Reimagining Seattle's Downtown Waterfront

For centuries Seattle's downtown waterfront was home to the Indigenous Coast Salish people, but the arrival of white settlers in the 19th century displaced villages and fishing grounds, replacing them with cargo ships, railroad tracks, and the Viaduct, a double-decker highway.


But with the Viaduct's demolition, Seattle leaders and residents were free to reimagine the shoreline. After decades of planning and construction, in 2025 the waterfront will feature landscaped walkways and bicycle lanes, access to the water, public artworks, and a 20-acres park.

"Whenever there's a nationally televised event like a Seahawks game, they always show a shot of the waterfront. That's really the center of Seattle: the pier, the water and the mountains. But the geography is the canvas; the people are Seattle's beating heart."--Eldon Tam

Friends of Waterfront Seattle is a nonprofit that's been shepherding the park's design and construction. Chief Operating Officer Eldon Tam talked to Marcie and Vivian about the vision for this new public space, and how the community has helped to shape that vision.



View of Great Wheel, a ferris wheel on Seattle's waterfront as seen from the deck of Pier 62. Lime green chairs and tables dot the pier and the wheel is across the water further down the waterfront park area
View of the Great Wheel from Pier 62 on Seattle's Waterfront

 

ABOUT THIS EPISODE'S GUEST

Eldon Tam is the Chief Operating Officer for Friends of Waterfront Seattle, the nonprofit partner to the City of Seattle responsible for helping to fund, build, steward, and program the park — today and into the future. He has been the project director for several significant cultural and civic projects, including the $106 million Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the $6.9 million Wagner Education Center at The Center for Wooden Boats. Eldon’s expertise is in managing and prioritizing the needs of the community and cultural institutions through every step of transformational projects.

With over two decades of experience in the cultural field, Eldon's approach is to ensure every voice is heard throughout the process and deliver on a shared vision in all aspects of the project.


Learn more about Waterfront Park here



 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:00):

Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:01):

And I'm Marcie Sillman. And this is Double


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:05):

DoubleXposure.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:15):

DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plum the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:28):

Today we explore Seattle's changing waterfront with Eldon Tam. Hello there, Vivian. We are talking as Fall has arrived.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:49):

I can't believe that Fall is here. Welcome Fall <laugh>.


MARCIE SILLMAN (00:52):

Welcome Fall. One of the last things that I did in the summer was take up ferry over to Winslow and drive over across the Kitsap Peninsula. But I have to say I thought I knew where the ferry terminal was and I got down there and I was just kind of flabbergasted by the change. Of course, we knew that the viaduct had come down, but it's completely different down there.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:18):

It totally is. And it's interesting you went and took a ferry over the weekend. I had company in from out of town and you know, my go to spot was to go to the waterfront, particularly after having these conversations with Eldon and others that really help us to better understand the waterfront and what it's gonna look like. So, I felt very informed.


MARCIE SILLMAN (01:42):

Eldon Tam was the acting Executive Director of Friends of the Waterfront when we spoke with him, but he is the CFO of the project. He's kind of got the 2000 foot level view of the whole project. And this is something that has been ongoing for years, for a decade at least. But in a couple of years we're gonna see a park, we are going to see big public artworks down there, we're gonna see a bike path, we're gonna see overpasses, we're gonna see something that in my lifetime I have not witnessed.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (02:16):

And some of it's starting to come to life already. Every time you take a, what is that? It's not Western, it's Alaskan Way that goes right in front. Every time I go down there and take that, that drive, it's different, you know, like the traffic patterns are different and I have a much better appreciation now for why that is the case because so much newness is coming to our treasured Seattle waterfront.


MARCIE SILLMAN (02:41):

And this is a waterfront that we really, most of us, you and me for sure, spent most of our lives looking at it from <laugh> from above on the, on the upper deck of the viaduct. And as you say in this interview, you were not necessarily in favor of the viaduct coming down at first.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:00):

A huge opponent. I didn't want it. I did want, I was like, now how am I going to take my visitors across and get that beautiful view? But it just takes a little bit more effort. It's not a big deal. And I think that what I'm experiencing and that that's one of the key takeaways for me is being actually on the ground and taking in all of that that's available to us on the waterfront of Seattle.


