Downtown Harbor
11:08 am
Thu March 6, 2014

To Reshape Seattle's Waterfront, Planners Look To Past

By the end of the 1920s, Seattle's waterfront was crowded with docks and its skyline was getting taller. This photo, taken from Colman Dock around 1931, is part of a panorama view of the city. The tallest landmarks are the Exchange Building (left) and Smith Tower (right).
Credit Courtesy of Museum of History & Industry

Historians point to the early months of 1852 as the time that downtown Seattle was founded. One Sunday in late winter of that year, members of the Denny Party, a group of settlers from Illinois who’d arrived at Alki a few months earlier, paddled across Elliott Bay.

They climbed from their boats onto the rocky beach and staked their claims along a native shoreline that had changed little over thousands of years. Then, they set about building a city.

'We Needed The Railroads, We Needed The Harbor'

Fast forward to the time the Alaskan Way Viaduct was built in the 1950s, and the waterfront had changed a lot. But it was back in the 1850s when the area first began to morph at the hands of the Dennys and other settlers. First came piers and wharves for freighters and passenger ships, then Henry Yesler’s sawmill and, eventually, shipyards and a maze of railroad tracks.

One man who understands the history of the waterfront is Charles Royer. He was the mayor of Seattle from 1978 to 1989 and is now co-chairing the Central Waterfront Committee, a civic group planning for the post-viaduct future of downtown Seattle.

Royer says that Chief Seattle had his village on the waterfront, and that there is much history along the shores of Elliott Bay that his group has taken into account. “In the early part of Seattle's history we needed the railroads, we needed the harbor. The water came all the way up to Second Avenue in the old days and then it was filled up, to accommodate commerce, create a working harbor, and, soon, to establish Seattle as a major port,” Royer says.

And while the land of that “major port” had been filled and altered and re-shaped to create an industrial area, the most dramatic change to the waterfront — and to downtown — didn’t come until after World War II.

Seattle Had Already Lost Much Of Its Unique Character And Charm

In the 1930s and 1940s, Highway 99 was the main west coast roadway from Mexico to Canada. In Seattle back then, Highway 99 traffic moved through downtown on regular streets. The viaduct was designed in the late 1940s to bypass the crowded streets and turn Highway 99 into a real expressway through the city. Putting the elevated highway across the street from the waterfront — which back then was mostly a gritty industrial place — seemed like the perfect location.

Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct carries traffic over the waterfront area, linking the northern part of the city to the industrial area south of the central business district. The first unit of the elevated roadway, from Battery Street to Dearborn Street, was completed in 1953 and a southern extension in 1959.
Credit Courtesy of Museum of History & Industry

But as it turned out, the viaduct did more than just turn Highway 99 into an expressway. It also radically changed the look and feel of the city. And not all of the change was good. Author John Steinbeck visited Seattle in 1960, and he felt that Seattle had already lost much of its unique character and charm.

Steinbeck had been here in the 1940s, and he remembered a pre-war Seattle as a harbor city with trees, gardens and houses. Describing Seattle in his 1962 book “Travels With Charley,” Steinbeck wrote, “This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered.”

The Shift

Charles Royer says that people wanted to get rid of the viaduct as early as the 1970s. Seattle’s waterfront, even with the viaduct right there, had somehow managed to become a tourist destination. Industry was moving elsewhere, and more restaurants and attractions were joining Ivar on the old piers and in the old warehouses. But with daily traffic of more than 100,000 cars, the viaduct was here to stay — until one morning in February 2001 when the Nisqually earthquake struck.

Charles Royer says that damage to the viaduct from the quake gave the city a priceless opportunity: a chance to reconnect with its unique history and to support the waterfront’s shift from 19th century loading dock to 21st century front porch.   

“We're just trying to strike a balance on how to use our natural resources, which are pretty extraordinary,” Royer says. “The view of the mountains, the water, the topography, our city, the attractiveness of our city to the new economy. How do we balance all that? That’s the challenge, and that’s the opportunity.”

Royer’s committee has released detailed plans for how the post-viaduct waterfront will be transformed. He says that the research his group has done shows that people simply want to get closer to the water than they can now. They want to see it up close and touch it, and maybe feel the rocky beach beneath their feet.  

And that’s something that even the members of the Denny Party might understand.