January 2003: Preservation on Seattle's Waterfront
By Heather MacIntosh

The industrial pioneer town of Seattle grew from the waterfront along Elliott Bay, from what is now known as the SODO district to the upper edge of Belltown. The young city's relationship with the water, its port, and its maritime industries catalysed development in the late nineteenth century which was the foundation for mature urban growth in the twentieth. Though the waterfront is rarely considered a neighborhood unto itself, the edge of Elliott Bay has its own set of preservation issues that are inextricably bound to the city's economic health, major transportation initiatives, and Seattle's identity as a whole.

What History?

The historic relationship between the waterfront and Seattle's growth and economic success is not, today, readily apparent. The now-fragile viaduct has, since the mid-1950s, formed a wall between the city's commercial core and the water, piers, wharves, and warehouses evidencing a century of activity there. Tourism, ferry traffic, cruise ships, the Victoria Clipper, the Seattle Aquarium, and various Port functions all converge along the narrow strip between Alaskan Way and the water.

Where then does historic preservation come into the mix? What is the value of the remaining historic structures and buildings relative to many other activities that now, and might in the future, take place along Elliott Bay?

The question is more relavent now than ever. Plans for the waterfront are tied to future of three historic neighborhoods or districts: Pioneer Square, Belltown and Pike Place Market to a somewhat lesser degree), and controversial transportation issues (the viaduct and the monorail) as well as comprehensive urban design overlays.

The significance of the waterfront to Seattle's future has not gone unnoticed, thanks to the work of local organizations like Allied Arts and Action Better City, but the role of historic preservation has been, within most public discussions, disproportionately small.

The Waterfront's Most Significant Preservation Issues

The comprehensive history of Seattle's waterfront is epic. Local historian Paul Dorpat provides an overview of this story on HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of Seattle and King County history. The history of the waterfront is undeniably important, but what's left of the buildings and structures evidencing this story? Is there anything left to save?

Though Seattle lost a great deal of its historic warehouses and buildings along the waterfront during the construction of the viaduct, many historic features still remain.

The Washington Street Boat Landing

The Washington Street Boat Landing is a small jewel of a structure at the southern end of the waterfront, and the only part of the Pioneer Square Preservation District actually touching the water. The structure, built in 1920 to house the Seattle harbor master, was restored thanks to the philanthropic work of the Committee of 33 in the mid-1970s.

That was almost 30 years ago, and the landing needs another rehabilitation, ideally aided by an adaptive reuse if it is truly going to survive and connect with the rest of the waterfront in a meaningful way. Over the past few years, Pioneer Square neighborhood groups and the city's Parks and Recreation Department have tried to come up with viable solutions for the fragile boat landing.

One of the most recent plans for its rehabilitation involves another significant piece of Seattle history.

The Kalakala

Though not yet part of the downtown waterfront, plans are in the works for a permanent home for the Kalakala, a 1930s streamlined ferry now in search of rehabilitation funds and a home port. The saga of the Kalakala's recent history, including Peter Bevis's rescue of the boat and organization of the Kalakala Foundation, the boat's temporary moorage on Bell Street and later Lake Union, and several eviction notices have been well documented in the press.

After the City of Seattle rejected the Kalakala Foundation's request for permanent moorage at the Maritime Heritage Center in South Lake Union, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels asked the Parks and Recreation Department to work with the nonprofit to figure out how make the Kalakala fit in with plans for the rehabilitation of the Washington Street Boat Landing.

A permanent home on Seattle's waterfront might be an ideal location for the Kalakala, but funds are still required for its restoration. For more information about the ferry, or if you would like to donate to this worthy cause, visit http://www.kalakala.org.

Pier 59

Pier 59, current home of the Seattle Aquarium, was recently designated a City of Seattle landmark. The designation of the pier was related to plans for the new Seattle Aquarium. Designating the pier means that designs for the new aquarium go through landmarks review as a part of the design review process. Original plans for the new aquarium changed substantially after designation.