MARCIE SILLMAN (03:27):

Eldon Tam is gonna walk us through the origins and some of the process in creating what's gonna be this amazing park.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:35):

I wonder if it would be a great grounding point if you would tell us about Friends of the Waterfront, what it is and how does it dovetail with the renovation work on Seattle's downtown Waterfront?


ELDON TAM (03:47):

So, Friends of Waterfront Seattle is the nonprofit partner with the City of Seattle for developing the new waterfront for downtown Seattle. And we're here to really kind of elevate the experience of the park and to add things that you would expect a vibrant downtown park to have. So that includes programming. So, we do a lot of programming where we'll have over 200 events this summer on Pier 62, which is the first part of the park that is open. And we're really proud of the scope and scale of those programs. We think it does represent a really wide, uh, swath of the Seattle community. Another major part of us is fundraising. So we are raising about 200 million dollars, a little over half of that goes directly to construction. And so we just transfer that over to the capital project for the actual construction of Waterfront Park. And then the other half, uh, or less than half, goes towards our programming, our internal costs and everything we need to help run the park.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (04:42):

I just wanna interject and see if I understand this correctly. Part of the $200 million that you all have, uh, to raise is going into construction. So is that only a portion of what the full construction cost and then the City of Seattle is coming up with the rest of it? I just wanna be clear about that.


ELDON TAM (05:03):

Yes, the total budget is over $700 million for the construction of the entire, um, Waterfront Project Friends is contributing a 110 million of that through philanthropy, um, and fundraising dollars. And then the rest is through various, um, public funding mechanisms, taxes, there's a local improvement district. Um, there are various methods for funding the rest of that.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (05:26):

Got it. Okay. Thank you.


MARCIE SILLMAN (05:28):

I was looking through the, the board list, which is big and varied and I was wondering if you could talk about the various constituencies that have a stake both in the waterfront but also in in the park itself.


ELDON TAM (05:43):

Yeah, well we consider everyone who lives in Seattle and actually the greater, um, Pusan area to have a stake in the park. And so we try to really represent a whole wide range of folks there. So different cultural backgrounds are represented, right? We do have two tribal, uh, members who are part of our board and then we try to just spread out and try and reflect as much of the community as we can. Now, I would say there's, we still feel like there's work to do there to really expand and to really cover a wide swath, but we did prioritize having Indigenous board members early on because of the longstanding historical relationship between the tribes and Sales Waterfront and just the Salish Sea.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (06:20):

So what are the processes that, um, are in place to solicit input from the community? I know that you've put a lot of thought and effort into inclusion, and equity as well. But what are the ways in which you do solicit input from the community and how does that input then impact what you do on the waterfront both in terms of design and programming?


ELDON TAM (06:46):

So, because of that partnership, um, I think that's a multipronged approach. So, um, right, the City of Seattle did a lot of work early on during the design process where they did community outreach, um, following what I would say is more typical public works kind of solicitation of input. So, they had design charettes, they had open meetings where folks who reflect on the design and have input in that fashion in terms of what Friends brings, you know, we have ways we can affect kind of later stages of design and particularly the elements that Friends will bring on. So, right, how I say is Friends is putting on this layer on top of kind of the permanent build infrastructure so we can bring in the furniture, the games, the interactives, all of those aspects. And that's kind of the layer Friends brings as well as our programming as I said earlier.


ELDON TAM (07:32):

And so the ways we solicit input, we have a strong community engagement team. Um, and so they are our core folks who do outreach, but I also say the entire staff is part of that team, right? While we do have some folk members of the staff who are like dedicated to making sure that certain goals and context are made within our work, um, every member of our team is part of that effort. And so that gets reflected in our communications. It gets reflected in our programming team. So some of the key ways, right? Some of it is, um, old fashioned going out into the community meeting folks, you know, we really do try and meet folks who they are. We try and attend their events where they are, as well as inviting them to come to the park and present events at our park. We have also some of the more basic tools.


