tackle this is how to make it accessible. Some people want the more full and complete and more academic understanding of the history. And some people just want to just get a little whiff or a little impression of what used to be there and trying to find ... We're really working to find this balance between those different pieces.
DB: How do you approach that then with the tribes who are all part of this process too? How do you begin that process and how does that work through?
MF: Oh, man, that's such a big piece of it. That's been one of my personal biggest like learnings, I guess, and places to grow is working with the tribes. Another thing that makes Seattle's waterfront so very unique is the fact that we have actually sovereign tribal nations that we coexist with, and have for many generations now. So from early on in the waterfront planning, we not only knew we had to work with the tribes – and the city has a very well-established government to government relationship with the tribes – but we wanted to go far beyond that. We really wanted the tribes to actually have, to be welcomed and to be part of creating the place.
So you know, we really focused on, from before the design was developed, building relationships, especially with the tribes that have the most direct relationship, the Suquamish and the Muckelshoot, as well as slightly separately, the Duwamish, slightly different relationship there. But making sure that we understood each other as people, that they had the right and the opportunity to share some of their history and frankly, some of the frustrations that they've had historically with the city. And that we could have that foundation with some trust and authentic – "We're here for the long term with you." And then we started building what were the projects and the ways we could make the waterfront feel authentic to them and part of something that they actually would feel welcome in and could be ... this may sound funny, but could be hosts in.
You know, something we heard from the tribes repeatedly – and I guess I was a little surprised by this – it was, it was just my own learning, but was how important it was, this waterfront was to them, as a place to host and to be able to bring their own tribal communities together, And also to be able to be host to the larger region. Like this really generosity of heart, which I was amazed by because of how frankly, the history and how much I felt like bad treatment they had received.
But that was really their starting point; they talked a lot about wanting to host a splendid table and wanting to be able to not only do the things we think of like salmon bakes and canoe journey, but to have a ongoing lasting presence, to be there every day, to do things, to interact with people, to bring the tribes' history to the surface, but also to be able to talk about their living culture. The tribes are an enormous part of the economy of the fishing industry here. They're out fishing in Elliott Bay every year. They wanted to be able to bring all those dimensions of who they are out.
DB: So how do you then make that happen in the ...
MF: A bunch of different things.
DB: ... in the bricks and mortar sort of …
MF: Yeah. A bunch of different things going on in the project. They've been big part of all the design decisions for the project. We've decided to have certain pieces of public art, which are explicitly by tribal artists, bringing their stories out in the project. We do cultural programming on a regular basis. They're going to be hosting salmon homecoming, which we make the piers available and now actually provide them with support to be hosts on Pier 62 in other parts of the waterfront. And then something new that I'm pretty excited about, which isn't official yet, but it's happening is that we're creating a tribal interpretive center on the waterfront where they're going to actually have a space where they can provide programming and exhibitions and things on the waterfront as part of the project. And we'll continue to evolve and grow. I mean, I hope we've talked about ... I hope someday we might have tribal markets where you could buy fish and other products from the tribes. That's all part of what the project will continue to make space for as we go forward.
DB: So if you were embarking on an entirely new project that had significant tribal input, what have you learned that you would implement?
MF: I think the big thing that is not quite in the DNA of the project that it probably should be is, ownership and governance with the tribes. I think we're doing a good job and have really evolved the city family in terms of how to recognize and bring the tribes into our project. But in the future, one of the things that I think would be interesting is to talk about restoring tribal ownership and having some shared governance of our waterfront.
Our waterfront had a many different hats before the city was settled, but it was a seasonal fishing village. It was an important place for gathering where actually there was mixing amongst tribes at certain times. And some of those things are not about us. We need to just get out of the way and make space for the tribes to do what they want to do. And also to have some real authority and control. That's one thing.
Another thing which I'd love to see more opportunity for the tribes in Seattle is actual being part of the economic development of the project. So, there's so much economic activity and resources that are poured into this: if the tribes owned a piece of it, if they owned a site, they could do development, the equity that it creates could be a powerful part of their community. They're incredible stewards. If you've never been to visit one of the reservations, whether it's the Suquamish or the Muckelshoot, or many of the others that we have around here, it's amazing the way they treat their elders, the way they treat anyone who is ill or in crisis. It's incredible. And if we could support that with the economy of the downtown waterfront, why wouldn't we do that?
"Right-sizing" a Grand Design
DB: I have a couple of other questions about the design. From that initial James Corner design, where, okay, this is the vision, are there parts of that that have been shaved off over time because of cost? How do the limitations of the practicality impact on the dream?
