From the waterfront to the WAC

Walking to Seattle’s shoreline gets even easier with upcoming renovations.

By Darrick Meneken.

With downtown Seattle preparing to engage its shoreline like never before, WAC members will soon have prime access to one of the most spectacular reinvented urban waterfronts in America. What better time than summer to catch up with the waterfront renewal project and celebrate our big blue backyard! Get ready to hear the sea and see the sound like never before.

As a WAC member you probably hold a special place in your heart for Puget Sound. The inland sea stretching its fingers from Deception Pass to Olympia anchors our region’s natural beauty and economy. It’s safe to say that without the Sound there is no Seattle.

It’s surprising, then, that the seven blocks from the WAC Clubhouse to the shore of Puget Sound can at times seem an eternity. In truth, the journey requires just about a thousand steps. It’s so short you can walk there, grab a bite, enjoy the view, and get back in less than an hour.

If you take a straight shot down Union Street, you’ll pass some of the city’s most popular tourist and cultural attractions along the way, including The 5th Avenue Theatre, Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Art Museum, and Post Alley. But the best sight is Puget Sound itself, a blanket of blue dotted by boats and backed by the Olympic Mountains.

“We’re right next to one of the best bodies of water in the world,” WAC President & CEO Chuck Nelson says. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t stunned the first time they look across Puget Sound on a clear day.”

But for all that natural beauty, few of us actually walk from the WAC to the water. “There’s a huge mental divide there for a lot of people,” Chuck admits.

That’s about to change!

Starting in 2019—and possibly even late this year—the remaining sections of the Alaskan Way Viaduct will be demolished. The southernmost sections came down in 2011. When the final pillar of roadway falls, Seattle’s 65-year history of having the din of a double-decker elevated highway along its waterfront will end.

What you hear instead might just resemble the sea.

Few people are as excited about the change as Seattle Aquarium CEO and WAC member Bob Davidson. Bob recently met up outside the aquarium, located atop Pier 59, with some fellow WAC members who serve on the organization’s board.

“It’s going to be a whole new peaceful experience when that comes down,” he says, referring to the viaduct.

When the roadway opened, the WAC was just 23 years old. That was 1953, and the upraised highway provided quick access through the city along state Route 99. It was a critical, if not beautiful, traffic solution at the time and grew to carry more than 100,000 cars daily. The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake damaged the structure and made removal a priority for safety, not just aesthetics.

“We’ve had an occasional glimpse of what’s to come when the viaduct has been closed,” Bob says. “Without the noise there’s a real sense of reconnection to the water.”

Safer connections

Reuniting downtown and Puget Sound is integral to the city’s Waterfront Seattle Program, which involves more than a dozen projects spread across two miles from CenturyLink Field to Bell Street Park. The list includes a new landscaped promenade running from Pioneer Square to Pine Street, a redesigned Waterfront Park centered at the western terminus of Union Street with expansive views across Puget Sound, and mobility improvements that will ease the connection between upper Union Street and the water. The Union Street link will provide a pedestrian bridge to a new staircase and elevator to the waterfront. The project is scheduled to begin in 2021, according to Waterfront Seattle Director Marshall Foster.

Other projects include the recently rebuilt Elliott Bay Seawall and a major expansion of the Seattle Aquarium connecting to Pike Place Market. 

“Reconnecting the waterfront and downtown will benefit everyone that lives, works and plays down here,” Chuck says. “All of these projects together are going to deliver a waterfront that showcases our city and the Sound.”

They’re also going to create safer connections for WAC members who enjoy taking their fitness outside and others who use the waterfront as part of their commute. “I’m a big fan of more park spaces, particularly downtown, where it’s getting more intensely urban all the time,” says member Bob Wallace, who sits on the Club’s board of governors and lives on Vashon Island. When taking the Vashon foot ferry into downtown, 

Bob ducks under the viaduct on his way to the WAC. “Opening up the waterfront should be a major plus,” he says.

As a Vashon resident since 1999 and WAC member since 2000, Bob visits the Club five times a week. He is highly active in the Seattle Symphony—he also sits on that board—and often has multiple commitments in the city. “The WAC makes it possible,” he says.

Tunnel vision

In saying goodbye to the viaduct, we should remember one thing: Many of us will miss the views it allowed from our cars as we skirted downtown on a sunny day. In place of those vistas, a two-mile tunnel will run from the stadium district to Seattle Center. Although no date had been set as of press time, the tunnel could open by the end of this year, according to the state Department of Transportation. Viaduct demolition will begin shortly afterward.

“When the viaduct comes down, that will unleash a whole new round of excitement and possibility on the water,” Seattle Aquarium’s Bob Davidson says.

WAC member Hal Griffith, owner of Pier 57 and the Seattle Great Wheel, hopes one such project will be a proposed gondola down Union Street from the Washington State Convention Center to the waterfront.

“That would help us bridge the gap of parking and help supply access to the waterfront,” Hal says. “And it would tie the convention center to the waterfront and Pike Place Market.”

Near the aquarium, Bob Davidson smiles as he looks toward the future Seattle, a place where downtown spills to the water with key connection points that unite neighborhoods and bring people together.

“This is a historic opportunity for the city as well as for the aquarium,” Bob says. “The reconnection of downtown to the waterfront is among the most important developments for the city in a generation.”

—Darrick Meneken is managing editor of WAC Magazine. Reach him at dmeneken@wac.net.

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