ELDON TAM (08:18):

We do do a survey, actually we'd have a couple different surveys and that really does focus the direction of, uh, what we do in the future. And as we continue to build that out, the entire kind of success of the park rests in our minds on the public benefit that we provide. And so we really do focus on getting feedback through, right, those more formal ones, the surveys, just talking to community members. We have a community engagement table at every single event and right, we get feedback and kind of the informal discussions that happen and, and then we wrap that all up in our annual planning for the future. As an example, this fall in the winter, we're gonna start doing, um, several more kind of town hall style meetings with folks both in our immediate neighborhood and out of more distant areas in Seattle to kind of get that feedback. Another big way is we do have, at this point, two standing committees that really work on engaging in the community. And we're, we're going to add a third.


MARCIE SILLMAN (09:17):

It's interesting you talked about a little bit earlier about how your constituency is the, the whole city, that everybody in Seattle and probably beyond has a stake in this park, but we chose to focus on the waterfront in this season of doubleXposure. It's one of four neighborhoods that we're looking at. And it struck me as I was getting ready for Vivian and I to talk to you that many Seattleites, probably people who've come to visit the city might not think of the waterfront as a neighborhood per se, but in many ways it's actually Seattle's first neighborhood. You mentioned tribal representation and, and the Indigenous community’s roots, which really go back to this, this Elliot Bay waterfront. So I'm wondering in your mind how you think about that connection between our history, the future, this park and the Indigenous people who who call this place home.


ELDON TAM (10:15):

We definitely prioritize them first, right? They were the First Peoples here. And so we do wanna give them that priority and that, um, primacy in terms of access, in terms of our programming, in terms of who we consider first when we're thinking about how we do everything, whether it's a new initiative or, um, things we did in the past that we kind of want to revamp and refresh. So, one of them is one of those three committees. We have the Pulling Together Committee, which is made up of only Indigenous folks. It does represent both indigenous folks from this area, but also just Indigenous folks from, um, across America. But that all currently, um, have connections to the waterfront or to Seattle, um, be that long historical ties or more recent ties. They are one of our core groups that we talk to about the direction of Friends and the direction of the waterfront and what we can do to continue to ensure that they have access to the waterfront in the historically appropriate ways. And also, that the community really understands the thriving relationship they have with the waterfront and also just how they're thriving within the community.


MARCIE SILLMAN (11:16):

That relationship has kind of been obscured over the last almost a hundred, more than 150 years of Seattle. Right? It hasn't necessarily been a priority for the city before now.


ELDON TAM (11:28):

That's certainly so, and obviously, um, we're working at best as best we can to kind of flip that narrative and make prioritize and bring it to the forefront. And you can see that in our programming. You can see it in some of the art that's going to be public art that will be along the waterfront when it's complete. This past month we had our Salmon Homecoming event, which really highlighted various tribal traditions and connections to the water, right? There's a canoe welcoming ceremony that happened. There's a blessing of the pier, uh, since is the first year that will happen at the pier. And then art and culture market, performances, right? Ways to really highlight Indigenous community of this area. And that's just one of numerous events, right? So it's not a one and done thing for friends, right? We had events all throughout the summer that highlighted, uh, various aspects of Indigenous life.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (12:14):

You know, <laugh>, I just am remembering what a opponent I was at one point of the destruction of the viaduct.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (12:26):

Everybody laughs about that, right? But for me, in some ways it connects to this whole thought of neighborhood because I believe that the, um, housing along the whole border to the waterfront felt like it was really elite housing. And now with, uh, Via gone, I really do feel like it's more of a neighborhood, like it really does connect us to the rest of the city. That said, I just wanna point up this longtime maritime history that is so, so connected to the city of Seattle and how much of it has centered on Elliot Bay. How does the waterfront redevelopment mled traditional maritime history and industries, with everything from public programming to the health of the businesses that have been a part of the survival and the interest on the waterfront for years and years, How does all that meld together for you?


