Seattle’s love-hate relationship with its downtown waterfront

Downtown Seattle waterfront (via City of Seattle)

Over the year since becoming New To Seattle, I have been conducting an experiment. At random, I asked people whom I encounter in Seattle neighborhoods to tell me when they last visited the downtown waterfront.

Almost always, the answer was to the effect of either not in the last year or “I can’t remember the last time.”

One woman told me she stopped visiting the Seattle Aquarium, which sits on a pier jutting out into Elliott Bay, because it cost too much to park ($12 for three hours at the top-listed garage on the Aquarium’s website). Another said there were just-as-nice places around Seattle a lot easier to get to. One person expressed fear about street crime, particularly at the northern end in Belltown.

So much for local perceptions of Seattle’s spiritual core, its raison d’être, the original economic engine.

Sure, on any given day there are lots of locals on the waterfront. Many of them arrive on the ferries in the morning to good jobs in the downtown district and go right back home at night. But how many of them are on the waterfront because they simply want to be there, as opposed to pursuing some personal economic imperative simply so they can eke out a living?

While there is an appreciation of scenic beauty, I do not sense in Seattle an overall, widespread enthusiasm for the downtown waterfront that I have seen in other populated areas where I have lived. These include New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

A century ago, The Seattle Times actually ran a daily full page of news entitled “Along The Water Front.” Every single day. It was pretty lively, too. The page from exactly 100 years ago today, retrievable online from the Seattle Public Library with a borrower’s card, listed fish hauls coming into port and prominent persons boarding ships to Alaska (including, for example, politicians and the owners of the Salt Lake Tribune). The page even gave prices for goods on sale at the nearby Sanitary Public Market, now part of the Pike Place Market  25 cents for a two-pound steak and 20 cents for a can of asparagus. (In case you were wondering, in the old days “sanitary” meant the horses had to stay outside.)

Alas, that page is long gone.

To me, except for Seattleites who live very close to it, the Seattle waterfront is almost being taken for granted, like a not-particularly-beloved elderly relative. I mean, what other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that municipal leaders appear willing to put the citizenry on the hook for a new indoor sports arena without a public vote but won’t rebuild without a referendum the aging seawall holding back the water? Talk about strange priorities.

The stated justification for the current $3.2 billion project to remove the 59-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct, which runs along the waterfront, in favor of a tunnel is possible collapse in the event of an earthquake. But my perception is that the project is more driven by owners of nearby real estate hoping to cash in on additional drop-dead water views than it is any sensibility about shoreline maintenance.

In the wake of a 175-foot-high Ferris wheel that opened earlier this month, Seattle planners just unveiled what The Times calls their latest proposal to re-do the waterfront: a $420 million plan that would include a grand 2 1/2-mile promenade, a heated swimming pool and even hot tubs. Again, it’s not clear to me how much appeal this has to locals who don’t live within easy walking distance.

Tourists, on the other hand, flock to the Seattle waterfront, not because they have to but because they want to. They are thoroughly enchanted by the sights and sounds. I have had house guests from the East Coast spend all three of their tourist days in Seattle hoofing along the waterfront from the Olympic Sculpture Park to Pioneer Square, going nowhere else in town.

I wonder how many Seattleites have done that.

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Seattle’s love-hate relationship with its downtown waterfront — 3 Comments

  1. It is true that I haven’t been to the downtown waterfront in awhile, but I don’t feel a great need because I can get to the water so many other places. Yesterday I walked on the beach at Richmond Beach Waterfront Park for instance. I don’t miss the crowds of people and parking problems that I would have in downtown. If/when I go it is never in summer. I leave that time for the tourists.

  2. So true! We have been in Seattle 3 and a half years now and love going down to the waterfront, walking around, and eating at Elliott Oyster House. BUT we have a new policy of going only on Sundays, when the parking is free. Now that the city extended its meter hours to 8:00 p.m., when you add feeding one of the horrible, confusing meters to the hassle of just finding parking to begin with, it’s not worth it. The city has tipped the scales against after-work restaurant patrons and shoppers. Congratulations, Seattle–smart move!

    On the other hand, they did put in that ferris wheel, which looks yummy. Some Sunday we’ll definitely go check it out, and I’ve talked to many other locals who plan to give it a try too.

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