Gondola Dreamin'

The Griffith family wants to build an aerial tram along Union Street. Is this another tourist Tinkertoy or an ingenious way to keep the waterfront alive?

Beneath a vast blue sky piled high with billowy white clouds, Kyle Griffith climbs out of his shiny black S300 Mercedes sedan. His dark-haired fiancee at his side, the diamond in her engagement ring glinting in the bright sunshine, he strides into Dutch Hill Elementary, a low-slung white brick affair surrounded by green hills and soggy grass fields.

The youthful developer, who with his father Hal Griffith brought Seattle the Great Ferris Wheel at Pier 57 and the striking nightly light shows it ignites, has come to this east Snohomish school on a splendid early-April afternoon to chat up their latest venture: an eight-block aerial tram with passenger cabins gliding 30 feet above Union Street, fluttering with barely a hiss along 2,678 feet of steel cable down to the waterfront.

Griffith will talk to anyone about the gondola, even fourth and fifth graders. “I thought it would be cool,” he says.

Sweet-faced with a fetchingly boyish manner, Griffith, 34, resembles a young Tom Hanks. Looking sharp and thin in a navy sports jacket and gray slacks, he’s greeted by teacher Zan Peterson-Moens. Cheery as a teakettle, her long brown hair parted in the middle, Peterson-Moens extended the invitation not long after reading of the Griffiths’ well-publicized gondola rollout on March 4. Her advanced-placement class is studying transportation alternatives.

“This seems like a very exciting project. I am so glad you could come,” she purrs.

Griffith smiles. “I’m happy to be here.”

The show-and-tell begins. Heads down, the kids, bright as bulbs and attentive from start to end, take notes. There will be 38 trams, Griffith reveals, each departing every 16 seconds, carrying eight passengers, and powered by a 400-horsepower electric motor.

Each hour, he boasts, as many as 1,800 people can be shuttled (top speed, 13 mph) from the Convention Center to the waterfront—and back again—with a midway stop (one of three elevated stations planned) at First and Union, just steps from Pike Place Market and the Seattle Art Museum. It will be a half-mile, four-minute journey each way.

Griffith goes on. Eight support towers—shaped like a whale’s rib, arched at the top—will be erected on Union Street and cable-strung. It can be built in roughly 13 months and will be ready to go, Griffith says, when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, currently scheduled for November 2016.

The cost: an estimated $20 million to $30 million—maybe more—financed entirely by the Griffiths, who’ve been working on the project for two years. The ticket price: perhaps $5, Griffith predicts, but says it’s too early to make that determination. And if the whole thing proves a flop, he adds, “Well, we will tear it down at our own expense.”

“Will it have wipers?” one pigtailed girl asks after Griffith wraps up.

“No, we won’t need them.”

“Will it be quiet?”

“Yes, completely silent. There’ll be no noise at all.”

“Will it reduce traffic?” asks a red-haired boy.

“Oh, yes, that’s one of the reasons we want to build it, to ease traffic congestion—plus we want something that will bring people to the waterfront during all the construction that’s going to take place when the viaduct comes down.”

At last there comes a question from the very precocious Hannah—one that has become increasingly vexing for the Griffiths. “Won’t people in the gondolas,” she asks, “be able to see into people’s apartments? What about privacy?”

Griffith replies, “Well, have you ever seen a window where you can look out but no one can see in? . . . If we have to, we can change out the windows in the buildings.”

Leaving the classroom, exuberant, he declares, “You know, a lot of people thought the Wheel was crazy. Don’t listen to them, guys.”

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus

When he said the world was round

They all laughed when Edison recorded sound

They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother

When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi, wireless was phony

It’s the same old cry

—George Gershwin, “They All Laughed” (1937)

Ever cautious and skeptical, Seattle has long been reluctant to jump into the deep end of the pool and embrace big, bold projects. Ten years ago, voters left the Monorail dead in its tracks; in the ’90s, residents said no to the creation of a grand central park, the Seattle Commons. A decade earlier, Mayor Charley Royer wanted a makeover of Seattle Center and enlisted the design and development arm of The Walt Disney Company to look into it. That went nowhere: too slick, too costly, too Disney. And of course, the problems plaguing the waterfront tunnel have made us all wary and weary.

Now a gondola system, a project still in its infancy, looms on the horizon. Sky-borne pods lifting tourists and locals alike high above the madding crowd before gently depositing them on the shores of Elliott Bay, the city’s gateway to the world: Romantic, intriguing, exciting, is it not?

