Seattle City Council adopts Harborfront Public Improvement Plan on June 13, 1988.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/30/2013
  • Essay 10701
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On June 13, 1988, the Seattle City Council adopts the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan. City planners envision a central waterfront that embraces maritime history, provides view corridors and public access to the water, and allows for mixed-use development in pier sheds and upland warehouses. Planners have focused on the central waterfront since the 1960s, but their efforts to make the semi-industrial area attractive to tourists and part of the larger central business district have been impeded by the existing traffic infrastructure and by the lack of funding to bring about large-scale changes. The Harborfront plan will be used to seek public funding for several waterfront projects, but a September 1988 bond measure will be defeated at the polls and only parts of the plan will be implemented. 

One in a Series 

The Harborfront Public Improvement Plan was one in a long series of plans for the central waterfront that offered ideas for transforming the area from a somewhat abandoned industrial area into an integral part of the central business district. Beginning in the early 1960s, in preparation for the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair at Seattle Center, private business owners started to develop tourist attractions on the waterfront and city planners began to look at redeveloping the central waterfront from an industrial area into a visitor-friendly extension of the central business district that it adjoined.  

The area had been in decline for some time. Freight operations had largely moved to the north and south ends of Elliott Bay to take advantage of new Port of Seattle facilities and more space. Fewer people relied on passenger service on the Mosquito Fleet steamers as automobile-ownership rates increased. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, built along the waterfront in 1953, blocked some views to and from downtown and tens of thousands of cars and trucks rumbled over it daily. The area under the viaduct was largely given over to parking. Planners and community activists spent decades trying with limited success to incorporate the structure into the surrounding built environment so that it did not sever the connection between the waterfront and downtown.  

While businesses such as the Edgewater Hotel, the Polynesian Restaurant, Trident Imports, and the Seattle Sea Circus began making use of the piers and pier sheds alongside the remaining fish processors and marine supply companies, the city began planning for a wholesale redevelopment of the central waterfront. Beginning with an urban renewal plan in 1963, several planning initiatives attempted to improve connections between downtown and the waterfront; create public spaces; and mitigate the negative impacts of the viaduct, trains, and street traffic. The city wanted the waterfront to bolster Seattle's central business district in the face of competition from newly developed suburban shopping districts and malls. 

In the mid-1970s a number of projects moved forward. With money from the 1968 Forward Thrust parks bond, the city built Waterfront Park. It opened in 1974 at the location of the historic Pier 58. The city also bought piers 57 and 59 on either side of the park. The pier shed on Pier 57 was leased to a private business for retail and restaurant use. Pier 59 became the home of the Seattle Aquarium, also funded by Forward Thrust, when it opened in 1977. That same year, the city built the Pike Street Hillclimb, a cement stairway with space for retail shops at each landing, between the Waterfront Park/Aquarium area and the Pike Place Market. 

New Zoning 

Even with these improvements, the area continued to struggle. The large number of dilapidated buildings along Western Avenue and the waterfront and the obstacles created by the streets and trains and the steep hill between Western and First avenues discouraged private investment. A new comprehensive plan for downtown was under development, but Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) and city planners were concerned that the waterfront area needed a stopgap measure that would allow proposed projects go forward in the meantime. In 1979, the "Draft Guidelines for Evaluation of Contract Rezones in the Central Waterfront District" laid out a series of goals for the upland portion of the waterfront that would add more residents and attract businesses that would serve residents and the adjacent central business district, as well as new companies that would establish their offices there. The guidelines encouraged renovation of the existing warehouses into usable spaces rather than their replacement.  

The area also fell under the jurisdiction of the city's Shoreline Master Program, adopted for the first time in 1976, which required that any development within 200 feet of the shoreline not degrade the marine environment, preserve public access and historic structures, and give priority to water-dependent uses. 

The guidelines and the Shoreline Master Program guided development on the waterfront while new zoning and land use rules could be developed through the Downtown Plan (adopted in 1985). The policy outlined in the Downtown Plan directed the city to pursue projects on the waterfront that would revitalize it and improve public access while protecting the historical and cultural heritage of the area and maintaining access to the water for maritime businesses.  

Two new zoning designations were also applied to the waterfront. Downtown Harborfront 1, to the west of Alaskan Way, was reserved for water-dependent uses such as retail, commercial office space, light manufacturing, and recreational activities along the shoreline. No residential, hotel, heavy manufacturing, or containerized cargo operations could be developed in this area. Downtown Harborfront 2, covering the area between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue, could have apartments, hotels, and commercial activities. 

