Group Efforts Make for Better Shorelines

Nicole Faghin and Shannon Kinsella, PE
Special to the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce

What makes a great public waterfront space? How do organizations and individuals make their ideas for enjoyable waterfronts happen? The answers are as diverse as we are, and yet great public spaces are developing and the transformation is exciting.

Shoreline accessibility

When we talk about the livability and beauty of Northwest Washington, a key element is miles of shoreline. However, much of this marine and freshwater shoreline is privately owned — a challenge when creating public access. According to data from the Trust for Public Land, approximately 18 percent of Puget Sound shorelines are publicly owned, and only about 11 percent are accessible to those without a boat.

Many entities are working to find private waterfront land that can be purchased or donated and returned to public use. These groups include public agencies like cities, counties, ports and Washington State Parks, as well as private, nonprofit entities like the Cascade Land Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land.

Once these private properties are obtained for public use, these same groups work to transform them. Look at examples of successful transformations of properties to publicly accessible sites in Bremerton, Tacoma, Olympia and Seattle.

Behind the scenes exist creative partnerships, diligent planning, complex financing and strong public involvement, not to mention opportunities for environmental stewardship of our shorelines through cleanup and sustainable design.

New partnerships

A small access point or local park can be created by individual organizations; but large projects require the collaboration of many groups. New partnerships are forming between existing public entities such as the Port of Bellingham and the city of Bellingham, between public and private entities such as the Port of Everett and the Maritime Trust Co., and between nonprofit partnerships like Trust for Public Land and Bainbridge Island. Local tribes have also served as significant community partners. Often, the details for a partnership are written in a memorandum of understanding, identifying each entity’s role in the project.

Facilitation of a partnership may require the creation of a special-purpose district. One great example from the 1990s, now starting its next phase, is the Foss Waterway Development Authority in Tacoma. Through this special-purpose district, the abandoned Tacoma waterfront became a flourishing hub. Similar catalyst entities are forming throughout the region for other waterfronts.

Success is often spurred when a port’s mission for economic development is combined with a city’s public access objectives. Since ports frequently own major portions of urban waterfront, they are key players in many of these transformations.

Bellingham’s central waterfront, in private ownership until recently, is now predominantly owned by the port, and the partnership between the city and port has paved the way for a substantial waterfront makeover.

Sometimes, partnerships arise between the public and private sectors. Bremerton’s stunning urban facelift resulted from a public-private partnership with developer Opus Northwest. Hundreds of cities and ports have partnered with developers, nonprofits and tribes to reclaim the waterfront for the public. Once that public waterfront access is acquired, the partnership maintains an important role in planning and financing.

Community involvement

Long before the dirt is turned, the planning process is already under way. Planning for waterfront access may be as simple as enhancing a street or as complex as converting hundreds of feet of shoreline from boulders and rocks to sandy, inviting beaches. In each case, local planning processes involve layers of decision-making and multiple opportunities for the public to become engaged.

In Edmonds, waterfront parks evolved from collaborative planning between the city and port, linking pieces of property that today span nearly the length of the city’s shoreline. And what was once only a vision in comprehensive plans, downtown plans and shoreline plans is now a reality. At each stage, the plan included community input.

Plans for parks often begin with public frustration over lack of access — a cry for public initiative that often starts the process and keeps it rolling. The more transparent the local planning process, the better the final product. Bellingham’s multi-year waterfront process allowed each neighborhood along the waterfront to voice its opinion of what an overall vision of the waterfront could look like, including completion of a trail system to link the Fairhaven neighborhood with the downtown.

Funding options

No matter how passionate a community is about creating a public space, without funding the project stalls. Once again, creative partnerships and collaboration are critical. Funding options are available through local, state, federal and private sources.

For example, the Port of Port Townsend and Northwest Maritime Center partnered to obtain federal funding for the center and a continuous waterfront walkway in Port Townsend.

Bridge loans from nonprofit organizations like the Trust for Public Land, Nature Conservancy or Cascade Land Conservancy serve as another funding option for public access projects. These entities often purchase properties and hold them while the local government seeks project financing.

Success breeds success. The success of one small aspect of a project can then be used to leverage greater funding opportunities. The city of Bellingham’s proven success implementing a trail and overwater walkway at Taylor Street has led to additional grant funding opportunities for continuation of the citywide waterfront trail system.

Environmental restoration

With the transformation of private industrial shoreline uses to waterfront public access comes the opportunity and responsibility to undo past environmental degradation. Many waterfront projects in Puget Sound include strong elements of restoration, including removal of bulkheads, piers and other hard structures along the shoreline. Soft shoreline restoration (such as Mukilteo Beach, Bellingham’s Marine Park, Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park beach, Burien’s Seahurst Park) is becoming an important part of the creation of public waterfront spaces. No matter how cold the water, people are drawn to Puget Sound on a sunny day! And while these environmental enhancements of the marine shoreline are great for habitat, they are also great for people. Newly restored beaches become the public’s new playground.

Art and history

So what makes these newly created waterfront spaces great? First and foremost it’s that chance to be near the water. But there is something more. Parks, boardwalks, natural areas, public piers, artscapes, fishing piers, public gathering spaces — all of these together create a great public waterfront space. Communities now frequently partner with landscape architects and artists who pay attention to the story behind a place. History, art and education now play a critical role in public waterfront spaces. Examples of parks that integrate public art and site history include Percival Landing in Olympia, Dickman Mill Park in Tacoma, and Brackett’s Landing in Edmonds.

The history of a community is also captured through museums or maritime centers like Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center, which spotlights local boat building and craftsmanship, or Aberdeen’s Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, home of the Lady Washington, an 18th-century tall ship replica.

Great partnerships make for great public waterfront places. Those partnerships come in many forms — in the purchase of land or financing and creating a vision, plan or historic place. Each time you ask about that partnership, no matter which community, you will hear a tale of commitment and excitement in creating a legacy for the next generation.