“We think what we’re doing for the city is fabulous,” says Griffith. “And you know, to those people who say this is kind of a Disney thing to do—well, what’s wrong with Disney? They’re about family, fun, like we are at Pier 57. What’s wrong with that?”

Is a gondola practical? Hard to say. Was the Space Needle practical? Or the Monorail, the so-called train to nowhere? Adding an aerial tram to the public-transit mix may well suit the “Jet City” sensibilities that seeped into Seattle’s DNA at our World’s Fair a half-century ago.

“I’ve heard the usual skeptics, but I think this deserves a closer look,” posits ex-councilman and urban architect Peter Steinbrueck. “It would be a joyride, and what’s wrong with that? And you got to admire the spirit of this. The fact that moving 1,800 people an hour with clean energy could replace 20 buses is nothing to sneeze at.”

Says Martin Duke, who runs the Seattle Transit Blog: “I certainly don’t mind private investors trying to provide alternatives to cars. That’s great.”

“Interesting and intriguing,” comments the Downtown Seattle Association’s John Scholes.

“I’m not a guy who loves heights,” notes Transportation Choices Coalition executive director Rob Johnson, “but a lot of us want to see the waterfront become a more vibrant place that connects with downtown.”

“We’ve been excited about this from the beginning,” says Visit Seattle CEO Tom Norwalk. “It will mitigate the problems with [waterfront] construction and provide a great east-west route.”

From Seattle councilwoman Jean Godden: “It is appealing to have another transportation option. It is certainly worth looking at.”

Councilman Nick Licata’s take: “They [the Griffiths] came to talk to me about it a couple of months ago. My first reaction was almost childlike—like wow, this is really cool. But since we’re no longer children, we have to take a more adult stance now. What will it do to the urban landscape, to pedestrian access to the waterfront? And I’m concerned about the negative impact it may have on retail on Union.”

Asked for his thoughts on a downtown gondola, civic leader and Seattle Weekly founder David Brewster speculates, “It’s possible the general public will see it as another doo-dad for visitors, but then, big projects usually succeed when there is a great deal of private money involved. It may die a slow death like the Monorail did, or we may wake up and there it is—like the Ferris wheel.”

At the same time, Seattle has embraced things innovative and unconventional. The Olympic Sculpture Park, the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line, and Gas Works Park comes to mind. But even these now-popular projects weathered resistance and were subjected to the same kind of playful mockery that greeted the gondola’s March coming-out party.

KIRO-FM talk-show host Dori Monson, for one, poked fun at lazy Seattleites who might choose the tram rather than walk eight blocks. And Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat dismissed it as a “tourist bauble,” suggesting the waterfront is becoming an amusement park. He wrote: “Total elevation change of the eight-block route: 130 feet. Seriously, Seattle: We’re building an aerial tram to lift us up 130 feet? Even Portland’s gondola goes up 500 vertical feet, and substitutes for a winding, two-lane road. People will see our flat gondola and say: ‘You claim to be a world-class city. Yet you build this?”

Then again, as Michael Jenkins, executive director of the Seattle Design Commission—the all-important committee that advises the mayor and council on capital improvement projects involving city right-of-ways—counters, “The Portland tram is high up and doesn’t pass at the same level where people live and work.”

Still, the Portland Aerial Tram, built in 2007 to connect the Oregon Health and Science University Hospital atop Marquam Hill with the city’s south waterfront, has spurred nearly $2 billion in investment; eliminated two million miles per year of vehicle use, saving some 93,000 gallons of gasoline; and prevented the release of 1,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Outside of ski resorts, aerial gondolas used for public transit are almost nonexistent in the United States, with the exceptions of Portland’s lift and New York City’s renovated Roosevelt Island Tram. However, even Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen said in February that the Eastside city is exploring cheaper transit alternatives such as gondolas, since Sound Transit’s plans to extend light rail along the Cross Kirkland Corridor may be decades away.

In Europe, though, cable-drawn transport is booming. In 2012, London built a gondola crossing the Thames. The French cities of Brest and Toulouse will have aerial systems up and running in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing modes of transportation in the world,” says Steven Dale, whose Toronto-based Gondola Project maintains a huge database on the subject. Gondolas promise clean energy; can be built quickly and with relatively little disruption; and cost $3 million to $12 million per mile, compared to $36 million per mile for a light-rail system. “It almost sounds too good to be true, and that breeds suspicion,” adds Dale.