Considerable Controversy 

Those zoning designations and the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan that followed met with considerable controversy after they were introduced to the public in 1980. In September 1982, the Department of Community Development, in conjunction with the Washington Sea Grant Program, held the Seattle Waterfront Symposium at Seattle Center to discuss the future of the waterfront. The Harborfront proposals included reducing Alaskan Way to two or three lanes, moving all railroad traffic off of the central waterfront and into the train tunnel under downtown, adding parking garages, improving pedestrian connections with the central business district, adding bicycle lanes or a bicycle path between Myrtle Edwards Park in the north and Pioneer Square in the south, extending the pedestrian promenade with additional open space along it, and transient moorages for small boats.  

Some argued against a perceived shift from "denim to silk," from a working waterfront to a recreational area ("City Waterfront ..."). Richard J. Goldsmith, of the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, wrote to city council member Jeanette Williams (1914-2008) that the crab and bottomfish fleets based on the central waterfront needed access to those piers because the Fishermen's Terminal docks on Salmon Bay were full and the boats needed a place to unload their catches. Jim Smith of the Seattle Shorelines Coalition spoke at the conference, saying, "the absence of appropriate maritime tenants on the waterfront is the result of the destruction, whether purposeful or through indifference or ignorance, of a suitable environment in which to conduct maritime business" (Seattle Waterfront Symposium). 

Chuck Peterson (1939-1990), owner of Trident Imports, saw it differently, telling the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the existing piers were ill-suited to the maritime industries, causing their gradual abandonment. Beatrice Ryan, the city's chief land use planner, predicted this trend would continue and argued that without the proposed changes, the "waterfront will be consumed by tourist boutiques" (Seattle Waterfront Symposium). 

The discussion continued for several years as city planners and the Port of Seattle moved forward with plans to shift the waterfront toward people-oriented spaces and activities. Groups like Friends of the Working Waterfront, led by Blair Pessemier, continued to argue for "mak[ing] Seattle's waterfront a place alive with fishing boats, tugs and Virginia V-style passenger ferries -- and…prevent[ing] 'glitzy, touristy' uses from dominating the waterfront scene" (Morrow). John McCallum (1923-2012), owner of Pacific Salmon Company, a fish processor, wrote in response to the draft environmental impact statement for the Harborfront plan:  

"Our seafood operations handle some millions of pounds of products each year. A large portion of this poundage arrives by truck, and ALL OF IT leaves Pier 66 by truck. We receive and ship out over 15 trucks per day, employ from 20 to 45 people and think we are a positive influence in this City. We create employment for our people. We pay City, County, and State taxes, buy and pay for fish and supplies, and in general create positively for the community. If vehicle access to Pier 66 is hindered our operations would be less efficient -- and on a less efficient basis we are not sure we can survive, nor continue to employ our people" (Environmental Impact Statement, C-108). 

Final Plan 

The final Harborfront Public Improvement Plan was presented to the city council in March 1987. It stated:  

"The challenge for the future is to strengthen feasible maritime uses, to mitigate the significant constraints to revitalization, and to build on the unique assets of the environment to enhance public enjoyment. This will require the cooperation of numerous public agencies and the private sector" (Mayor's Recommended Harborfront, 17).  

The plan divided the waterfront into activity zones. The first, from Pier 48 to the Washington State Ferries terminal at the foot of Marion Street, would serve ferry passenger needs. The area from Pier 54 to Pier 57 would be dedicated to retail and restaurant users. From Waterfront Park to Pier 65, public education and recreation facilities would be developed. North of there, the waterfront would be used for mixed commercial developments. As part of a separate agreement, the Burlington Northern Railroad rerouted all of its traffic to the tunnel under downtown, removing a significant obstacle to waterfront improvement. 

The city's investments in the waterfront would include acquiring piers 62 and 63 for an aquarium expansion and additional open space. Between Pioneer Square and Myrtle Edwards Park, a "walking park" would encourage people to use the waterfront for recreation, as would a proposed bike lane. Drawing on the success of the Pike Street Hillclimb, the city would improve connections between the central business district and the waterfront at other street ends along First Avenue.  

