Is This for Real? Photo by Roger Before I say anything about last night’s kick off of the selection process for lead designer of Seattle’s proposed new waterfront, I have to say I didn’t know much about the process before I attended the event. I am, in all honesty, ignorant of much of the context of the process and where it goes from here. Unfortunately the event didn’t do much to clear that up for me.

The process is part of replacing Seattle’s collapsing viaduct. But, as an interested citizen I attended with an open mind and armed with a brilliant blog post I read beforehand by Steven Thornton (better known as fnarf) at Seattle Transit Blog titled “Build the Waterfront Up, not Down.” Thornton’s post served as my measuring stick for the presentations by four shortlisted design teams and the process in general. From what I saw and heard, the process and the presentations are coming up short when evaluated from Thornton’s perspective and mine.

First, here’s a flash of Thornton’s brilliance on what a city is:

  • Cities are markets; they are places where people gather to exchange goods, services, and ideas. Parks do not make cities. Boulevards do not make cities. Dense blocks of commerce make cities. Commerce, commerce, commerce. Rainier National Park is not a city. Manhattan is a city.

    Anyone that knows me or my writing knows I am no fan of most organized efforts by the business community in our region to influence policy. I find most of what they do to be a bit too narrow. But Thornton is right, in my view, about what makes a city.

    The danger with the discussion about Seattle’s waterfront is that it forgets, frequently, the basic principles of smart growth. All the talk about the city’s “front porch” neglects the reality of cities that work: they are crowded and bustling, not composed of “windswept plazas.” Here are the key things waterfront designers and participants should avoid according to Thornton, to prevent ruining the waterfront.

    Boulevards—Thornton rightly points out that in spite of the romantic sound, Boulevards are just really gigantic slabs of pavement that divide a city.

    Anyone who’s been to Paris has felt the shock of realizing that the famed Champs d’Elysees is actually the most horrible thoroughfare in the whole city, unless you are a once-a-year bicycle racer, or invading army.

    Parks—It is heresy against the true urban faith to call for fewer parks. But I have to agree with Thornton here, at least in terms of the waterfront. Parks, especially poorly designed parks, are killers of hustle and bustle.

    Flattening over huge parts of your central city isn’t green. The people who use these parks have to live somewhere, and every foot of living space in the city that is taken for parks is instantly converted by demand into ten feet of living space in the exurbs.

    Commerce-Free Zones—These are big boring spaces like our own adolescently self-conscious and self centered Washington Mall in D.C. Big vast swathes of nothingness that looks good from outer space but dwarfs the human scale. Thornton advises

    Outdoor cafes. Open markets. Rows of shops, lots of shops, narrow shops all packed together, not giant block-long blank walls.

    Not much of what I saw last night was very encouraging. Daniel Friedman, Dean of the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, presided over what often seemed an intellectual exercise in one-upsmanship between himself and the assembled teams and audience. Friedman was a kind host for an evening that seemed like the design community’s muted answer to American Idol.

    It’s too early to tell where Seattle’s waterfront is headed. The tunnel could well be doomed by overruns and much of the process is still in limbo. And there was very little context for what was happening on stage. Just the night before the City hosted a big event touting Seattle’s efforts to go carbon neutral, yet last night’s process seems dependent on building a $4 billion buried highway. Regardless of that, everyone involved (including the participants in last night’s show) or thinking about getting involved should take a few minutes and read Thornton’s post and re-examine some of the assumptions we might hold dear about the future of Seattle’s waterfront.