In South America alone, more than 50 gondola operations have been built or are planned. One of the more notable ones is in Medellín, Columbia, which in 2004 erected a gondola network to link one of its sprawling hillside neighborhoods to its downtown metro stations. La Paz, Bolivia, meanwhile, is building the world’s largest gondola system, more than seven miles long with 11 stations. Rio de Janeiro and Caracas, Venezuela, already have aerial trams.

“The technology has gotten to the point over the past 10 years that it is becoming more and more feasible to build these aerial systems,” says Randy Woolwine of Doppelmayr, the world’s largest gondola manufacturer—which the Griffiths have enlisted. “This will be an icon for the city of Seattle.”

The Griffiths work out of a hive of offices located above Pirates Plunder at Miners Landing on Pier 57, where in July 1897 some 5,000 people gathered on the docks to watch the crew of the steamship Portland disgorge two tons of Alaskan gold.

It was here that Hal Griffith, now 76, got his start in the mid-’60s, opening a little store that sold surplus industrial merchandise damaged in ship transport. He called it Salvage Mart, and later Pirates Plunder, these days a gift shop. He bought the Pier from the city in 1989 and has since built a small empire, Great Western Pacific, which owns and operates a slew of tourist restaurants, an arcade, and a merry-go-round, among other properties.

“Come on in. This is where the magic happens,” Kyle says, entering the conference room, its walls strewn with old duo-tone photos of sailing ships and miners thirsting for gold.

Kyle grew up in the tony Denny Blaine neighborhood. “We talked current events at the dinner table, and the Republican platform on economic issues seems to mirror ours, but we are much more liberal on social issues. Being against gay rights is just as bad as taxing and spending through the roof.”

As a teen, he attended Mercer Island High, class of ’98, and played basketball for the legendary Ed Pepple, the state’s winningest coach. He says being on Pepple’s squad was like being in the Marine Corps; it taught him the importance of team, the discipline needed to be successful.

He thinks of himself as the quarterback of Team Gondola, with his father the head coach—just like when they at last unveiled the 175-foot tall Ferris wheel at Pier 57 on June 29, 2012. “And that’s what we’ve done again, put together a professional team. We have architects, engineers, lawyers, permit specialists, consultants—because we know we’re going to have to jump through every regulatory loop there is. This is a lot more complicated than the Wheel since it’s a public right-of-way.”

Brushing the crumbs of a cinnamon roll from his gray pullover sweater, Kyle says it was “preordained” that he’d carry on the family business; it was fully expected of him. “My mom was at home and dad was down at the Pier. He’s a workaholic. He always told me that the Pier was like a Christmas tree—the more you put on it, the better it looked.

“His main philosophy has always been that there needs to be more things here than just retail. People want other attractions. He tells me all the time that it’s sales that make the world go around, that we stack dimes on nickels. He’s a humble guy, but he has strong opinions and expects things to work out.”

Unlike his father, who grew up dirt-poor in Gig Harbor, Kyle and brother Troy enjoyed a prosperous upbringing: ski vacations to Sun Valley; golf trips to Palm Springs, where the Griffiths own a home; and summers in San Clemente, Calif., where in June Griffith will marry a girl he met at the University of Washington. Before several hundred guests, Kyle and Jenny Mezich, an event planner three years his junior, will wed at Casa Romantica, a high-on-a-bluff mansion built by long-ago Seattle mayor Ole Hanson, who founded the beach town in 1925.

“I did every job there was at the Pier—busing tables, washing dishes. I was stocking shelves here in grad school,” Kyle recalls. “I wanted to go to law school. I told my dad that one night over dinner, and he said, ‘That’s not smart. We can already hire the best lawyers. You need to learn business.’ I didn’t fight him.” He pauses. “Yeah, we’ve had some ups and downs. It’s hard working for your dad. It becomes more than a job. It becomes your life.”

Kyle never did make the cut to get into UW’s business school, and chose history instead. “I think things worked out pretty well. I really loved learning about the Middle Ages and its transformation to the Renaissance.”

Visionary is not a label the Griffiths would necessarily apply to themselves, for a key motivation for the Ferris wheel, and now the gondola, is economic survival. If the waterfront thrives, Pier 57 thrives. (The gondola route ends just north of Pier 57.)

Hal Griffith first devised the idea of a gondola 30 years ago, back when he owned Pier 62 and 63 (which he later traded to the city for Pier 57). He wanted it to run from Victor Steinbrueck Park to the end of Pier 63, but the plan never gained any traction.

