Downtown Seattle Flirts with Greatness

Despite the Great Recession, Seattle’s downtown has captured lightning in a bottle. Now it needs to keep the lid on.
Lisa Wogan |   September 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Foundry Interactive’s Mike McDevitt in Nord Alley

For decades, Pier 57 owner Hal Griffith dreamed of building a Ferris wheel at the end of the historic landing he owns. But it wasn’t until he thought the Seattle waterfront faced real peril in the form of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel that he put his money where his dreams were.

“We thought this was the perfect time to make a project like this work,” says Griffith, who owns the recently opened Seattle Great Wheel with his sons, Troy and Kyle. “The waterfront businesses will benefit from the new tunnel, but first we have to survive the construction.”

The 17-story-tall, white observation wheel is either a multimillion-dollar Hail Mary or a harbinger of things to come, a new jewel in the crown of a vibrant downtown.

There’s no denying downtown Seattle is on the verge of the big time. Home to the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods during the past 20 years, downtown has also defied recent regional and national business trends. “Through the teeth of the worst recession of any of our lifetimes, there were thousands of jobs that were created, six million square feet [of commercial/office space] created and an additional $5 million in tax revenue,” says Stephen Johnson, director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development.

The new Seattle Great Wheel on Pier 57, photograph by Amanda Wilson

These positive trends are only the beginning. In the pipeline are several large projects that will significantly reshape downtown, including the mixed-use Stadium Place development just north of CenturyLink Field, the possibility of an NBA/NHL arena in SoDo, the public-private redevelopment of Yesler Terrace on First Hill and Amazon’s three-million-square-foot headquarters complex in the Denny Triangle. Add to these a multitude of civic projects, including the University Link Light Rail connection, First Hill streetcar, Mercer Corridor improvement, redevelopment of Seattle Center, Bell Street Park project and, of course, the massive, superlative-evoking viaduct/tunnel/seawall/waterfront project. All of which promise to make a good thing even better.

But those with their hands on the wheel are cautious, realizing everything could go south in a heartbeat. “The one word that best describes what we have downtown is ‘fragile,’” Downtown Seattle Association Chair Jack McCullough said during an address at the DSA’s annual meeting earlier this year. “The line between success and failure for retailers, hoteliers, residents, restaurants and employers downtown is so thin. It’s why we show up every day to

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