The Covid Summer has not been kind to events and programs on Seattle’s central waterfront. Beanbags and music and crowds are so 2019. Instead of sponsoring these more crowded events, Friends of Waterfront Seattle has mounted visiting photography exhibits for wandering art fans. There has been plenty of strolling, running, and biking too, at least in the clear days before the September wildfire smoke. As the smoke clears (and the collapsed Pier 58), fitness seekers and families are likely to return, along with the hard hats.
The waterfront is remaking itself, and so is a busy construction zone. With the rubble of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct cleared, crews are laying the groundwork for paving and planting. Soon a new surface boulevard replacing Alaskan Way, called Waterfront Park, will emerge. It’s a post-highway, post-tunnel redevelopment project and historic revision of Seattle’s urban shore, covering 20 acres along the edge of Elliott Bay and costing about $728 million. It’s managed by the city with funding mostly from state, city, Port, and private sources.
The new waterfront will put Seattle’s strong environmental values right up front where its shore is. It’s about time. For more than a half century the viaduct crashed through the waterfront, sending cars and trucks past downtown and making architects and city planners angry. The new transportation corridor will use less fuel, reduce traffic noise, create a promenade park, and make planners and city dwellers happy. Plantings, plazas and park-like amenities will be built around a reconfigured roadway. There will be dedicated pathways for bicycles, transit and foot traffic.
After the surface boulevard is built, construction can begin on improvements to existing east-west streets extending into Pioneer Square and other neighborhoods, all budgeted at about $184 million (out of the $728 million total). At the center of those east-west connections is the Overlook Walk, which will span the natural cliff between downtown Seattle and Pike Place Market above and Elliott Bay below, near the Seattle Aquarium. Some version of the Overlook Walk has popped up over decades in charrettes and design studios dedicated to visions for Seattle’s waterfront.
The actual design matches the ambition. It’s not just a hillside assist. It’s meant to be seen, and very easy to find. The Overlook Walk will be a transformative feature for the city, literally lifting pedestrians up where they have easy wayfinding and sweeping views. The designer is James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), a New York landscape and planning firm selected by the city of Seattle when it began planning in earnest a decade ago for an overall concept and new infrastructure plan on the Waterfront, post-viaduct. JCFO also designed Manhattan’s popular High Line, a linear park and pedestrian through-way on top of a former railroad trestle.
The Overlook Walk will build on the enduring popularity of Pike Place Market by extending the new MarketFront, by Miller Hull Partnership, just west of the main Market. MarketFront meets the end of the old Desimone Bridge spur on Western Avenue at the edge of the cliff. The Overlook Walk will meet the edge of MarketFront, where a series of bridging structures will continue the switchbacks down a gentle slope to the roof deck of the Ocean Pavilion. On the way down, the path will cross over yet-to-be-built Elliott Avenue, the branch of rebuilt Alaskan Way which will climb the face of the cliff, carrying most of the northbound traffic toward Belltown.
The idea is that two projects, the Overlook Walk (Hoffman Construction) and the Ocean Pavilion (Turner Construction), each with its own contractor and budget and approval track, will meet seamlessly and open up at roughly the same time, according to Ben Franz-Knight, former executive director of Pike Place Market who oversaw planning for MarketFront when he was there. He now coordinates construction of the Overlook Walk and the Ocean Pavilion in his position with Shiels Obletz Johnsen. “(MarketFront) doesn’t sing until the Ocean Pavilion is in place,” is the way he sums it up.
The Ocean Pavilion has pride of place. The boulevard will leave the shoreline just south of the plaza and split into two surface streets. Alaskan Way will return to the water’s edge and continue north, and the other, Elliott Avenue, will climb the cliff. At water’s edge, in an expansive plaza that opens to the waterfront from Pier 58 right up to Pier 62, Seattle will truly meet up with Elliott Bay. The center of that shoreline plaza, where the Overlook Walk touches down, is the site of the Ocean Pavilion.
Crowds are likely to gather at the south edge of the deck on top. The view south toward Mt. Rainier is sure to be breathtaking, and the entire scope of the redeveloped waterfront can be seen. The structure is literally open-ended and transparent at the south side, where some exhibits could be visible from the lower plaza and shoreline. In the approved plan for the Ocean Pavilion, a prominent and accessible elevator stands ready, at the southeast corner, to lift visitors to the roof deck from the public plaza below. On the other side, adjoining the north wall of the pavilion, branching steps lead down to the level of Alaskan Way and the familiar historic piers.
While the final cost of the Ocean Pavilion will not be known until the project is complete in about four years, estimates now range from $113 million to $125 million. Even though the city owns the aquarium, it has put hard limits on the city contribution at $34 million. The nonprofit Seattle Aquarium Society has committed to raising the rest privately, and spokesman Tim Kuniholm says the project is on track and closing the gap.