ELDON TAM (13:24):

That's a really, uh, interesting question. We've talked a little bit about the Indigenous history. Another focus we've been looking at is also, um, historically like who's been a part of that maritime industry, who are the communities that actually did a lot of the work, not necessarily who made all the money and profited, but who did all the actual work. Um, right. And so we've done a lot of focus, particularly on the CID, you know, Chinatown International District and the Central District due to the various historical connections there, right? The original Chinatown was actually on the waterfront and historically due to a very violent episode that happened, they were pushed outta that area and pushed a little further inland. A lot of the, uh, labor in the historical waterfront was provided by that community and then also the Black community and right, his, the Central District as kind of a historical nexus of that community is really a prime focus.


ELDON TAM (14:18):

Um, and how we reconnect those communities to the waterfront because through different exclusion, both the creation of viaduct and other right redlining and other historical things, those particular neighborhoods, even though they were so important in the history of the waterfront, have been pushed away. And so, we're being really intentional in inviting them back to the waterfront and making sure that they see themselves as part of this waterfront because there is this original danger of the waterfront becoming very exclusive, right? It is in the middle of downtown, downtown Waterfronts throughout the world tend to be exclusive. We need to really be really cognizant and push against that.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (14:57):

What about the cannery industry? You know, it's one of the things that we don't talk too much about. We talk a lot about the Indigenous history, but there was a huge cannery industry that, uh, was largely Filipino. How is that being reconstituted or acknowledged I should say?


ELDON TAM (15:14):

I would say like the can industry itself is not, has not been focused on really in our programming, there is a historical walking trail that'll talk about the history of the waterfront and that and right, that will talk about different aspects. Um, but once again, the Filipino community, inviting them in making sure they see a place here, um, on the waterfront, um, and inviting them to create their programming, right? And I think that also talks a bit about how we produce our programming. We see ourselves as facilitators of use as opposed to producing things for the community. And so be it the Filipino community, the Korean community, the Black community, finding organizations or individuals or leaders within those communities and partner with them and say like, we, as Friends can provide technical resources if you don't have it, we can provide experience in terms of how you run events, but the curation, what it is, what you present is really up to that, the community. And we actually also wanna highlight the community in that process. Not have Friends' identity subsume this event, right? We're here basically, as I said, to facilitate and support those communities and telling the stories they want. So right, if the Filipino community came to us and they wanted to tell that cannery story, we would definitely leaned into that and say like, okay, great. How do we help? How do we do that?


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (16:35):

Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


MARCIE SILLMAN (16:39):

And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON Cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.


MARCIE SILLMAN (17:02):

The vision, the idea, the execution, the finished product, which is not yet done, has been years, decade in the making. And for those of us who've been here all along and and watched it, I kind of, unless I'm down there, it's not necessarily present for most in my mind, but I'm curious for you, who's been, now you're actually, as we speak, the interim director of the project, but normally the Chief Operating Officer, if you had complete, say, if you were the czar of what's going on, what would you wanna see? What is your dream? For what, for what this will be?


ELDON TAM (17:43):

My dream is a truly inclusive waterfront. And what that means is when people come down there, and we've talked about this as, as a staff a bit, when different individuals go down there or come down to the waterfront, we want them just feel like they belong. Right? It's like, it just feels right. We even say it even smells right, Right. It just, it just infuses you and right, that's gonna mean a different thing for different people, right, based on their lived experience. But we want folks to see themselves at the waterfront. Uh, and so it might mean hearing the music that you appreciate that comes from you or that you really enjoy. It might be seeing people who look like you, who have lived experiences just like you. Baseline, we want everyone to feel like safe and welcome at that park. I think that's fundamentally like the big goal, the big vision, what I really want there to say it's success and later on top of that, right then becomes all of the things. But really focusing on that like, is what we're doing going to make everyone who comes down to the waterfront feel welcome and accepted and that this is their place and they're, they're part of this waterfront. It comes down to how our staff interacts with everybody. It comes down to um, also how public safety is managed on the waterfront, right? I mean, different communities have very different interactions with public safety and we really wanna focus on a really visitor-first, visitor-friendly kind of approach once again, so that everyone feels like they're welcome at the waterfront.


