Seattle's Realizing Its Waterfront Dream
Bertha's only a glitch. Glitches are annoying, but they can't derail something with as much momentum as the redevelopment of the Seattle waterfront. That was one of the takeaways at Bisnow's Waterfront & Beyond event this week.
Urban Renaissance Group CEO Patrick Callahan, our keynote speaker, gave some context to the evolution of the waterfront redevelopment. He noted the idea really took off after the Nisqually earthquake in 2001. That might seem like a long time ago, but extraordinary projects—hard projects—take time. But now the redevelopment is finally being realized. "We're going from planning to implementation," he said: Seattle's going to have a world-class waterfront.
The consensus among the panel is that Bertha will indeed be fixed, and the waterfront will be completed, perhaps not quite as soon as planned, but before too long. Our panelists included City of Seattle Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster; Friends of Waterfront Seattle executive director Heidi Hughes; Mack Urban VP Martha Barkman; Point32 CEO Chris Rogers; Pillar Properties SVP Billy Pettit; Rothman & Associates president Erin Rothman; Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority executive director Ben Franz-Knight; Cairncross & Hempelmann partner Matt Hanna, who moderated; and Urban Renaissance Group CEO Patrick Callahan.
Major pieces of the puzzle are coming together, our speakers noted: The seawall construction is more than halfway complete, which is the foundation that supports all the reinvestment and design. Waterfront Park has been reopened, Pike Place broke ground on its expansion, and the Seattle Aquarium is expanding as well. Also, $4M has been secured for an operating plan for maintenance and security and other aspects of the public space.
Though infrastructure is important, the redevelopment of the waterfront is about much more than that. It's about activating the area, making it welcoming to people and creating a unique sense of place, the speakers explain. Sometimes that means small improvements that are important but not very expensive, such as adding places to sit, or scheduling music and other events. The key thing—and the waterfront will achieve this—is making the waterfront a place where people (visitors and Seattle natives) want to be.
Though the momentum is there, challenges remain. One, according to our speakers, is environmental remediation, especially for nearby development sites that are on top of Seattle Fire debris, which includes metals and other noxious material. That could delay projects, especially for developers who don't consider the problem carefully enough. Still, most developers here are used to these kinds of issues, and they assume their sites aren't completely clean.
Another major challenge is establishing a local improvement district—a tax, to be clear—to help with funding. Currently about two-thirds of funding for the project is in place, through a bond issue and other mechanisms, and from the state of Washington. The city needs to demonstrate the value of the project to nearby private owners—especially major institutional owners from out of town—to make the district happen.