Seattle, Washington’s waterfront redevelopment, an endeavor James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) has been working on diligently for nearly a decade, is steadily moving closer to being implemented, as the $700 million project heads toward beginning construction this year. 

The development cleared a major hurdle in August when supporters of the project garnered over 80 percent of the cast ballots needed to reject an initiative that would have derailed the JCFO scheme. JCFO’s vision for the two-mile-long promenade would stitch together city’s burgeoning downtown with its isolated, post-industrial waterfront, converting the space currently occupied by the Alaskan Way Viaduct into a broad pedestrian-oriented waterfront park and roadway. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, built in 1953, is currently in the process of being replaced by a partially completed underground highway tunnel that would free up the city’s coastline for public recreational activities. The redevelopment will be funded via a new tax levied on downtown businesses and will continue a nationwide trend of replacing or repurposing aging infrastructure with a mix of public amenities and new development.

Andrew tenBrink, a designer at JCFO who has been working on the project since it started in 2010, said the firm had been “struck by the ‘big nature’ of the area,” as it developed a project for a city sitting “on the cusp of the wilderness, between the bay and mountains.”

Steps to the overlook. (Courtesy James Corner Field Operations)

Steps to the overlook. (Courtesy James Corner Field Operations)

Aside from creating a new recreational spine for the city’s downtown, the new route will also string together existing cultural destinations along the waterfront like the famed Pike Place Market to the south, the Bassetti Architects–designed Seattle Aquarium at its center, and the Weiss/Manfredi Architects–designed Olympic Sculpture Park to the north. Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture was a landscape architecture consultant for the project. 

The aquarium, built in 1977 on the waterfront’s Pier 59, can currently only be reached via a disruptive landscape of viaduct overpasses and parking lots. In the new plan, it will be located at the end of a broad public plaza accessible by a scenic lookout designed in concert with the waterfront scheme, reconnecting it to the city center.

JCFO’s redevelopment plan would also connect to the iconic Olympic Sculpture Park located at the northern edge of the development, connecting the city’s network of bicycle and walking trails, currently divided between north and south, together along the waterfront. TenBrink described the history of the waterfront as something that has “constantly evolved” over its transition from native habitat to industrial area and transportation corridor. In the near future, Seattle’s waterfront will transform once again to become a line between the “pristine nature of Pacific Northwest and a very manufactured (urban) landscape,” said tenBrink.

Union Street view from the promenade. (Courtesy James Corner Field Operations)

Union Street view from the promenade. (Courtesy James Corner Field Operations)

Another major and partially completed component of the project entails rebuilding an existing seawall used to mitigate Puget Sound’s constantly fluctuating tides. Between epic “king tides,” monthly lunar tides, and other seasonally variable waves, the water’s height can vary by as much as 12 feet, so the design team has deployed specially-designed panels, some codesigned with local artists, to create spots for tidal wildlife to live and grow. The wall also marks the area’s mean, low, and high tides and contains walkway areas with embedded glass blocks that allow for daylight to permeate the water, as to not disrupt sensitive spawning grounds.

The remaining areas that feed into the promenade and roadway will also receive improvements to their streetscapes in order to facilitate the pedestrianization of surrounding areas while also inserting key landscape components.

This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.

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