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Seattle seawall project begins three years of waterfront worries

"What people may not realize when they're driving up Alaskan Way today is you're actually on top of the wall," said city project manager Jessica Murphy. (Image courtesy City of Seattle)

It might seem as though the downtown Seattle waterfront has been under construction for years and to some degree, that’s true. But a major project that will protect and help transform the waterfront gets underway Monday.

“No Parking” signs are already in place beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Fencing is going up and construction equipment is staging for the $350 million seawall replacement, funded mostly by a 30-year bond measure. Job one is building a temporary Alaskan Way surface street to the east, beneath the viaduct, from Colman Dock north to the Aquarium.

“What people may not realize, when they’re driving up Alaskan Way today, is you’re actually on top of the wall,” said city project manager Jessica Murphy. “So the wall is not only the vertical face you see at the water’s edge, but it’s got this underlying structure that extends far under the road so we need to get access to that.”

The temporary roadway should be in place by January.

Murphy said talk of replacing 3,700 feet of seawall began in earnest after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. But 100 years has taken a toll on the seawall and its pilings.

“Those 20,000 wooden timber piles that are holding that in the ground right now have been damaged by the marine bores, the gribbles, that have filtered in through holes in the walls and have eaten away at the timbers behind it,” said Murphy.

The multi-faceted project includes a new roadway in the original footprint, utilities, pathway, and habitat restoration. Construction will make life difficult for residents, tourists, and business owners.

“The seawall does include a lot of things and there’s no way to do it without some disruption,” Murphy conceded. “The seawall actually took decades to build, originally, and we’re trying to compress that into three years.”

One year ago, waterfront businesses were angry about the city’s construction timetable.

“We didn’t think we could survive the waterfront construction process,” recalled Bob Donnegan, President of Ivar’s. But the city agreed to compensate as many as 15 businesses on Piers 54-through-57, based on an audit of costs and losses. Donnegan said waterfront shops and restaurants will get out of the way and close for nine months, starting in Oct. 2014, to help the city speed up its work.

“It thinks it can save more than $15 million by going quicker and it will share up to $15 million with us, so we can pay our mortgages and our insurance and we will not lose our key employees,” said Donnegan.

And for the months that businesses are open during construction, the city will build pedestrian bridges to the piers. Seven existing parking garages will dedicate subsidized spaces for waterfront visitors.

The seawall project is part of a larger Waterfront Seattle Program that includes the deep bore tunnel, promenade, bike path, walkway from Pike Place Market, and more. Outside experts think visitors to the waterfront will eventually double.

“After this is all done, in 2019, it’ll be great, we’ll be hanging on by our fingernails until then to try and get that far,” said Donnegan. If businesses can hang on, he predicted that the Seattle waterfront will be a world class destination.

“I expect every cruise ship line in the world is going to want to call on Seattle starting in 2020. It will be a harbor as pretty as the Melbourne or Sydney, Australia harbors.”

And a great place to live and work, he figured.

“In the summer, there will be a parade of people spilling out of the businesses at lunch to come down to the waterfront. It’s going to be an incredible place,” said Donnegan.

But first comes the construction of the seawall, which will go on Monday through Saturday, both day and night, concluding in 2016.

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