With the viaduct scheduled for demolition in 2016, and the massive sea wall needing replacement, city leaders say Seattle has an unprecedented opportunity to transform its waterfront and create a public space as inspiring as the setting.

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Just try to reach the water, or even see it.

Along most of Seattle’s central waterfront, the hulking viaduct, high sea wall, piers, shipping terminals and commercial kitsch conspire to obscure the world-class view.

With the viaduct scheduled for demolition in 2016, and the massive sea wall needing replacement, city leaders say Seattle has an unprecedented opportunity to transform its waterfront and create a public space as inspiring as the setting.

Using the blank canvas of 26 blocks along Alaskan Way from Qwest Field to the Olympic Sculpture Park, the city plans to create a ribbon of parks and pathways for people, bikes, art, nature and the shoreline itself.

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“Whatever you want to say — once in a lifetime, once in a hundred years — this is meant to be very bold, very exciting, something that everyone can be proud of,” said Ken Johnsen, project manager for the design and engineering team.

More than 700 people are expected to gather Thursday night at the Seattle Aquarium for a kickoff party sponsored by 20 organizations involved in the redevelopment plan. The event is billed as the public’s best chance yet to offer ideas about what they think makes a great waterfront.

The evening also is an opportunity to hear the project’s lead designer, James Corner, present an overview of the possibilities for reconnecting the city to Elliott Bay.

Corner, who designed the acclaimed High Line project in Manhattan, won a $6 million, two-year contract from the city in September to design the post-viaduct waterfront with a group of local firms. At the time, he observed, “You don’t feel that close to the waterfront. You feel distant and the piers sort of frame it, and reduce the space.”

This week, after several trips to Seattle that included walking tours along Alaskan Way and around downtown, Corner said the redesign could open all those east-west streets that stop at dead ends on First Avenue and reconnect entire neighborhoods to the bay.

Restored shoreline

City officials also say the planned reconstruction of the sea wall could allow the restoration of stretches of shoreline to create small beaches, salmon habitat and places to launch kayaks and canoes.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to touch the water and create some wide open views,” said Steve Pearce, central-waterfront project manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation.

The detailed design for the waterfront park would be completed by the end of 2015, when the proposed Highway 99 tunnel is scheduled to open. The 1953-double-decker viaduct would be torn down and the new waterfront parkway built over the next three years.

The state is committed to pay for demolition of the viaduct, construction of the tunnel and a new surface street where the viaduct now stands.

To help pay for the new parkway, the city is considering a local improvement district that would tax property owners who stand to see substantial increases in value once the viaduct comes down. The city estimates this could raise $225 million.

To replace the sea wall, which was built with untreated lumber between 1917 and 1934 and is being devoured by bore worms, the City Council is considering a $241 million property-tax ballot measure proposed by Mayor Mike McGinn.

No Disneyland

Architects involved in the early planning say they have a good idea of what they and Corner don’t want — an anesthetized, Disney version of a waterfront.

“We’ve got cranes, a port, historic old buildings. We want to make sure we don’t wipe that clean. The waterfront should be a destination, and not just for tourists,” said Patrick Gordon, an architect who chairs the design-oversight committee of the Central Waterfront Committee, which has overseen the project the past two years.

And while the mood among planners now is enthusiastic, many note that political dissension could jeopardize the whole project.

McGinn opposes the deep-bore tunnel planned to replace the viaduct and he’s accused the state of dishonesty about who would be responsible for any cost overruns.

Also, two initiative campaigns seek to keep the city from cooperating with the state to build the tunnel.

Political will

Whether the City Council can sustain the political will to build the tunnel, fund the parkway and coordinate all the related waterfront projects over the next seven years is a big question.

“We haven’t heard the last of confrontational politics with the state or the effort to get something on the ballot in a hurry,” said former Mayor Charles Royer, who presided over the controversial and disruptive construction of the Third Avenue bus tunnel in the 1980s.

Royer said he initially opposed that tunnel, but came around when he was persuaded of its value for a future light-rail system.

Royer, co-chairman of the Central Waterfront Committee, said the City Council should “take the leadership necessary to ensure the whole project happens.”

And if there are questions about what an improved waterfront might look like, Royer and others point to the Olympic Sculpture Park where a former industrial site traversed by train tracks and a busy arterial was redesigned into an artful overlook on the bay.

The project, led by the Seattle Art Museum, also featured a strong design team, a vision for reconnecting the city and the waterfront and the restoration of shoreline habitat.

“We thought it would take five years. It took 10,” said Mimi Gardner Gates, director emeritus of the museum. “There were a lot of obstacles, including the site, but we persevered. We shared a vision of a green space in the heart of the city, and we had the will to make it happen.”

Craig Curtis, who chairs the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ public-policy board and who has been involved in the group’s waterfront planning for several years, runs along Alaskan Way several times a week.

In summer, he says, there are a lot of tourists, but in winter, “it’s desolate.”

The small piece of waterfront restored by the Olympic Sculpture Park gives him hope the entire length of Elliott Bay could be similarly transformed.

“Carving out a beach, the chance to actually put your feet in water — magic,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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