“That’s how we started with this idea, and now I think a gondola really is needed,” the elder Griffith says in a telephone interview from his home near Palm Springs. “We are going to be very disrupted when the viaduct comes down and all the construction on the waterfront promenade begins. People are going to have a hard time getting to the waterfront. There will be a huge loss of parking.

“Plus I think it helps to tie in the downtown core with the waterfront. There are lot of people who don’t want to walk that far, from up by the hotels around the Convention Center down to the waterfront. They are older people, grandmas and grandpops,” Hal Griffith continues. “We’ve talked with [Mayor] Murray. He didn’t express any negatives. We’ve met with council people and with business people and property owners. And we really are trying to make everyone happy.”

The Griffiths face a number of obstacles. First and foremost is navigating a complex hurdle of city reviews: environmental impact, noise concerns, sight lines and utility lines, pedestrian access, the size of the footprint of the three stations, financial sustainability—all this and more to obtain a long-term-use permit on a public right-of-way.

“They have a long way to go,” notes Jenkins of the Seattle Design Commission. “The question is not whether they can build it, but whether the city wants it.”

Hal, who is months away from applying for the use permit, knows what he’s up against. “Unfortunately, it’s a very long and difficult process,” he says, “especially when you are trying to do anything imaginative.”

Then there’s the problem of the disgruntled condo owners in the 98 Union building and across the street at the Four Seasons, the upper floors of which are filled with private residences that go for up to $9 million.

“The proposed gondola caught my attention because I don’t want a steady stream of glass capsules occupied by inquisitive faces floating past my living room and bedroom windows all day and most of the night,” complains John Gleason, the homeowners’-association president at 98 Union, where nearly 130 residents live.

A tall, bald man with a red goatee, Gleason paid $530,000 for his two-bedroom condo two and a half years ago. Divorced, he lives on the fourth floor—in direct line with passing gondolas—with his college-age daughter. “When I bought it, I never envisioned gondolas with tourists just a few feet from my window.”

Gleason is leading efforts to block the project. He’s written the Seattle Design Commission and helped draft a March 10 letter to the Seattle City Council. Signed by nine 98 Union residents, it urges them and the city Department of Transportation to “move decisively to reject this proposal.” Fear of peeping gondolistas is their main concern, though they also complain about the specter of noise and that the gondola will rob the street of its vitality.

Concerns have been raised by those charged with the waterfront’s transformation, such as architect James Corner, that the gondola will take people off the streets and away from the public spaces being planned—new plazas, terraced gardens, and a seasonal swimming-pool barge—at the center of the 26-block promenade.

“But still, it would be kind of fun to see it,” says Luciano DeLuca, general manager at Japonessa, an upscale sushi eatery at First and Union. “It might be an exciting thing for the city. It took people in Seattle awhile to get used to the Wheel, and look at it.”

Over a ham and cheese sandwich at Bing’s in Madison Park, where Kyle Griffith lives, the gondola enthusiast says he and his father are doing everything possible to make residents happy. “We are looking at different kind of windows and all kind of things to mitigate their concerns. We want them to be strong supporters of the project,” he says. “There is some misinformation, though. For one thing, there will be no noise at all.”

Clearly not pleased at the resistance of private-property owners on Union Street, he adds, “We are not trying to ram this thing in. We’re going to set up meetings soon with residents at both buildings and with other property owners on Union. No one is going to lose their privacy. We will make sure of that.”

Griffith continues, for indeed, as Dad often told him, sales make the world go around. “This is our lifeline. It keeps the waterfront viable. It keeps us viable. But it benefits everyone. It’s green energy. It’s going to mean more people shopping downtown and being able to transport people over the war zone. And it’s all private money. We are the only ones at risk. I mean, everyone we meet absolutely loves it.”

With a chuckle, Griffith recalls seeing Saving Mr. Banks with his fiancee a few months ago. The movie is centered on P. L. Travers, a financially struggling author who reluctantly agrees to meet with Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks. Disney has been after Travers for 20 years to buy the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories. But she can’t bear to allow Disney to bring her creation to the screen because he’s known to produce animated films, which Travers openly disdains.

“And then the movie finally does get made, and she cries when she sees the premiere, because it was so good,” says Griffith. “Jenny said to me, ‘I’ll bet you can relate to this.’ And yeah, I really could. There were some people who thought the Great Wheel was going to be an eyesore. But we built a Mercedes-Benz, and now people love it.”

They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat

Hershey and his chocolate bar

Ford and his Lizzie kept the laughers busy

That’s how people are.


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