The city supported the Port of Seattle's plans to develop a new cruise ship terminal at Pier 64 or Pier 66 and more transient moorage between the two piers, part of the Port's Central Waterfront Project, aimed at transforming the Port's central waterfront piers and adjoining uplands. Additionally, the city wanted to add public moorages at the Washington Street Boat Landing and berthing space for historic ships at Waterfront Park.  

The plan criticized the design of Waterfront Park for how it cut the park off from the surrounding neighborhood and suggested the addition of a park at Vine Street and improvements to the Myrtle Edwards Park entrance at Broad Street. While the viaduct was not likely to be removed and earlier plans to reroute Alaskan Way away from the shoreline met with logistical difficulties and traffic-management concerns, there were other ways to reduce how Alaskan Way traffic impacted the character of the waterfront. The plan recommended that the street be reduced to two lanes to discourage its use as a bypass route around downtown and reduce its impact on the waterfront.  

An important part of the Harborfront plan was the preservation of the maritime heritage of the waterfront. Concerned that the area not become a caricature of the past, the plan called for preservation of historic pier sheds in the area between piers 54 and 59 and a historical marker program to document important events, such as the landing of the Portland with the first gold from the Klondike in 1897. A maritime heritage center could draw tourists and help preserve and share waterfront history. To address parking issues, the city proposed building a parking garage on the hill below Pike Place Market. 

Moving Forward With Existing Funds 

After adopting the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan on June 13, 1988, that September the city council submitted to voters a $34.7 million levy measure to fund the plan. In addition to the city levy for the planned waterfront improvements, King County put an $85.9 million bond measure on the ballot for open space acquisition. More than $25 million of that bond would be used for renovating the Seattle Aquarium, a total of nearly $60 million for central waterfront projects. But both measures were soundly defeated at the polls. After the vote, The Seattle Times cited the existing economic climate, the high cost of the programs, and the perception among voters that downtown would benefit at the expense of neighborhood parks and green spaces as reasons for their failure. 

Though the levy was not funded, several of the proposed Harborfront projects moved forward using existing city funding. In 1989, the city traded Pier 57, along with a cash payment, for piers 62 and 63, which offered open space along the walking park. A large parking garage near the aquarium and the Pike Place Market was built by the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority in 1989. Alongside Alaskan Way, a bike path connecting Pioneer Square and Myrtle Edwards Park opened in 1991. In addition, the Port of Seattle proceeded with its Central Waterfront Project. After moving its headquarters to Pier 69, the Port made the site of its former Pier 66 headquarters, along with Piers 64 and 65, into the new Bell Street Pier, which opened in 1996 with a conference center, the Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, restaurants, and 11 acres of public waterfront space. The Port also developed transient moorage at Pier 66, along with a new cruise ship dock.

Sources: "The Water Liberation Front: Free Alaska Way! Power to the Pedestrians! Save our Seawall," The Weekly, February 24, 1982; Jane Hadley, "Battle of the Waterfront: Recreation or Commerce?," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 29, 1982; Jane Hadley, "Waterfront: Many Sides for Different Folks," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 18, 1982, p B-6; Bob Lane and Joni Balter, "A Big 'No' from Voters," The Seattle Times, September 21, 1988, p. B-5; Scott Maier, "Mixed Use Favored for Waterfront," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 20, 1982, p. A-1; Theresa Morrow, "Which Direction for the Waterfront? Groups in Conflict Over Whether Area Should Be Center for Work or Play," The Seattle Times, August 8, 1988, p. E-1; "City Waterfront Future at Stake," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 17, 1982; "Draft Guidelines for Evaluation of Contract Rezones in the Central Waterfront District: Draft for Public Review and Comment," prepared for the Office of Policy Planning, March 1, 1979, Item No. 5754, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Mayor's Recommended Harborfront Public Improvement Plan (Seattle: City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, 1987); Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 114010, "An ordinance  ... providing for the creation of a Harborfront Revitalization and Improvement Fund in the City Treasury ...," passed June 13, 1988; Seattle City Council Resolution No. 27794, "A resolution adopting the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan ...," adopted June 13, 1988; Seattle Waterfront Symposium, September 17-19, 1982: Final Report ed. by Greg Moore (Seattle: Washington Sea Grant, 1982); Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Mayor's Recommended Harborfront Public Improvement Plan (Seattle: City of Seattle, 1987).
Note: This essay was corrected on December 28, 2015.

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