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Bob Donegan: The surprises happening at the Seattle Waterfront

By Bob Donegan

Bob Donegan is the president of Ivar’s, chair of the Seattle Aquarium board of directors, and is part of the design committee for the waterfront park. He wrote a guest column for MyNorthwest.

“Listen to how quiet it is,” a mom from Ballard said yesterday as she and her two kids with Oreo Kidd Valley shakes waited for an Argosy’s trip to Tillicum Village on Blake Island. With the viaduct gone, the 85dB of vehicle noise is gone as well. You can hear the sounds of gulls, seals, sea lions and even the slurping of milk shakes.

If a visitor is from out of town, as more than a million cruise passengers are this summer, they are often surprised and fascinated by “Crunch and Munch” — the names of the big Ferma machines eating the viaduct. Within seconds, they whip out their cell phones and take photos. Then they switch to video and record the machines at work, sometimes dictating over the footage. On average, they spend almost half an hour watching the demolition and cheering when big chunks fall. One vendor at the Pike Place Market is selling jewelry made from debris that has fallen off the viaduct.


Finally, it’s time for demolition.

Seattle council approves controversial tax for waterfront project

The Nisqually Quake happened in February 2001, prompting a closer look at the safety of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Stakeholders selected the Tunnel+ Transit Option in 2008, later funded by the legislature in 2009.  Seattle’s waterfront businesses have endured 10 years of construction that has included delays on the seawall, delays on the tunnel, and now delays on demolition of the viaduct.

Along the central waterfront, demolition was to have been completed between Yesler and Pike Steps by June 1, but there is still weeks of work to meet that schedule. Then the section north of Pike and south of Yesler has to be demolished before the state turns the project back to the city — allowing them to relocate the utilities, construct the new Alaskan Way, and move forward with the new park and aquarium expansion.

Will it be worth it?

One way to predict the success of big projects is to see if others are investing nearby — and the waterfront investments are predicting success.

  • More than $400 million has been, or will be, spent on the waterfront piers near the project. Investments include the Great Wheel and Wings Over Washington on Pier 57, the new concert space on Pier 62, Ivar’s new restaurants on Pier 54, and the new Colman Dock located on Pier 50-52.
  • More than $1 billion has been invested between Pike and Yesler west of First Avenue, including the renovated Maritime Building, the new Cyrene and Post apartments, and the purchase of many other properties with plans for more development.
  • Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Port of Seattle has expanded the cruise terminal at Pier 66, and the port has qualified three parties interested in building a new (third) cruise terminal at Pier 46.
  • Kitsap County passed a slight sales tax and is bringing thousands of people from across the water to Colman Dock every day through the Kitsap Fast Ferries from Bremerton, Kingston, and the new Southworth run this fall.
  • The Seattle Aquarium is planning a third building, the Ocean Pavilion, which will connect the Pike Market and the Waterfront.  It’ll have 50,000 new square feet of display space built around a 320,000-gallon tank filled with sharks and rays.


When this waterfront project started in 2009, about four million unique people visited the Waterfront; in 2018, almost seven million did. The municipal finance banker we hired to help us pay for the new park (and who has worked with more than 40 such projects) tells us the new park will draw 2-3 times the number of waterfront visitors.  So family businesses on the waterfront will be rewarded with many more visitors in only four years.

Not the first time the Seattle waterfront was saved by a tunnel

And on the waterfront, we have learned new ways to do business during this decade of construction. When the project began, there were 1,134 public parking spaces along the waterfront; the new park will have only 68. So we’ve created the free Waterfront Shuttle with three routes to get people to and from destinations and parking garages

  • From the Space Needle to the waterfront
  • From the waterfront to Colman Dock, Pioneer Square, and the International District
  • From the Convention Center, downtown hotels, and Pike Place Market to the waterfront.

In the 11 months the shuttle has run we’ve had more than 250,000 riders. With chatty drivers, you get a comedy show in addition to a free ride (seek out Mike as our driver).


So when you visit the waterfront remember: you won’t need your car or headphones — but don’t forget your camera.

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