Why is this important? The designation helped prevent irrevocable loss of historically significant elements of the pier, the only designated landmark pier structure in a city whose history is bound to the waterfront. The plans for the new aquarium may very well have led to the loss of significant features, whereas the new building integrates the historic structure.

The designation of Pier 59 also has broader implications to preservation of historic resources in this city. The overwhelming majority of designated buildings and structures in the city represent our city's wealthier historic residents, high end architectural styles, or are easy to "read" as historically significant by their prominent siting. Though some City of Seattle landmarks represent our working class roots, these are a relative minority and often have architectural detailing that make them easy to like and respect.

Pier 59, a significant part of our economic and industrial history, has seen a number of changes of the decades related to its continuous use. If it had not changed, it would not still be around. Change, while important to working structures, often disqualifies potential landmarks. Though somewhat altered, the City of Seattle Landmarks Board considered the integrity and significance of the pier to be high enough for protection.

The Seawall

Seattle's seawall, built in phases between 1911-16 and 1932-34, is a stretch of concrete extending from Pier 48 to Myrtle Edwards Park. The seawall helped bring order to a chaos of piers and railroad trestles that characterized Seattle's waterfront in the nineteenth century by regularizing the natural shoreline. It added several blocks of developable land in the process.

Though not especially glamorous, this extremely important, functional structure, is potentially eligible for National Register status thanks to its role in Seattle's history. Architect and preservationist Larry Johnson documented the structure as a part of a comprehensive historic survey of the waterfront conducted last year.

Whether or not the structure is officially recognized for its historic importance, something needs to be done about the tiny crustaceans (called gribbles) that are now eating away at it. Once the damage to the seawall became apparent, thanks to the Nisqually Earthquake (2001), Mayor Greg Nickels called for its replacement which would cost between $750 million to $1.5 billion dollars. The degrading structure supports the fragile viaduct whose fate is also uncertain.

The Viaduct

Some people hate it. Some people love it. There was even talk of nominating it to the National Register. What's to be done with the viaduct, a structure that is old enough to qualify for landmark status, and certainly historically significant for a number of reasons? Most preservationists would rather see the structure go the way of the Kingdome.

The scenarios proposed for the viaduct have focused on budgets or grand design schemes. Regardless of the outcome, the decision to save or demolish the structure will have great impact on the many historic structures and districts around it. Imagine Pioneer Square, and the many historic buildings along Alaskan Way, without it. Facades that originally fronted the historic tracks of Railroad Avenue (later Alaskan) will be much more visible. Removing the viaduct would expose many small historic places that have long been obscured.

Proponents of the "cut and cover" alternative that would remove the viaduct underscore the terrific possibilities afforded by a long swath of space very close to the water. San Francisco's loss of its elevated highway during an earthquake, and the subsequent creation of the Embarcadero provide a compelling example of what might be here in Seattle. Opponents stress practicalities, such as the redirecting of traffic and the budget.

A Waterfront Historic District?

Might there be enough historic buildings and structures along Seattle's waterfront for a historic district? Currently, part of the waterfront between the southern edge of Pier 54 and the northern edge of Pier 59 are subject to Historic Character Review (SMC 23.60.704). This serves as a light version of official district designation, and requires that developers submit plans to the Landmarks Preservation Board and the Department of Neighborhoods for comment prior to receiving a permit.

During his survey of historic waterfront resources, Larry Johnson identified a number of structures potentially eligible for district or National Register status. These, combined with existing landmarks related to waterfront activity, might have enough cohesion to warrant district designation.

Such a designation might potentially fold into other large transportation initiatives, and would help preserve what's left of the Seattle's historic waterfront. Efforts to create additional design review in this corridor would, however, be controversial. In addition, stretches of water-facing highrise developments have already irrevocably altered much of the historic fabric of the expansive area, which might make districting much more difficult.

Regardless of the means by which the remaining pieces of Seattle's waterfront are preserved, the historic relationship between the city and Elliott Bay is critical, and deserves consideration within any future plans.

View last month's Neighborhoods article