Sculpting a New Park for Seattle’s Waterfront—Land&People

The tide is coming in, lapping against Seattle’s doorstep. Concrete bulkheads girdle the shoreline of Elliott Bay, barely containing the burgeoning city. Downtown, the waterfront is caffeinated ambition, high-rises and high rents, fast ferries, faster food, and suited software glitterati. The clang and clash of construction reverberates, bouncing off the tinted windows of penthouse suites and lavish offices. Giant orange cranes hoist cargo containers onto ships headed across Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean for Asian markets. A wind rising with the tide blows along the piers, carrying the fresh, strange scent of sea salt, creosote, and new money.

There is much revelry but little respite on the waterfront. Myrtle Edwards Park–a narrow reach of grass and trees along the shoreline, north of the wharves and converted warehouses–is the only green space in which to stretch and breathe. Popular with bikers, joggers, office workers, and people seeking solace amid the skyscrapers, Myrtle Edwards is a rare retreat in Seattle’s increasingly dense downtown.

By most conventional measures, Seattle is not yet a big city. An estimated 1.5 million people live in the greater Seattle area, some 550,000 of them within the city limits. Growth is certain, however. “Help Wanted” signs hanging in virtually every shop window, coupled with increasing demand for workers at Microsoft and other supercharged global technology companies, attract thousands of new residents every month. Traffic congestion is among the worst in the nation, and local housing prices approach San Francisco’s, but still the people keep coming–drawn by ever more lucrative salaries and company dividends. To help contain urban sprawl in Washington State, Seattle officials have agreed to allow an additional 50,000 households within the city limits by the year 2014, and downtown construction is booming.

An undertow of nostalgia pulls at native Northwesterners caught in this current of progress, paving, and profit-sharing. Vanishing rapidly are the landscapes that once defined the character of the Emerald City and ensured an enviable quality of life. The stench of mudflats is gone but so are the smell of seaweed and the whisper of eelgrass. The slow, stalking movements of great blue herons fishing in shallows beyond the piers are merely shadows.

Wedged between Seattle’s heralded downtown waterfront redevelopment and Myrtle Edwards Park is a singular brownfield. Six weedy acres of trash and tin, chipped concrete, chain-link fencing, and paved parking, it is nonetheless an oasis–to those with imagination and determination. The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), proposes to reclaim, replant, and preserve this site on Elliott Bay for a much-needed park. As an extension of Myrtle Edwards, the future park would double the green space on Seattle’s downtown waterfront and provide breathing room for residents of nearby Belltown, a neighborhood destined to become one of the most densely crowded in the region.

The proposed park site includes three parcels of land that rise like stairs from the tidelands in Elliott Bay to Belltown, where a brick-and-mortar renaissance is under way. An aged neighborhood of brownstones and seedy bars, gospel missions, musty rooms for let, and low-rent office space, Belltown is being rejuvenated with chic shops, trendy restaurants, and neon nightlife. High-rise apartment buildings with rooftop gardens and pricy penthouses are scraping the sky, competing for the eye with the city’s most prominent landmarks–the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Pioneer Square. “But people need parks, places where they can find a measure of solitude and quietude,” says Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata. “Seattle has too few such places; the proposed park would provide a much-needed refuge.”

A Rare Prize in a Hot Market

For decades, huge fuel tanks squatted on the proposed park site, where Unocal, a California-based fuel company, operated an oil depot. Now all but finished with a ten-year, multimillion-dollar cleanup of the property, Unocal is ready to sell. “To miss this opportunity would be a tragedy…our children would never forgive,” says Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who is helping promote the park. “We must do this. It is our last chance to acquire open space on the downtown waterfront.”

Seattle places a high value on its natural splendor but in recent years has allowed commercial and residential development within downtown at the expense of open space and parks. The new park would serve as “an excellent example” to the nation, says U.S. Senator Patty Murray, by demonstrating that “urban growth does not mean we have to sacrifice…open space.”

In time, with sufficient private and public financial support, native trees and a world-class sculpture garden will grow here. “We have looked hard at balancing growth and economic development with quality of life,” says U.S. Senator Slade Gorton. “This is a wonderful balance of those two long-term objectives…providing a mix of culture and recreation that so exemplifies the character of the Northwest.”

TPL is leading the effort to secure the property. The Seattle Art Museum will own and manage the park, using it to showcase large-scale outdoor sculpture by leading artists such as David Smith, Richard Serra, Barbara Hepworth, and Alexander Calder. Commissioned artists will help design key features such as pedestrian bridges, gateways, and a children’s play area. A 10,000-square-foot building with a cafe and educational/meeting/exhibit space will likely top an underground parking lot, and pedestrian paths will be constructed to improve access between adjacent neighborhoods and the waterfront.

SAM officials hope that, just as the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center has become one of that city’s most renowned public spaces, with more than one million visitors each year, the proposed sculpture park will one day distinguish Seattle.

The appraised fair market value of the proposed park site is $24.5 million. The westward view alone justifies the price tag: in a spectacular rise from sea level to 7,000 feet, the Brothers–snow-capped twin peaks in the majestic Olympic range–illuminate the horizon and the soul. Seals play in the bay. Surf scooters dip and bob. As the sun sets, shafts of light slant across the water–blues and pinks and oranges swirling together like watercolors in a child’s paint box. To pause and lean against the smooth concrete railing of the sea wall and look across Elliott Bay and Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains is an act of sensual indulgence, arousing passion in any lover of nature–or real-estate developer.