MARCIE SILLMAN (19:09):

I know that you're kind of pioneering this at Pier 62, but when is the rest of the park scheduled to open? I don't even know.


ELDON TAM (19:17):

The entire park is scheduled to be completed in 2025. And so there's a staggered openings. There will be a portion of the park that will also open in ‘23, ‘24, but the entire grand opening of the park will be in 2025 when every element is complete.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (19:31):

You know, I'm old enough to remember when the waterfront was considered skid row for the most part. And I think it's really fascinating that it's, it's redefined as Seattle Waterfront Park. I, I think that's really interesting. But you know, we've talked a lot about this, but just to reiterate, the fact that the waterfront has played a truly significant role in Seattle's history, its growth, its development over the years. Eldon, how do you think that the Waterfront Park is going to play a role in shaping our cultural identity into the future?


ELDON TAM (20:10):

It's all about connection. We want the waterfront to be a source of connection and that can mean multiple, multiple things. I think one of the true values of the approach we wanna take with us is connecting different people together, different communities, different neighbors together, and this sharing of talents of information, of joy that, that can have at the park when we connect those together so far, right? We've, as I said, we've produced different events with different communities now we're really exploring like, well how do we bring different communities together to co-create and co-produce events down there? So that's one level of connection. I think another level of connection is with the viaduct gone and it being a park, reconnecting just everyone in this area to the waterfront, the viaduct, while great views on the drive, I completely agree views on that drive, right? But the pedestrian experience there wasn't that physical connection with the waterfront.


ELDON TAM (21:03):

And now even on the parts that open, you walk down there and it's like on one side you have the Salish Sea of the beautiful Olympic Mountains and on other side you see what I think is the most beautiful city, right on the other side and just that connection and juxtaposition of two different types of beauty, right? The beauty of this built and behind the beauty of the city connected this, the beauty of nature. That's another form of connection that I really hope is built and developed as we do our programming. And part of it is just built into the design. So it's almost like we have to truly try really hard for that connection to not be successful once the park is complete and then coming out the pandemic, right? I think everyone is craving the sense of reconnecting back with their neighbors, back with their community, back with cultural and artistic events all these ways. And so that's the, this connection that I really hope gets gained as this park continues to develop and open.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (21:56):

I know when Marcie and I were there, it was, you know, like this perfect day where the clouds just opened up and the experience was, it's unique every single time I go there and I thought that driving over the viaduct and seeing everything was the epitome, but actually stopping walking through, you get a chance to really connect with the water, with the sea, with the mountains, cuz you can still see Mount Rainier from there. And it's just, it's beautiful. It's a really new and and exciting experience.


MARCIE SILLMAN (22:33):

One of the things that I was thinking, yes, it's a beautiful experience, it's an amazing experience, but what you're talking about Eldon is kind of weaving a lot of intangibles together. It's something Vivian and I've really been exploring through this podcast, is that connection between civic identity and the cultural sector of our community and it, it feels like what you're trying to do with this park is just that is to maybe rebrand the civic identity more closely with culture or maybe to put our cultural identities cuz they are multiple more forefront in the civic identity?


