A LONG walk down hill from 4th and Market in this muscular city takes you to the clock tower of the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero. This may be a...
SAN FRANCISCO — A LONG walk down hill from 4th and Market in this muscular city takes you to the clock tower of the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero. This may be a unique place in the history of American cities, for it was here, at ground zero, that geology got the best of engineering and an elevated freeway in place since 1957 went down.
Today, the Embarcadero is a wide expanse of entries to maritime warehouses, restaurants, urban parks with enough sidewalk to accommodate skaters, bikers, walkers and joggers. It seamlessly joins into the traveler’s nook of Fisherman’s Wharf and the T-shirt shops that coagulate in the bloodstream of tourist commerce.
On a Thursday, the Wharf is much the way it used to be, with the disappointing holiday closure of the Buena Vista Cafe across from the cable car turnaround. But other things emerge, touching on Seattle and its similar postulations about what to do with a waterfront.
The Embarcadero is a success, with some caveats, in a city similar to Seattle and, in some ways, the predecessor of what Seattle may become. For example, I would not want to walk the Embarcadero at night under the streetlights, and the expanse of cement has the feeling of a very large launchpad to nowhere. Yet by day, it is startling and welcoming in the winter light off the Bay.
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In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake did for the elevated roadway above the Embarcadero what generations of politicians could not do. The historic Ferry building, with its clock, was refurbished in 2003 after four years and $100 million — what would now be considered a down-payment on any public project.
The resulting food court and anchor of the Embarcadero, with its graceful stem, is the postcard of urban America. The freeway is gone, the sidewalks belong to the skateboarders and cyclists. (San Francisco has no user-fees on bicycling, in case you were wondering.) The Embarcadero is a success, as long as success is tattooed with some failures — the long wharves are not always inviting and the scenery is sometimes false, cement-greenery.
A duplication of this in Seattle would be a great success. It’s not easy to get across the Embarcadero boulevard, from city to waterfront, but the central trolly-car line helps San Francisco retain its identity and the walk — from the Ferry Building to the Wharf — is often splendid, if sometimes vapid. Much of Seattle would like this to be their home: condos everywhere and wide esplanades for the boulevardiers.
Such are the dreams of the deep tunnelers, to submarine traffic beneath the urban landscape. The surprising decision on the part of Gov. Christine Gregoire to delay a decision on Alaskan Way’s future speaks to both the disjointed efforts at regional management and the power of an idea — forget some old plan, think of something new.
Mayor Greg Nickels’ original cut-and-cover tunnel was rejected and fear of monumental gridlock along a seaside boulevard has made a pause possible. In effect, the region is back to square one, with reams of research to back up a delay. Government, facing a much stronger, unified downtown business consortium, seemed lock-jawed. As decisions come near, so does the appetite to put them off.
The idea that the viaduct puzzle now will go to Olympia and face the challenges of waterboarding every idea to near submergence is not a pleasant thought. But it has come to this: We need a decision that is right for the city, the region and the postcards in our dreams.
Correction: In a previous column, I misidentified an important participant in civic affairs. Its correct name is the North Seattle Industrial Associations. Apologies.
James F. Vesely’s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: email@example.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at www.seattletimes.com/edcetera