ON A CHILLY, bright February day in 1996, then-Port Commissioner Paul Schell stepped up to a podium on the Seattle waterfront. It was the ground-breaking for the new 235-unit Waterfront Landing condos, a Port-promoted private development with units costing up to $500,000.
A bundled-up Schell motioned toward a pier across the street, home of the last unimpeded view of Elliott Bay on the central waterfront. From there, the busy harbor widens into Puget Sound, curls around low, forested islands, and flows off toward vanilla-coned mountains.
"The waterfront, the Pike Place Market," Schell told the small crowd gathered under a party tent, were among the condos' selling points—along with, of course, "the unobstructed views." All in all a good investment, he added. Applause followed.
That was then. Today, Paul Schell has a new message: Forget the view. As mayor, he's now promoting construction of a massive, panorama-busting 200,000-square-foot city aquarium across the street.
At three stories above the waterline, the new aquarium will step into that last good view—available from the waterfront to Victor Steinbrueck Park at the Market up the hill. The mere threat of a new hotel rooftop jutting into this picture kicked off a protest last year. Though the proposed waterfront Marriott would be a minor intrusion into one side of the postcard view, it was enough to rile challengers and bring the project to a temporary halt.
If scenery preservationists didn't like the Marriott, they're going to hate the new Seattle aquarium. The $200 million state-of-the-art "world-class" facility will spread across public Pier 62/63, rising in two sections to at least 45 feet. It will be triple the space of the current aquarium.
A design concept is due in April, but opponent Pat Stambor has already dubbed it "A whale of a public view-blocker, launched in near secrecy." The project is being managed for the city and the Seattle Aquarium Society by the Seneca Real Estate Group, which has played major roles in numerous civic projects including Benaroya Hall, Mariners Stadium, and the controversial lease/sale of PacMed hospital. Seneca executive Robert Wicklein says they're "very cognizant of the aquarium's view issue, and we're looking at a number of things to minimize that."
Still, the structure will be at least equal in height to some of the 3- to 5-story port-promoted condos across the street—where commissioner-turned-mayor Schell also now happens to live, in a rented unit ("As the mayor pays market value for his apartment, he sees no conflict of interest in his rental arrangement," a mayoral aide notes).
The mayor has expressed some reservations about the aquarium location, but has given full support. Obviously, that's not earning him applause from condo owners today.
"Most of the people we speak with have a very simple reaction to all of this: 'They're going to do WHAT?'" says condo resident Jim McClurg, who learned of the project only after he signed a condo agreement in 1997. "The Marriott Hotel debacle may pale in comparison to this project and its threatened impact on public views." It's not a NIMBY issue, stresses McClurg, also a member of an aquarium opposition group, Seattle Open Spaces (SOS). "It's a civic issue. The view is something we all share, and we all will lose." Says another condo resident, when asked about the mayor's role: "As a renter he can move, while our property values go in the toilet."
The aquarium dispute has already attracted the Marriott's opponents. "We will lose something important in the free-form spaces at Pier 62/63," says Irene Wall, the activist who spearheaded the hotel protest. "The [pier's views] are the waterfront equivalent of an open meadow, unfettered space which provides a great over-the-water feeling." A May 8 trial is set to decide the Marriott land-use/view dispute, which Wall thinks could impact the aquarium's size as well.
If she had her druthers, the Marriott project would be scrapped and a new aquarium built on its site, just up the block from the existing facility. But that could squelch three potential city plans: hotel, aquarium, and possible use of the old aquarium site by the United Indians of All Tribes. Neither side will confirm whether the aquarium or other waterfront sites have been offered to the United Indians to settle a lawsuit against the city after it halted planned construction of a People's Lodge at Discovery Park. But the mayor's office has discussed the trade-off, and court files reveal a tentative agreement for an "alternative location" has been reached.
Meanwhile, new aquarium design concepts have been commissioned by the Seattle Aquarium Society, the nonprofit corporation that hopes to take control of the aquarium from the city. It has hired respected London architect Terry Farrell & Partners, whose works-in-progress include the British National Aquarium and another aquarium styled like an ice glacier, dubbed the Deep.
"The real story of the old aquarium is that the place is falling apart," says project manager Wicklein. "My feeling is it reflects poorly on our marine environment. Our exhibit designers tell us that if any city should have a great aquarium, Seattle should."
AS A NEW PLACE with a new name—the Pacific Northwest Aquarium—the project is to include two new exhibit pavilions on Pier 62/63 that could double—to 1.1 million—the current annual attendance (70 percent from outside King County). A second phase is a planned exhibit hall at the existing Pier 60 site. A third phase calls for revamping the Pier 59 aquarium building and expanding the adjacent waterfront park. Work is set to begin in 2001.
The Aquarium Society promises to raise $150 million of the construction cost (most through sale of private bonds), with governments chipping in the rest. It's an iffy deal. The city is to hand over as much as $24 million. Another $36 million is to come partly from the state and county—questionable in the midst of Initiative 695 belt-tightening. Hopes to create a self-sustaining tax district for city parks, zoo, and the aquarium recently failed in Olympia (though another bill is in the works and Schell is talking of a parks bond or levy this fall).
If the board of the 45,000 member Aquarium Society gains private control of the aquarium, removing it from city parks supervision, fundraising would be easier and operations streamlined, say proponents.
Bonnie Heaven, a parks activist, refers to this as "the shadow government provision," which will make the aquarium less accountable to the public. SOS member Pat Stambor says many of the public-private costs are hidden: "The public's commitment includes a $100 million piece of waterfront property that can't be used for anything else." Neighborhood activist Jorgen Bader worries that it's a step toward turning over all city parks to private companies (Starbucks Viewpoint, Boeing Beach, Microsoft Antitrust Playground?).
Everything is still up for debate, however, starting with a memorandum of understanding the city is set to sign with the Aquarium Society. City Council President Margaret Pageler has tried to quietly railroad the initial agreement on to the fast track, while council member Nick Licata has held back the charge. He worries about lost open space and calls the memorandum "a 'political contract' that commits the city to funding a new aquarium." He questions the need for a new structure to replace the one built in 1977 that, he notes, was also state-of-the-art.
Proponents say the existing aquarium is cramped and antiquated, unable to compete with top aquariums such as Monterey's (which blocks views at one end of Cannery Row). Says one aquarium hand, "We love this place. But it's nowhere near representative of Northwest marine life."
Well, "How did it become outdated so quickly?" asks Licata, who has now arranged for a public hearing on the initial agreement at 5:30pm March 30 in council chambers. "Are we looking at another Kingdome phenomena, where we are tearing down major public buildings within a generation of their erection?"
For squealing kids and charmed adults alike, a glittering new aquarium is an emotional issue. But then, so is the view. "Were it not for the fact that we are talking about kids and fish instead of a big, bad, out-of-town hotel," says condo resident McClurg, "this project would have been dead on arrival."
Responds Seneca's Bob Wicklein: "We're proposing maybe a three-story building and this is going to be worse than the Marriott? I'm having trouble with the math."
Clearly, though, the building will consume the last downtown waterfront open space and wipe out the planked pier that is home to a popular summer concert series. McClurg sees this as a symptom of a city in which good views are regularly trumped by developers seeking better vistas. On his group's Web site, seattleopenspaces.org, a virtual downtown walk shows what McClurg calls "a steady erosion of views." Must citizens "take detours, climb to often-inaccessible view decks, or worse yet pay an admission fee to experience this natural grandeur?" he asks.
Seneca's Wicklein is not persuaded. "We have a great baseball stadium, a great concert hall," he says. "Hopefully, we'll have a great aquarium, too."