SEATTLE — The cars that until recently whizzed past downtown Seattle on the Alaskan Way Viaduct may soon be replaced by tropical sharks cruising through a huge tank shaped like a martini glass, with viewing portals for people above and below.
The 325,000-gallon tank with 6-foot-long sharks and 6-foot-wide sting rays native to the South Pacific would be the main draw inside a new Ocean Pavilion that the Seattle Aquarium intends to build, with taxpayers’ assistance, between Pike Place Market and Piers 59 and 60. The space could open as early as 2023.
Aquarium leaders say the addition is needed to accommodate hundreds of thousands more visitors each year and to educate them about human- and climate-related threats to waters across the globe, such as the super biodiverse Coral Triangle near Indonesia.
“It’s one big ocean. What happens on the other side of the planet is just as important as what happens here,” said Tim Kuniholm, an aquarium spokesman. “We have orcas in peril here. There are animals like sharks that are also in peril over there.”
The City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on an ordinance that would cement a $34 million contribution by Seattle to the $113 million, 50,000-square foot new pavilion, which would supplement the aquarium’s existing exhibits on Piers 59 and 60.
The nonprofit Aquarium Society manages the city-owned aquarium and plans to raise $60 million in private donations for the project while tapping King County, Washington state and federal sources for the remaining $19 million.
Seattle’s money would come from real-estate excise tax revenue. Though the city’s other needs include low-income housing and sidewalks, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw says she backs the aquarium allocation.
“The city has something for everybody,” she said. “We have parks so people can enjoy that, we have transportation so people can get around and the Aquarium provides massive educational opportunities for people.”
Part of a comprehensive waterfront revamp that City Hall began work on long ago, the Ocean Pavilion would command a prime spot at the northern end of a new promenade and would help link the hillside market to the piers below.
A park-like ramp that Seattle plans to build between the market and waterfront, dubbed “Overlook Walk,” would cross over a rebuilt Alaskan Way and then descend onto the pavilion’s rooftop, which would double as an Elliott Bay viewpoint.
“People will be able to enjoy the views that they used to enjoy from the viaduct,” said Heidi Hughes at Friends of the Waterfront.
Stairs would wrap around the pavilion’s northern wall, linking the rooftop to the promenade. Those would be complemented by elevators by the southern wall.
“This is going to be an integrated landscape,” said Marshall Foster, Seattle Office of the Waterfront director.
Viaduct teardown clears way for expansion
The aquarium’s leaders have dreamed for decades about a major addition. “From almost the day the Aquarium opened (in 1977), there were ambitions” on the waterfront and at City Hall to expand, Aquarium Society CEO Bob Davidson said.
Pier 59 was renovated in 2007, but not until the viaduct’s removal was decided did discussion about a new-look waterfront open the door for a new pavilion to be built on an upland site.
In 2013, the city pledged to contribute $1 million for design work, and by 2015 the aquarium had sketched an initial plan for the Ocean Pavilion. The council cleared that plan to move ahead and budget writers penciled $34 million into the city’s long-term capital program.
Last year, Seattle increased its design contribution and renewed the society’s management agreement, noting the pavilion could ultimately receive the $34 million.
Monday’s ordinance, recommended unanimously by Councilmember Debora Juarez’s civic development committee, would essentially seal the deal by authorizing funding and construction agreements between the city and the Society.
Boosters say they expect the viaduct’s removal and the waterfront’s redevelopment to double or triple the number of visitors to Seattle’s downtown piers, swelling crowds at the aquarium.
“The aquarium has got to provide more to see and more connections to the health of the ocean,” Davidson said.
The society’s CEO said the Ocean Pavilion should allow the aquarium to serve at least 1.2 million visitors annually, up from about 850,000.
A peek inside
The aquarium’s designs for the new pavilion’s interior and exterior aren’t 100% done, but they’re complete enough to paint a vivid picture of what may be in store.
Inside, the superstars would be the sharks and rays. The pavilion’s largest tank would also contain some schooling fish and reef fish.
The mix would likely include blacktip reef sharks, whiptail rays, small fusilier fish and brilliant tang fish, said Tim Carpenter, the aquarium’s curator of fish and invertebrates.
The idea would be to show an ecosystem, with rays that rest on the bottom, sharks that glide near the surface and fish in between. The tank would be wider at the top, giving the sharks more room to cruise.
“The take-away here is that we’re not building something that would be called shark tank. We’re trying to have a diverse group,” Carpenter said.
The exhibit wouldn’t work like a real ecosystem. The sharks would be fed to dissuade them from eating their tank mates, and the tank’s “coral canyon” would be artificial, though the pavilion would include a separate large exhibit with live coral.
The pavilion’s design calls for an upper story to sweep alongside the waterfront and hang over the promenade, allowing passersby to look up through a circle of glass into the tank with the sharks and rays.
A similar glass portal above the tank would allow sunlight to reach the watery scene and allow people on the pavilion’s rooftop to gaze down into the exhibit space, said LMN Architects partner Mark Reddington.
“We’ve been calling it a ‘Sharkulus’ – an oculus with sharks,” he said, comparing the tank’s tapered shape to that of a martini glass.
The architect is considering “natural materials” for the exterior, including wood and plants. The aquarium has engaged Tuner Construction, while the city has tapped Hoffman Construction for the $100 million Overlook Walk, which is slated to be built with money from a local improvement district.
The companies would collaborate, with both projects scheduled to begin in 2021.
City spending ‘might warrant’ more discussion
Monday’s ordinance cleared Juarez’s committee without controversy, as the council member noted the Ocean Pavilion has been in the works for years. “This is what makes us a world-class city,” she said.
Juarez said she’s most excited that Seattle-area Native community members have been consulting on the design. Aquarium leaders say they want the pavilion to make visitors think about connections between indigenous people and the ocean, both here and in the Coral Triangle. Exactly how that will be done is still being determined.
“They’ll know that they’re on indigenous land, the land of the people of the Salish Sea,” Juarez said.
Not everyone has been tracking the project, said Katie Wilson, an activist at the Seattle Transit Riders Union.
“I wasn’t aware of this and I imagine many people and organizations weren’t,” Wilson said. “In our current situation, with a housing and homelessness crisis, (the $34 million) might warrant a bit more public discussion.”
Tickets to the aquarium aren’t cheap – local adults pay almost $30 and youth almost $25. Not long ago, public money for Woodland Park Zoo was questioned by activists who objected to elephants in captivity.
Visitors won’t be charged extra to visit the Ocean Pavilion, said Kuniholm, the Aquarium spokesman. A single ticket will grant access to the entire campus, he said.
Davidson said the aquarium has never held orcas and, unlike the Zoo, receives no operating subsidies. Its mission, he said, is to inspire conservation by showing visitors underwater sights they would never glimpse otherwise.
More than 50,000 schoolchildren visit the aquarium annually, and 60,000 people from marginalized communities receive free or discounted access, Davidson said.
Foster, Seattle’s waterfront director, says $34 million makes sense because that’s what the city contributed to the Pike Place Market’s recent expansion.