The Public Is Entitled Access to Part of the Waterfront's Piers

Despite city code, public access to the waterfront is hard to find.

If you're brave enough to face the summer parade of tourists on the downtown waterfront, there is a reward. Since the early '70s, city and state regulations have greatly expanded public access along Elliott Bay. At the western tips of most privately owned piers, largely unknown by tourists and even downtown residents, you can enjoy panoramic vistas of the water from Mount Rainier to the Olympics. The sound of traffic is muted by the waves, wind, and maritime traffic. The stadiums arch gracefully behind the pivoting orange cranes unloading containers at Terminal 46, with gulls wheeling overhead these peaceful pier-end oases.

If you can find them, that is; and if one of several waterfront restaurants hasn't grabbed the public space for overflow patronage, with tables, chairs, mayo-slathered fish sticks, and microbrews blocking the public right of way.

For example, at the recently refurbished Pier 70 (located south of the Olympic Sculpture Park at the foot of Broad Street), pedestrians might seek a sunset view by walking toward the water, only to find their access blocked by spillover from the Waterfront Seafood Grill. Confusingly, some evenings, the extra chairs aren't there, making it possible for passers-by to circumnavigate the pier, extensively remodeled by owner Triad Development in 2000. Then, unpredictably, the next evening it might be inaccessible—unless you want to fork over $34 for a plate of spicy blackened ahi tuna.

According to Alan Justad of the city's Department of Planning and Development, this sort of blockage violates city code. Piers that have been renovated or altered since the '70s have to provide public access on at least two sides of the structure, one being the western end facing Elliott Bay. "There are no exceptions to closing that [access]," says Justad.

If an eatery shoves its tables out onto the mandated public area of a pier, that's illegal. But it's not like the city is out policing; whether a business or pier owner gets busted essentially depends on citizen complaints (if a DPD warning isn't heeded, fines range from $150 to $500 per day). Similarly, explains Justad, "There is a requirement for signage indicating public access." But, again, "that's gonna be on a public-complaint basis."

Justad explains that these public areas aren't like city-owned sidewalks or streets, where one could get a permit to hold, say, a block party to temporarily block passage. "It's an unusual circumstance," Justad says of the pier owners. "It's their property." To which we, the taxpaying public, are entitled access, no matter what developers think of the situation.

By city code, a pier owner must provide either 5,000 square feet or 15 percent of the developed lot area—whichever is larger—for public access. That usually includes a five-foot-wide walkway along one side of a pier to reach the view area at the end.

Yet finding these walkways and public viewpoints isn't so easy along the city's designated central waterfront—its boundaries stretching roughly from the Colman Ferry Dock to the sculpture park—where there's virtually no signage indicating how you can lawfully access these piers. At the cove just south of the ferry, there's a park, Alaska Square, owned by the Port of Seattle, its gates chained shut and several street alcoholics sleeping in the pergola just outside. Piers 52 and 53 compose the Colman dock, slated for replacement by the state Department of Transportation. Steps north, Fire Station No. 5 has a tiny concrete viewpoint with strange red bench-planters shaped like inverted toilet plungers. Yet there's no indication that this is public space, and firemen often park their cars here.

Pier 54, to the north, has been associated with Ivar's since 1938, and it shows. Ivar Haglund bought the pier in 1966, and it's now owned by a partnership bearing his name. And though that name is synonymous with seafood, the pier provides no public access to the actual sea. The south edge shelters diners under an ugly greenhouse roof; the north is just Dumpsters and parking; and the fenced-off west end is simply rotting into the bay.

Problem is, when Ivar's hired Mithun Architects to draw up a late-'90s renovation scheme, it ran afoul of the state's shoreline and the city's public-access regulations. "Apparently, we have to provide 360-degree access to the public," says Ivar's President Bob Donegan. (He's mistaken, per the DPD, which effectively requires 180 degrees of access.)

Ivar's plans became moot, anyway, Donegan recalls, when "the market collapsed" after the dot-com boom. Uncertainty about the viaduct replacement further stalled redevelopment of Pier 54, he explains, and now it's on the list for possible historic landmark status, adding another layer of bureaucratic complexity.

After a stretch that basically complies with city code (albeit with no signage), the Edgewater Hotel occupies the entire western end of Pier 67, with zero public access. The famous hotel, which hosted both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, was built in 1961 and underwent a $7 million remodel in 2001. That renovation should've entailed public access, per the DPD. So why is the public blocked from the water?

"We do have an area on our parking lot that is public access; it's actually signed," says Brent Anderson, a project manager for the Edgewater's parent company, Bellevue-based Noble House Hotels and Resorts. "We don't have any control over signage that the city puts out on the sidewalk." Well, OK, there's one discreet blue sign set next to the sidewalk—about 12 by 18 inches—with a vague arrow. Enter the parking lot, and there's absolutely no indication of access until you stumble upon a narrow strip of benches, used mainly for parking motorcycles, surrounded by cars. It's also the staff cigarette-break area. Facing the Edgewater's blank, ugly north facade, this little triangle is hardly inviting, and harder still to find.

"There's no way we'd be able to provide more [public access]," according to Anderson, regarding the prime west edge where the hotel's bar and restaurant face. He cites city, state, and Army Corps of Engineers regulations that make it virtually impossible to extend a deck over tidewaters.

Justad at the city's DPD confirms some piers can be essentially grandfathered into public-access code as "legal and nonconforming." In the case of some piers, like the Edgewater's, he says, "Physically, it could not meet the standards. These laws aren't retroactive."

Meaning that, while a potentially renovated Pier 54 would likely have to provide public access, luckier property owners such as the Edgewater are the beneficiaries of their inherent view-blocking design. But at least the busboys have a nice smoking nook.

Farther north, Pier 70 recently underwent a remarkable transformation after a first round of Seattle Weekly calls to the Waterfront Seafood Grill and its local parent company, Mackay Restaurants (which also operates El Gaucho).

Though we were unable to contact the restaurant's general manager, tables and chairs miraculously disappeared from the pier's end, making it possible—as of this writing—to circumnavigate the pier on foot. For now, several of the restaurant's sun parasols are left folded along the pier's western railing, perhaps waiting for future use.

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