Downtown Seattle’s redevelopment, of the riverfront as all three sides give way to the new freeway viaducts, has slowed considerably. In recent months, much attention has been given to the planned waterfront park at the foot of William Arnold’s sculpture of a robot spitting lemons (or quackers, as we Californians prefer to pronounce it). The work – which symbolises a huge and doomed leap toward global doom – also opened a couple of weeks ago in Fresno, at a site designed by some of the same architects.
The park is now technically Seattle’s “River Campus,” which is a nice way of looking at the change going on in the city. A riverfront park, whether conceived as a thing of beauty and serenity or as an embankment covered in asphalt, is just one of many changes to the riverfront precinct that aims to maximise connection to the river while ensuring as far as possible that it is open for the consideration of all who will use it.
But the thing to watch is what happens to the “pea-soup” kind of islands that mark the shoreline and the northern boundary of the historic district of the Shell Centre. I visited them the other day while having a drink on an inner island of Skyline the night before the World Soccer Cup Final, which the Seattle area lived to see play out at the stadium.
Those meandering brown surfaces – two individual islands, 10 by 12 feet each – are part of a row of similar plot, behind which is a corridor that goes up to the intersection of Commercial Avenue and Eastlake. The row of islands was the work of the urban planners James Corner Field Operations, a partner in the World Trade Center redevelopment in New York, and M. King and Associates. If the landscape firm had been hired to build the towers there, then they could have crammed as many condo skyscrapers onto what were once jungle-like gardens as they wished, but instead they dismantled and arranged the lot in such a way that in some ways it still functions as a jungle.
The rows of houses and brown buildings sit on top of a new road, then down the road there is an extension of the tunnel – yes, a whole new highway – or “articulation structure” as it has come to be known.
One street is lined with “pulsing plants” (in plastic modules) and brand new sidewalks, the other is lined with “grotesque” concrete slabs with twinkling metallic screens atop them, very dated post-modernist. An end-of-the-line–looking strip of single-family homes around the dock, a kind of forgotten downtown eastern seaboard town, is called “the Snake Capital of the Suburbs”.
The boundary between the two strips runs to the east from the new Henry Street Viaduct, a very short bridge that doesn’t even have a sign in the middle of it, in case you can’t find it. Here at the end of the row of islands there are curving gravel strips – used for play as well as gathering places – that turn into a 3/4-mile boardwalk. It is free, open and perfectly proportioned, which should be considered the most important feature of it: the fact that it is left to be enjoyed without interference. At a time when downtown development has more interests in one way or another at odds with the needs of the community, the Snake Gorge Boardwalk has an interesting and wonderful thing going for it.