The Interbay Opportunity: When We Need Good Urban Planning, We Botch It.

Following the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) on November 1st denying landmark status and assuring demolition of the delightful Art Deco Williams & Company Potato Chip Factory at 1405 Elliott Ave. W. in Interbay, a friend snidely remarked that Seattle always seems to botch its efforts at urban planning.  Agreeing that we’ve got nothing like London Docklands, les Halles in Paris or la Convergence in Lyon, I took exception to my friend’s comment, noting that he couldn’t condemn Seattle planning efforts since the city hadn’t really attempted urban planning since the doomed 1911 Bogue Plan.

The distinctive tower will soon be gone at Williams & Company!

Now, I think I may have that wrong.  Seattle has some good examples of successful urban planning.  Sadly, it all appears to have been done privately.  The cluster of Amazon skyscrapers in the old Denny Regrade/Clise tract with its green globes, Mary’s Place, bevy of lunchtime dining spots, cool Amazon Go! store and super safe protected bike lanes on 7th and 8th is not botched urban planning.  That’s also true for South Lake Union.  Hey, how about those new Google buildings at Mercer and Fairview?

The age of the Williams & Company Factory required getting the LPB’s opinion in anticipation of its demolition.  The factory lies in a largely human-made stretch of land (yup, it’s nearly all fill from Harrison Street north to the Ballard Bridge) that includes at its southern edge Smith Cove’s large piers, fishing and cruise ship activities, and that wobbly bridge connecting Magnolia to the rest of the world.  This tract is undergoing massive development without anyone paying attention.  From what I can see, no one is doing any urban planning there.  Worse yet, the number of government agencies dealing with the zone is not coordinated.  It feels kind of scary.  I call it ‘silo planning.’  The LPB’s participation underscores a lack of planning.  Its decision was made in the absence the factory’s place in the context of the larger neighborhood and its future.

Expedia Explorer at transportation hub

Expedia, for example, is just moving into its massive offices west of the railroad tracks and has taken over the old Blackstock site at Prospect Street for a transportation hub it operates independent of Metro.  Follow the blue Expedia Explorers zipping (ha!) along Mercer to find this intrusion.  Expedia surely had SDOT cooperation in creating this bus turn-around.  My complaint is that this happened in the absence of an urban plan for the corridor.

Dravus and Interbay Apartments

Sound Transit (car tab stories notwithstanding) is studying a light rail route through Interbay.  It may follow the route of Elliott Ave. and Interbay, or it could run along the edge of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railway tracks.  It will build a large station where the tracks meet Dravus.  The route will cross into Ballard on a new bridge across Salmon Bay or an unlikely tunnel.  This planning is also happening absent a plan for the larger neighborhood.

If you need more examples, remember (1) the huge shopping mall where Whole Foods and smaller tenants flank a large parking lot; (2) the quasi suburban big box stores along W. Armory Way; (3) the tract of land along W. Armory Way the Army wants to sell; (4) the large self-storage facility coming to completion on the northern edge of the Magnolia Bridge; (5) the multiple new and cheap apartment houses just added to the spaces where Dravus crosses Interbay and that the Seattle Monorail (remember it?) destined for a train yard; and finally, (6) the rumbles from the Port of Seattle about redeveloping its property upland of Smith Cove.

The Port of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal south of the Ballard Bridge and the BNSF tracks, train yard and shops (the elephant in the room I almost failed to mention) are reminders of this corridor’s industrial past.  Both agencies build and tear down net sheds, piers, gas tanks, locomotive storage sites and much, much more with little public input or apparent city oversight.  Ugly as their various components might be, they could be preserved and cherished in a well-planned redevelopment zone.

The BNSF trainyard, the elephant in the room

With apparently little or no consideration of what else is happening in the zone, SDOT also has another, albeit wonderful, uncoordinated project nearby.  Within the last year or so, city traffic engineers have constructed a protected bike lane along the east edge of Government Way from the heronry at Kiwanis Memorial Preserve Park all the way to the BNSF railyard.  Just where the trail exits the yard and scoots along the edge of Smith Cove Waterway, it hooks up to Expedia’s new bike and pedestrian trails.  Then where the trail turns to the east at the southern end of the waterway, Expedia has built a fantastic amphitheater with glorious views of the city skyline and Mt. Rainier.  The new bike lanes and this clever redesign of the shore are wonderful additions to the city and provide a great place to watch Mt. Rainier at sunrise and sunset (or the implosion of the Kingdome if it were still standing).  My gripe is that much as the new trails prove Seattle has traffic engineers, landscape architects and urban planners capable of fantastic designs, none of the redevelopment happened as part of a marvelous well-coordinated plan.

Imagine if the City had prepared an urban plan as well done as Expedia’s new campus for the entire swath from Harrison Street to the Ballard Bridge.  It would have surely enhanced Martin Selig’s beautiful black boxes and sculpture garden at W. Roy St. west of Mercer Place, and it would have found ways to protect (among several great Art Deco industrial buildings) the Williams & Company Potato Chip Factory, the 1922 Wilson Machine Works (both dating from the early filling of Smith Cove), Champion Party Supply building or the neat drive-through market (now Builder’s Hardware).

This list goes on.  The essential message confirms my friend’s nasty thought that without urban planning and well executed designs, everything is random, everything is poorly planned and executed.  Alas, without even trying, Seattle has botched it in Interbay!