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Friday, May 11, 2012

Waterfront Ferris Wheel – Attraction or Eyesore?

The Elliott Bay waterfront skyline is about to change. Construction of a ferris wheel at the waterward end of Pier 57 began in early April, with completion scheduled for June, just in time to take advantage of the summer tourist season. The wheel will stand 175 feet high -- the equivalent of a 17-story building, according to The Seattle Times. Pier 57 was built in 1902 as a rail loading facility for a sawmill and has since been renovated as a historical site and recreational destination.

The wheel foundation consists of eight legs radiating from a central axle. The structural legs will be mounted on steel plate foundations that tie into steel trusses mounted above the pier support. The wheel will support 41 enclosed, air-conditioned gondolas. See Analysis and Decision of the Director of the Department of Planning and Development, City of Seattle

Supports for the ferris wheel were delivered to the construction site on flatbed trucks at the end of April (see below). The wheel and gondolas will begin arriving in a matter of days.

Pier 57 is zoned "Urban Harborfront" and is subject to the provisions of the City of Seattle's so-called "Seattle Shoreline Master Program." Shoreline development may not be undertaken unless consistent with the master program. In brief, the program allows development that (a) serves the needs of waterborne commerce, (b) facilitates waterfront revitalization, (c) provides opportunities for public access and recreational enjoyment, (d) preserves and enhances elements of historical and cultural significance, and (e) preserves views of Elliott Bay and the land forms beyond. (emphasis added) Seattle Municipal Code 23.60.220.C.8.

In its decision issued in November 2011, Seattle's Department of Planning and Development (DPD) found the ferris wheel to be consistent with "existing retail and entertainment-type uses on Pier 57." The DPD also found that the wheel "will facilitate the revitalization of Downtown's waterfront and provide opportunities for public access and recreational enjoyment of the shoreline." The DPD made no finding in respect of (a) waterborne commerce, (b) historic and cultural significance, or (c) view preservation. In these respects, the decision seems to us to be flawed.

The normal height limit in the Urban Harborfront environment is 50 feet. Seattle Municipal Code 23.60.692. However, an exception may be granted by the DPD for "cranes, gantries, mobile conveyors and similar equipment necessary for the functions of . . . permitted commercial . . . activities . . . , provided such structures [are] designed to minimize view obstruction." The DPD concluded that the ferris wheel height was necessary to the wheel's use and, because the wheel will be positioned in a generally perpendicular orientation to Alaskan Way to minimize view obstruction, granted an exception to the 50-foot requirement.

Because we did not participate in the ferris wheel planning process, it is difficult for us to substitute our judgment for that of the DPD. While the wheel will clearly provide "opportunities for public access and recreational enjoyment," one wonders how the DPD could have found that it will preserve and enhance "elements of historical and cultural significance." Moreover, while the wheel's positioning perpendicular to Alaskan Way will minimize view obstruction from properties directly inland from Pier 57, such positioning will maximize view obstruction from properties to the north and south of Pier 57, adding a carnival-like element to what is, at present, a working-waterfront identity.

At best, the ferris wheel will be an attraction that draws thousands more to the waterfront area. At worst, it will be an eyesore that detracts significantly from the iconic nature of Seattle's historic waterfront skyline. Perhaps it will be both. We'll form our own opinion in about six weeks' time.

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