Last month Ocean Pavilion got a green light from the city, flying through the “90 percent” design review with the Seattle Design Commission. The Overlook Walk itself will come before the SDC for its 90 percent review before the end of the year. What the design commissioners saw is an aquarium addition with exhibits, but also a cultural statement about the city and an essential piece of its pedestrian infrastructure. That’s a lot for one building. In fact, you can’t quite tell what it is, and that may be intentional. Making it a reality has been a long road.
Planning for the aquarium addition really dates from the 1970s, when the historic Pier 59 was chosen for the aquarium itself and new features like the popular underwater dome, designed by Bassetti Architects and KCM, brought more foot traffic to the waterfront. The aquarium became a center of marine research and conservation, as well as a fixture in local education. Kids loved it, and so did their parents and teachers.
After 2001, the decision to remove the seismically challenged Alaskan Way Viaduct and rebuild the waterfront opened up the possibility of building the aquarium addition onshore, instead of over the water next to the current aquarium. In the meantime the current aquarium expanded, adding large exhibits and meeting spaces. The Harbor Seal exhibit opened in 2010. That same year the city of Seattle (Parks and Recreation) turned the management of the aquarium over to the non-profit Seattle Aquarium Society, a model now used by zoos and aquaria across the country.
These days, the aquarium still makes headlines with popular exhibits like the Kraken. When the first drawings of the Ocean Pavilion by LMN Architects appeared, it was a scene-stealing vision of ocean life that included crowd-pleasing sharks. But sharks are not popular with local critics, including animal rights activists who object to animal captivity and environmentalists who favor funding local cleanup and habitat restoration instead of aquariums. It’s a false dichotomy, and the aquarium is intended to raise awareness about the plight of global ocean habitats, according to aquarium supporters. It’s likely that complaints from these perspectives have made fundraising for the addition more challenging. The gap between the final cost and the funds raised is not known, but now that the Ocean Pavilion has passed an important approval milestone, it may get easier to find support.
And the design has evolved. Systems for nurturing sick or weakened animals before reintroduction to the wild have always been part of the program, according to LMN architect Mark Reddington. As the Covid era set in and the Ocean Pavilion made its way through the final stages of its reviews, it became more energy efficient (which may increase construction costs) and re-focused on the energy aspects of temperature regulation systems of the building. Water may have to be heated initially, he said, but it will eventually yield surplus heat. It can be harvested to use for the building interior with a sophisticated heat exchanger. With its special concrete mix, sustainable timber details sourced from tribal lands, and other features, the project is on track to be carbon neutral in its final version, according to Reddington, who leads the design team at LMN Architects.
Aquarium officials and consultants also worked with representatives of local tribes to realize an ambitious planting and art program that emphasizes tribal values and also presents a narrative of salmon spawning. So it’s now a cultural center, one that builds on local traditions and acknowledges indigenous stewardship of land and water.
The form of the building itself has practically dissolved into the infrastructure. At first take, the Ocean Pavilion is less like a glass tank and more like an earth form shaped by water. Its purpose is ambiguous. The outer wall system, viewed from the Elliott Bay side, is a complex interlacing of timber blocks that admits light. It is clearly intended to reveal views from inside yet tells very little about the exhibits there. The Ocean Pavilion has grown a very thick skin.
But the kids will look for fish. They will have to step underneath the edge of the massive building and look up. There, through the oculus (eye) of the addition, they may find a tropical coral reef in full display, without buying a ticket. If they do go inside, ticket proceeds will help restore marine habitats in the Duwamish or in Indonesia, according to the adopted mission of the Seattle Aquarium Society. It has chosen to emphasize that the world’s oceans are connected, and what we do here could affect all of them.
Construction on the Ocean Pavilion has started. Those hardhats at the base of the planned Overlook Walk are also preparing the soils and utilities for the Ocean Pavilion. And in the meantime, the old Waterfront Park, just to the south the aquarium, built alongside the Alaskan Way Viaduct at Pier 58, has been a scene of minor disasters, when part of it collapsed this past weekend. It closed last month because inspectors found that pilings were failing after the deck began breaking away from the sea wall. Now barges are anchored just offshore to carry away debris.
A new Pier 58 is scheduled to open in 2024 after construction is complete on the boulevard. The expanse of the new pier will have flexible space for programming and recreation, including a lawn and seating area, staffed restroom, food concessions, plaza and event space, and a children’s play area.
Visitors will walk to the edge of rebuilt Pier 58 and see the dark water of Elliott Bay and the Salish Sea. And if they stand near the aquarium and look back toward the rebuilt seawall, they might glimpse migrating fish on their way to the ocean, or back. No ticket needed.