ELDON TAM (23:15):

I mean I think right, that's one of the, I believe that's a core belief of most of Seattle, which is once again interconnecting different communities and really celebrating each of those communities and Right. We wanna be the stage for that to happen. You were just speaking about your experience on the waterfront, it brought to mind two things, one was everyone I've, we've had down there for a tour for a walk who hasn't been down to the waterfront recently has that experience. It's like, oh now I get it. Now I see the viaduct’s gone. That connection, the beauty, you know, it's really hard to imagine before because that drive was great but this, it's a whole different experience and even the first time I went down there right, I had not really gone to down to the waterfront in the pandemic and then I got this job and I went down there and yeah, it's just eye-opening and complete changing also whenever there's a national event, right, like a Seahawks game, right? And where national television, what shot do they always show of the waterfront? They always show some sort of shot of the wheel and the pier and the waterfront and that connection and the mountains. That is fundamentally, that's really the nexus, the center of the heart of Seattle. We want to add to that the heart in terms of the cultural experience, the arts, the communities, because the geography's in the end, the canvas and right, the people are actually the beating heart. And so we wanna make sure that that becomes part of the waterfront.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (24:35):

I know for a while the brand of Friends of Waterfront Seattle was a waterfront for all. I don't think you're using that any longer, but it does feel like there's been some real deep thought put into what does it mean to make a waterfront really relevant for everyone.


ELDON TAM (24:54):

Yep. I think that's really the focus is make sure it's for everyone. I'm not gonna presume to know what that means. And so it's really about listening to the community, engage in the community and authentically engaging in continuous dialogue for the long term. Right? It's also our approach to community engagement, how we work with the community is not transactional, it's not just in the moment, right? We want this to be relationship for the all in the future, right? Cuz this park is gonna be here for decades, centuries. That relationship needs to continue throughout the entire time period.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (25:30):

Thank you so much. Eldon Tam Friends of Waterfront Seattle, Chief Operating Officer. Thanks for spending time with us.


ELDON TAM (25:37):

Thank you, Marcie. Thank you, Vivian.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (25:40):

You know, Marcy, I am really very much enlightened about the processes that they are putting in place to really bring people to the waterfront. I mean all of the different communities that they're working with. It excites me to go there and to interact with so many different people.


MARCIE SILLMAN (26:00):

I was thinking about this, I paid a visit to the Pike Place Market and you know, it's the shoulder season. I usually avoid that area in the summer because there are so many tourists and, and the waterfront has been the place where cruise ships dock and where tourists kind of look for stuff. Uh, where the Edgewater Hotel, the legendary Edgewater, where The Beatles fished off their balcony or whatever it was. I think that Eldon and the people that he's working with, with friends of the Waterfront and the Seattle's office of the waterfront and the artists who are involved in all the planners, this is not a waterfront for tourists per se. It's for us.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (26:41):

It's for us. And I think that it's really an asset to have so many people from our various communities who are interacting on the waterfront, for tourists to actually get a better feel for the fabric of our our city.


MARCIE SILLMAN (26:57):

I asked Eldon about whether this was a rebrand of the whole notion of waterfront and what it means to Seattle. And maybe that wasn't exactly the right word to use, but I do feel like the connection that those of us who are of a certain age and everybody younger than us are going to have, is this sense that we are a port town. We're a city that grew up on the sea and before the white settlers arrived here in the 19th century, the Indigenous people who have called this land home from centuries, this was a place that they welcomed people. This was a place where they fish. This was a place where they celebrated and, and we're gonna be able to incorporate that history in a much more visceral way.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:46):

I think you're right, and I also think that it reminds everyone that that it’s the gateway to the Pacific Rim. That's who we are. And the entire history, I believe of the Seattle Waterfront has that in mind as a basic foundation. So I'm really thrilled also about our liveXposure event where we get a chance to actually be on the waterfront and have more conversations with folks about the history and the destiny of Seattle's waterfront. Can't wait till 2025 <laugh>.


MARCIE SILLMAN (28:23):

It's just a heartbeat away. That's right. Thanks Vivian.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (28:27):

Thank you.


MARCIE SILLMAN (28:38):

doubleXposure. Executive producers are me, Marcie Sillman.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (28:41):

And me Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Engstrom and Calandra Childers.


MARCIE SILLMAN (28:49):

Support for DoubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications.


VIVIAN PHILLIPS (28:53):

And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media's Black Arts Legacies Project, highlighting the role of black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.


MARCIE SILLMAN (29:05):

If you like what you're hearing on this episode of DoubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website, doubleXposurepod.com.


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