How Seattle’s new waterfront could boost a worn out downtown and affect tech companies

You might say that Seattle’s waterfront project has faced some setbacks.

There was a battle that lasted several years over how to solve the problem of the collapsed Alaska Road Bridge. Round discussions about tunnels versus shallow streets versus elevated highways. There was a time when the Tunneling Machine “Bertha” gave up its ghost and sat silently under the city for two years. and the time Pier 58 fell in Puget Sound.

Then there’s the latest (though smaller) setback: a concrete labor strike put some parts of the $756 million project on hold for months.

But despite it all, changes are happening along the shoreline of downtown Seattle. These changes could have a ripple effect – perhaps reinforcing a battered city center and perhaps also affecting how fast-growing tech companies interact with the city.

“This is the work we have to do as a city — investing in spaces, not just jobs,” said venture capitalist Chris Devore, Friends of Waterfront Seattle board member. “Sure, people want a well-paid job, but they also want the rich experience of living in a city and connecting with civic spaces.”

Standing where the city meets the water, it’s hard to remember exactly what the waterfront was like just a few years ago—when the double-decker Alaska Road Bridge was higher in all its concrete glory and the roar of traffic above it drowned out everything else. There’s still no shortage of concrete and cars, and construction rumbles intermittently, but the Pioneer Square buildings seem closer now, as do the Puget Sound waves.

(GeekWire Photos/Kevin Lisota)

To see what the waterfront will be like when work is finished in 2024, it is helpful to have a tour guide.

One cold March morning, Maggie Walker, a Seattle philanthropist and civic leader, stood at the corner of Alaska Road and Marion Street and pointed north at the traffic lanes flanked by construction sites.

“This is really a complete reinvention of this part of town,” Walker said. “If you looked here, everything with cars today would be green.”

For the past decade, Walker has chaired Friends of Waterfront Seattle, a nonprofit that has sponsored the project in tandem by providing fundraising and programming efforts. With the waterfront approaching completion within the next two years, the group will turn its attention to promoting the park and its amenities to local residents.

Many familiar attractions will remain—Ivar’s Fish Bar, Seattle Great Wheel, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop—but the 20-acre park will also include six children’s playgrounds, a two-way bike path, extensive art installations, a garden expanse filled with thousands of plants, and a pedestrian-accessible beach. , event spaces, and an elevated walkway connecting the waterfront to Pike Place Market.

Continuing north along Alaska Road, past where the bench swing would one day hang in a row, Walker said, “This is now the town front porch.”

And that front porch could create valuable appeal when potential newcomers arrive.

Mockup of the new waterfront in Seattle. (Image via James Cornerfield Operations, courtesy of Seattle)

For decades, Seattle built its reputation as a desirable place to work, attracting tech workers with promises of urban amenities combined with the area’s natural beauty. But downtown has struggled lately, especially after the pandemic cleared its streets of office workers. Crime rates have skyrocketed in the past few years, and some companies — including Amazon — are moving away from reopening downtown offices.

Concerns abound about remote work interrupting Seattle’s standing as a major tech star, and neighboring Bellevue faltering offices that may have set up shop in Seattle.

However, Seattle still has a certain type of magnetism. A recent study from Axios found Seattle to be the most desirable location for college students due to its “distinguished position as a technology hub, cool climate, and embrace of green energy, music and art scene.”

And in the end, that’s something the advocates of the new waterfront are trying to capture.

“This whole project to me is an acceleration of the Seattle brand,” said John Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “For you to put a kayak in the water here?”

It’s definitely not something you can do while rolling along the bridge at 50 mph. But some critics of the project say the new waterfront will remain too focused on cars, with several car lanes feeding into the ferry terminal, and buses diverting to downtown neighborhoods.

“It doesn’t take much to beat a two-story highway bridge, but for its hefty budget, we should expect more,” Doug Trume, CEO of The Urbanist, wrote in a recent opinion piece.

“This was a $5 billion mistake that puts cars first, park second, transit and bikes third, and then climate last,” he added.

(Image via James Cornerfield Operations, courtesy of Seattle)

Regardless of the criticisms, the waterfront project helped sway some tech companies towards setting up a store downtown. Real estate tech startup Flyhomes opened offices a block away from Pier 56 when it became clear that the bridge’s demise meant more natural light in offices along Western Avenue, said Ryan Diebel, the company’s chief operating officer. Now, the idea of ​​a waterfront that is not limited to tourists is an attractive one.

“Our primary concern for Waterfront was that the food and beverage options needed to be tailored to Flyhomes and our team, being a professional audience rather than a tourist crowd,” Dibble said. “It’s great to know that there will be more options in the area for the meals our employees look for when they spend time in the office, such as a healthy sandwich or salad.”

“I hate that it’s seen as a park that’s just a playground for Amazon employees.”

Eric Hollenbeck, vice president of software company Highspot, said he’s also looking forward to completing the waterfront — especially as the company brought more employees back into the office this summer. The Highspot offices are located just north of Pike Place Market, which will be connected to the waterfront by an elevated walkway.

“What excites me about the waterfront is that it kind of connects the heart of the city and downtown with the new green spaces,” Hollenbeck said.

One part of the waterfront project is now in operation, despite ongoing construction. Pier 62 offers community events, including exercise classes, walking tours, and music, with a focus on BIPOC artists.

Despite the potential appeal to tech entrants, DeVore said the space was designed with the intention of being inclusive of all Seattle residents, including indigenous tribes. This intention, he said, will be reflected in the inclusion of artistic installations and programming of events, among others.

“I hate that it is seen as a park that is just a playground for Amazon employees,” DeVore said.

Walking back toward the rocky shore just yards from the stones of Pioneer Square, Walker noted that the waterfront is full of history — and much of that history is rooted in inequality.

“There are layers of meaning down here,” Walker said. “And this could be a place that expresses that.”

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