I was out sick a few days last week, and at one point I slept for about 48 hours straight. You wouldn’t think missing two days would be that big of a deal. But when I woke up, Seattle had become Disneyland!
OK, not really. Yet. That’s how it feels, though, from all the proposals to remake our formerly gritty city that were unveiled last week. They include a gondola ride downtown, mist gardens, hot tubs and glass bridges on the waterfront and an expansion of Pike Place Market that, in some of the sketches, looks disturbingly like a suburban shopping mall.
Forget Emerald City. We’re now channeling Pleasantville.
Take the proposed gondola (not that you probably ever would, unless you’re a tourist). It’s slated to run, aerially, from the Convention Center to the waterfront along Union Street. Its backers say it’s needed because there’s a shortage of parking along the water (true), but also because people refuse to make the walk down there on account of the hill being so steep.
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“Gondolas have been recognized throughout history as a way to scale heights,” said one of the developers, from a family that also owns the giant Ferris wheel on the piers.
Except: Isn’t Union Street downtown more or less flat?
Yes, as I found Friday when I walked the gondola route (in 10 minutes and 11 seconds, red lights included, according to my iPhone walking app). It’s an easy stroll, past the Sheraton and Brooks Brothers and on to The Pike Brewing Co. and the Four Seasons — it’s no slouch of a street, as these names suggest. At the end of Union there’s a modest, neglected set of stairs down to the waterfront piers.
Total elevation change of the eight-block route: 130 feet.
Seriously, Seattle: We’re building an aerial tram to lift us up 130 feet? Even Portland’s gondola goes up 500 vertical feet, and substitutes for a winding, two-lane road. People will see our flat gondola and say: “You claim to be a world-class city. Yet you built a tram, for this?”
I know, it’s a tourist bauble. Plus developers say they’ll pay for it, which is a relief (Portland’s tram ballooned 280 percent over budget).
But there’s something symbolically pitiful about it anyway. All these years of struggle to rid the waterfront of its noisy double-decker blight, and when it’s finally about to come down we realize people are so unmotivated they won’t go down there unless we haul them, as if it’s an amusement park.
The other plans released were far less Disney, but still seemed to airbrush that Seattle remains a city. Not a theme park.
Parts of the plan for the waterfront are great, such as the walkways up into the city and the meandering walk bridge from the water up to Pike Place Market (in which you are asked to gain about 100 feet in elevation, amazingly all on foot!) But the whole of it is so precious you’d never know Seattle still is a place that unloads stuff from ships and hauls it around in big trucks.
Due north and south are working waterfronts, and hopefully they will remain so. Some of the back and forth won’t use the tunnel — they’ll continue to go right through the heart of this imagined playground zone.
As for Pike Place Market’s $65 million expansion toward Elliott Bay, it’s a huge opportunity. The people running the Market say all the right things about “preserving the authenticity” of what they correctly call the “soul of the city.” But then there are these drawings of glass-fronted atriums that have the feel of … Bellevue Square.
Can a part of the city be remade — be made new, really — without ruining it? Stay tuned.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org