MF: Yeah. I mean, that is definitely the case. I mean, we've had to continue to right-size the design to match funding and-
DB: Is that the term, to right-size?
MF: Well, there's a lot of different terms you use. Yeah. We've continued to refine it to value engine ... I don't like the term value engineering, but yeah. We've continued to evolve the design. I would say ...
DB: Does that happen in consultation or is it now just the city’s to do with what it wants the design?
MF: Oh, no, no. It's very much they really do – I mean, all these really good design firms, they're all extremely adept at how to do cost control. I mean, it's part of these big projects. And Corner's firm has actually led the development of, "Okay. We need to deal with a cost change. Let us come back to a small alternatives for how we can adjust this." So they've actually led that process. And I should say, it's easy to focus just on Field Operations (but) – there's a team of about 50 firms who are part of this, including there's just a whole cast of local design firms that are leading different pieces of it. So Corner is not designing every square inch. He did the overall master plan and then is executing two or three key elements within it, but then we have schemata architects over here and different ones doing different pieces.
But I guess what I would say on the cost control question that we tried to focus on was not losing limbs, not cutting off chunks of the project, but just tighten up, keep all the elements because they really needed to hang together. We've always believed that we needed not only to redo the waterfront, but to restore these east-west connections, deal with the topography, deal with connecting Pioneer Square its street grid to the waterfront. So we didn't want to like, "Oh, let's just cut off that south end piece." So we've really tried to massage the design where we've had to for cost, to keep the heart and soul in it, but not to lose any critical piece.
Excitement on the Waterfront
DB: I'm curious for you as a planner, why are you excited about this? Like what is it that excites you about this?
MF: I personally am really excited to see all that space that we had given up for the viaduct structure made into something useful and productive again. I probably talked about this before, like it's always felt to me like having the ability to undo mistakes is one of the critical things that urban planning, when it's working well, does well, because we make a lot of mistakes about cities and we have to be able to undo them. So just seeing the viaduct come down. Some days, I feel like that is 75 percent of it. It's just the fact that we got the viaduct out of the way and we're restoring this as a public place.
But I'll say the other thing that I'm personally very excited about is the design is great and I'm excited to see the design built, but I'm actually more excited to see how Seattle makes the design its own. I think the city is going to, and all the different communities that are starting to take interest in the project, are going to add their own flavor and to add their own stamp on the space, the way people use it, seeing locals, like, coming back to the waterfront, to balance with the tourism.
Waterfront's always been a place of tourism. It's always had this kind of a little bit ticky-tacky, a little bit hodgepodge vibe. And you're seeing this mixing now of the local and the tourist dynamics, which I think is making it a really interesting place.
Yeah. I want to see the patina. I want to see it grow a patina over time and take on this character that I know we can't predict and it's not planned. It's very just sui generis, it's going to take on its own life and that's pretty awesome.
I'm excited to see. I like to joke with the team that like after this project, I'm probably just going to crash and burn and like, I'm going to open like a Dippin Dots stand or something or maybe I can get a food truck going and I'll just be the guy who he's out there, like hanging out with the teenagers, selling stuff or whatever. It's nice to see, you already have it, like you could go down there today and we have all these people, most of whom aren't permitted. So we're always struggling with that who are doing all kinds of stuff, but that's what happens in cities. People just, they add those layers over time.
"We’re Trying to be Different"
DB: Okay. So that does actually touch on something though, because there is that need for a city bureaucracy to be flexible enough to deal with what happens when human beings inhabit a landscape.
MF: And we're trying to be very different down there.
DB: Yeah. So what are you doing that's different?
MF: Well, it's multiple things. I think the biggest, most important step piece that we're really trying to set up a dedicated team with a unique culture down there. So we're going to be doing park operations. We're going to be doing maintenance. We're going to be doing some of the safety and security things. And our partners at Friends of Waterfront Seattle, the nonprofit is going to be doing the programming and events. And what we're working toward is that everyone who works on the waterfront, just like this office, like we were talking about before, they're focused on this waterfront.
It's not that, "Oh, I'm responsible for everything in central Seattle. And I stop by the waterfront once or twice a week." Because that, you don't get the right culture with that. We want everyone to be thinking about the ins and outs. And yeah, that person who's selling bottled water and sodas out of a cooler on the waterfront that doesn't have a permit, maybe the way you deal with that is you get to know them and we figure out a way to get them into a permitted situation. And maybe we help them grow their business in a way that actually works well with everything around it, as opposed to just giving them a ticket. So we're trying to take that approach like we have ...