Seattle’s real-estate market is sizzling, heated by cyber wealth and a shortage of housing, affordable and otherwise. Waterfront is at a premium, and the Unocal site–zoned to allow the highest density of residential and commercial development in the city–is prime property. Interest in the site is intense. One Seattle company, Triad Development, already has preliminary designs for the site, including 800 housing units, a boutique hotel, 250,000 square feet of office space, retail shops, and an athletic club. Other developers are likewise anxious to buy the land.

For the moment, however, TPL and SAM have signed a purchase-and-sale agreement on the coveted property. It is a rare chance, made all the more extraordinary by Unocal’s willingness to sell the parcel for public use for $16.5 million–an incredible $8 million discount.

The proposed park’s total budget is an estimated $37 million: $17 million for site acquisition, $15 million for site development, and $5 million for long-term maintenance. Clearly, this park will not be had cheaply. But with this investment in open space, TPL, SAM, and others will be endowing all of Puget Sound with a legacy of national and international significance while contributing to healthy communities and a healthy environment.

“I’m convinced the bounty from this simple piece of land will be incalculable,” says Martha Wyckoff, a TPL board member leading the effort to buy the land. “This site will connect Seattle’s past and future, just as it connects art and open space.”

Restoring Waterfront Habitat

One of the largest estuaries in the lower 48 states, Puget Sound is an integral part of an essential marine environment–a spectacular and bounteous inland sea shared by the state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Salmon, steelhead, harbor seals, California and Stellar sea lions, orcas and gray whales, Dall’s porpoises, and other marine animals regularly migrate through the shared waters. More than a million migrating shorebirds stop over in winter and spring.

Population forecasters predict that by the year 2014 nearly seven million people will crowd the Puget Sound region. The growing population is placing heavy demands on what remains of the natural environment. Eighty percent of the intertidal wetland in Puget Sound has been diked, dredged, drained, filled, and developed, according to a study by People for Puget Sound, a Seattle-based organization working to preserve marine and shoreline habitat. Worsening that loss, roughly 33 percent of Puget Sound’s 2,000 miles of shoreline is heavily armored with bulkheads, seawalls, and riprap. Where Seattle meets the sea, that figure jumps to 79 percent. To protect new waterfront development, additional armament is being added at a record rate–destroying what remains of the natural shoreline.

Scientists have identified loss of nearshore habitat as one of the most pressing problems in Puget Sound. Extremely vulnerable to degradation and destruction, shallow-water habitat is crucial to species conservation. It shelters the young of many deepwater fish, supports shellfish and crustacean populations, and is home to vital prey for countless fish, birds, and mammals. Dungeness crabs, once abundant in Elliott Bay, have virtually vanished along with the mudflats.

Acquisition of the Unocal site for a park represents a chance to mitigate damage done to the inland sea and establish a natural landscape within a forest of high-rises. To leverage the positive benefits of the Unocal purchase, park supporters hope to include Myrtle Edwards Park in the habitat restoration plan–treating both sites as a single, unified green space. “For example, at the Unocal site it may be impossible to transform the sea wall into fish or bird habitat,” Rogers says, “but the one scrap of beach at Myrtle Edwards Park could be expanded and shallow sills, sandy flats, and marsh grasses added to make it more attractive to wildlife and people.” The new park could define Seattle’s character in much the same way Vancouver’s famed Stanley Park sets it apart. Says TPL’s Wyckoff, “It is a place where we will be able to define ‘home’ in a way uniquely Seattle, uniquely Northwest.”

The Challenge Ahead

In one of the most successful–and shortest–capital campaigns Seattle has seen, $24 million already has been raised toward the $37 million goal. Generous gifts have come from all sectors of the city. Contributors have included civic leaders, businesses, corporations, and residents of nearby Belltown high-rises–vertical neighbors to the proposed waterfront sculpture park. Lead gifts include $4 million from the Allen Foundation, $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million from the Kreilsheimer Foundation, and $1 million from Bagley and Virginia Wright. Local, county, and state governments also strongly support the project and are committed to helping raise an additional $13 million in public and private funds.

The response “speaks to Seattle’s incredible generosity and long-standing commitment to the arts and protection of the natural environment,” says Chris Rogers. “All of us–those of us who live here and those who don’t–have been made richer by these gifts, by this park.”

Former Microsoft president Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary, have pledged a $5 million endowment for the park’s long-term maintenance. Collectors of modern sculpture, the Shirleys also hope to contribute some of their outdoor art. “It’s a huge mistake to turn all available land into high-rise condos, commercial offices, and parking lots,” Jon Shirley says. “Sometimes, truly, there is a higher and better use for open space.”

Once a reality, the park will undoubtedly develop a strong constituency. Evidence from around the nation shows that parks not only improve property values but enhance urban quality of life. Just as important, the sculpture park could give new momentum to other efforts to preserve open spaces and restore shorelines.

“The trick for us will be to be as eclectic and freewheeling and broad-ranging as the city itself,” says SAM curator Trevor Fairbrother. “We want this to be a place for all Seattle, a place that will celebrate the city and bring people together.”

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Marla Williams is a documentary film and magazine writer who lives in Seattle, Washington.