'Keep Clam' And Build Seattle's Seawall Already

Aug 27, 2014

In several weeks, there will be no more Elliott’s Oysters for us. And it will be hard to “keep clam” on Seattle’s waterfront.

That’s because, after years of planning, the Alaskan Way seawall is finally about to be rebuilt.

The seawall presents a vertical face to the water’s edge, but its influence extends for blocks inland. Between the wall face and solid ground on Western Avenue, rotting timbers sit in loose fill.

The goal of the seawall project is to replace it and go one better. It is part of a $1 billion plan to stabilize and beautify the waterfront. Walking trails will cantilever off the new seawall and stretch over the water.

Jessica Murphy, the project’s manager, says the wall has been designed so that fish may swim where we can see them.

“It’s never really been done before,” she said. “We’re on the cutting edge of science.”

Work on the seawall has already started. Crews are at work under the piers establishing temporary utilities for the businesses along the pier. In October, crews will take the seawall apart by section and rebuild.

The businesses on the piers will be in the thick of it. Some, like Argosy Cruises, will stay open, but about 15 businesses will close. Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s restaurants, says he will lay off 200 people for nine months.

“The piers would vibrate one and a half inches per second,” Donegan said. “There would be background noise of up to 108 decibels. So we went to the city and said, ‘Why don’t you close us down?’”

The city agreed and is paying $15 million to compensate the businesses for their losses.

Businesses expect to lose twice that, but Donegan says the businesses are looking forward to the new opportunities a rebuilt seawall. 

“This is going to be magical down here,” he said.

If he sounds cheery, it’s because of the potential. Under the plans, the Pike Place Market will connect to the waterfront on a walkable trail.

Donegan says just doing that could double visits to the waterfront. But there is caution in the air – not about the seawall, but about whether we will get the whole waterfront right.

"The success of these spaces is how they operate for real people," said Jack McCullough, the former chairman of the Downtown Seattle Association, and a supporter of the waterfront renewal.

McCullough says the waterfront needs to fit into the larger center city, and be so inviting that people will use it often – making it safer and better-feeling.

“And it’s not a case of build it and they will come and feel safe, right?” he said. “We have to do things differently than how we’ve done them before. Because you can’t look back at our track record and say with confidence that it will be a great space.”

McCullough says the downtown already has public spaces where people don't feel comfortable. Weyerhaeuser's recently-announced move to Pioneer Square will inject about 900 people into an area that has not been a safe place to relax and enjoy the city. But there are other troubled spots throughout the downtown.

Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place is sometimes made uncomfortable by groups who use it heavily. Outbreaks of crime in pockets of the downtown have been destabilizing. 

The waterfront, McCullough said, has to break with this history. With work on the seawall beginning in earnest this October and years to go until the waterfront project takes hold, he said, now is the time to figure out how it will all be different this time.