DB: Does that produce tensions with the city structure?
MF: It creates tensions with the city structure, which are not that hard. It's mostly about resources because most of the city family says, "Well, that sounds lovely, Marshall. I can't dedicate a person to just work on the waterfront. Can you pay for that person?" That kind of dynamic. And then there's the tension with the businesses down there. The businesses down there have been there longer than most of us. And they have a history of having, frankly worked hard to keep that place successful when the viaduct was there. And so yeah, they've got someone illegally selling food outside their restaurant? They’re kinda like, "Yeah, you need to move them along." So yeah. We have tensions on both sides. I will say, I think everyone is very invested in the idea of sort of a dedicated waterfront focus team on the public and the private side. And we're very much moving in that direction.
DB: Does that go toward explaining why there is an Office of the Waterfront and it's not under Seattle Parks? Would that be right?
MF: Yeah, that is very much part of the philosophy behind having this office is that dedicated approach. Now the original idea was about funding, designing, and now building the project. And so part of what is happening now, and this is still getting worked out in government is like, "Hey, wait a minute, should we just keep that office and have that same dedicated approach to the operations? Or should it melt into the ether, and everybody goes back to their departments they came from." That was the original plan is: once this thing was built, this office would melt away. And now we're asking the question because frankly, the parks department and others are having a hard time at some level dealing with, "Oh, my gosh, we're building this enormous waterfront. This is going to take a lot of resources. This is going to take a lot of focus. We've got a whole system in the city. How are we going to deal with all this stuff? Maybe you guys should stick around. Maybe we should help you have the resources to operate this thing so we can deal with all the other things going on in the city."
It's funny that you bring that up because I just had a meeting, a really interesting woman from Boston who's involved in their waterfront just came here and we were walking the waterfront last week and they're using us as a model for what Boston should do. And New York I think is doing the same, like an Office of the Waterfront. And I'm like, "Oh, we're actually thinking about maybe should we get rid of it or should we keep it?" And she was like, "Are you crazy? Why would you get rid of it? You need that dedicated focus." So it's interesting to be like other cities are looking at it as a model, but we haven't decided if we're going to stick with it or not.
DB: So you seem very resiliently upbeat.
MF: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That's interesting.
You've got to be to do this stuff for a long time. Yeah, I appreciate you saying that. Yeah. I mean there have been so many battles. There have been so many dark moments where we thought this whole thing was going to come unglued that we have to have like tenacious optimism.
DB: I don't mean to focus in on a painpoint, but like is there a particular dark moment that stands out for you ...
MF: Oh, yeah, no, we love talking about the dark moments too. They're like our battle scars that make our skins thicker. Let's see. There's a lot I could talk about. I'd say the hardest and most existential one was when the deep-bored tunneling machine, Bertha, as it's known, got stuck for almost three years. So you're probably going to run into this story if you haven't already.
The tunneling machine, largest in the history of the world, enormous endeavor building this 60-foot diameter tunnel under downtown through liquefiable soils, just really difficult challenge. And it got a very short amount of the way into the job and got stuck on the waterfront in Pioneer Square. And it was fully underground so there was no cut and cover tunnel to access it. And it could not be fixed from the inside. And so the state had to literally bring in an international team to excavate out the front of the machine and pull out the entire drill face, which is 60-foot wide ... I don't know how many hundreds of tons, enormous machine and fix it. And that took years.
And I mean, our project was at that point, the way the decisions had been made entirely reliant on completion of that so that the viaduct could be taken down so that then we could build the new waterfront. And so the city had created all that commitment that we talked about. We had endorsed the plans. We had created the capital program. We were building the funding partnership. It was go time to build this thing. And we had to sit on our hands for three years and try to keep the political support and try to ... Time kills these projects, things taking too long is what kills these kinds of urban projects. It was a lot of talking. It was a lot of work to keep everyone on board and keep the faith up and keep the confidence up during that period of time.
DB: What do you do to make that happen? Like how do you keep that faith up? Yeah. What is it? How do you do that?
MF: Well, I'd say the number one thing was that we already had built this sort of cross sector leadership group in that civic committee. We had the Friends formed at that point. We just basically kept all the city leadership and the community around it, very well apprised of everything that was coming down the pike and very focused on the state, and how to help them solve their problem. And frankly, don't get too involved over here, we've got this. We just need to get it done – we need to help the state get it done. It did give us some time.
There was a few parts of the ... Not the design vision that was established, but not all the funding details were resolved. There was a lot of engineering behind the design, which frankly benefited from that time, because we could catch up: we solved some problems that we didn't know were under the hood that came out. So there were benefits to it. But yeah, there was a lot of work to keep our leadership on track. It would've been easy for folks to lose focus and lose patience and say, "Oh, I'm going to go work on this other philanthropic project for a while. I'll come back. Don't worry. I'll be back."
DB: Well, it was a funny thing as well, because you know the tunnel's there and operating because you don't see it, it's almost like it never happened, you know what I mean?
MF: Oh, I totally know. These projects get built and then it's like, okay. Onto the next one. And we had a moment with the tunnel and now it's like, yeah, it's there. Okay. It's been there forever. Yeah.
DB: Yeah. It's like vaccines, they work because you don't realize how effective they are until they don't work.
MF: Well, and then it's interesting because then we had the pandemic and we've seen people's attitudes about cities change. We've seen people's travel behavior in cities change and we're not frankly, using all that infrastructure the way we had planned.
DB: It's phenomenal to me walking up here because I haven't been to Seattle for a while. And just walking up here was like, this is ... I mean, I used to work a couple of blocks away and I was like, this is not unexpected, but still seeing the empty streets, seeing the empty lobbies. It must be quite-
MF: … come a year ago. This is like we're hopping now compared to how it were.
DB: I know, but I like as a planner, I mean, in a way this must be this massive exciting challenge for you as well. Because when you're looking at cities, it's like, what happens if this never comes back the way it was before? What do you do with this real estate, these structures, the space?
MF: Yeah, it's a hugely important question and it's no one knows the answer to what's going to happen to downtowns. I think they're: most people, if you read the literature that's out there, cities are going to continue to be extremely important centers for innovation and creativity and entertainment, and they're not going to go away, but there's just huge unanswered questions because so much of what we took for granted was everybody being willing to do this thing five days a week - where you got up and you put on your work clothes and you went into an office and that's where all the economic activity happened. Now we all suddenly learn that actually we don't have to do that every day.
DB: And why would you then choose to spend an hour and a half sitting in your car?
MF: It's fascinating. Yeah. The city's having a very interesting back and forth trying to be a leader in bringing people back, but it really takes critical mass. You need the whole downtown community, including tech to decide that we need that in-person experience for it to happen.
DB: I'm sorry, I'm taking you off here.
MF: No, no, no. It was my favorite topic.
MF: I know you've got think. But is that even desirable?
There's an opportunity to radically rethink how we all use our time and to reclaim I think a better balance I would say between our home life and work life. And people are taking full advantage of that. One thing we've noticed in the city family is that ... And again, a lot of people are talking about this. There's so much you lose when people are not rubbing shoulders and having the in-person spaces, the things that are spontaneous and unplanned, where you run into people, the dynamics that allow new ideas to emerge or new friendships to be made in the workplace that lead to a new job opportunity for you down the road, those things aren't happening. The way we describe it in the city is like, everybody's doing the basics pretty well.
Like we're still collecting the garbage, we're still running the transportation system, but it's much harder to be innovative. It's much harder for new creative things to happen because you just don't have that ... Like when I have a meeting with people in person here now, compared to online, we're communicating like 10 times as many ways, because there's body language, there's all the things that you don't get from that flat screen. Anyway, I don't want to go too long on this, but ...
DB: No, no, that's okay.
MF: I will say though, one thing on the waterfront related to this, that's become very clear. It is so important for cities like Seattle to have some projects that show its confidence that it's coming back strong and that it believes in its future. And that it believes in continuing to be the center of the region. And I think the waterfront is one of those projects for Seattle. And I think our political leadership agrees.
This is the silver lining with the timing problem that we talked about with the tunnel is the waterfront now is basically the city's largest leading infrastructure investment in its future post-pandemic.
And so we are basically saying out there to investors, to downtown property owners to frankly, the federal government and others: Seattle is here to stay. We're bullish on our future. We're investing in this major waterfront, we just re-opened the new KeyArena. We're building a new convention center to bring back tourism, conferences, all those things that Seattle is reinvesting in its future to keep us competitive. And what keeps us competitive is having an incredibly good urban experience. The downtown experience is a big part of what attracts people to our city. So anyway, it's actually turned out to have this whole new value as being this statement about the future we want as a city. So I didn't expect that's, that's kind of been a nice addition if you will, and a whole new reason for people to care about our project, which has been good.