Urban planning can be measured in geologic time. Consider Everett’s Riverfront project which traces back to the Mount Firestone Era, a period many years ago (but within recorded history — September 1984) when a hump of four-million tires ignited on the city’s former landfill and burned until May 1985. The fire was the Riverfront equivalent of the dinosaur-extinguishing asteroid, a begin-anew epoch built on ashes. The site’s post-fire history remains an instructive gauge of political sensibilities and the city’s shape-shifting ambitions. A research university or a big-box store? Turned earth, for now, is the clay of imagination.
The latest blip in the Riverfront timeline, as reported by The Herald’s Noah Haglund, is the potential loss of the city’s private-developer partner, OliverMcMillan. Polygon Northwest has expressed interest in purchasing the site. Through a geologic-time lens, the ownership transfer reinforces the patience-is-a-virtue mindset. The Riverfront is a complex, labor-intensive project, a public-private canoodle that will take years to complete. As a potentially liable party, the city is compelled to ensure the site is properly decontaminated and suitable for use and development. Former industrial areas, termed “brownfields” by urbanists and policymakers, offer major opportunities, and the Riverfront is a case study of a typically tedious, ions-long process.
There are lessons to be gleaned, including the false hope of a gateway or signature project. Signature projects, like Naval Station Everett, come together because of shrewd planning, contingency and a collaborative alliance of business and lawmakers (divine intervention is tougher to document.) Even those forces, coupled with civic boosterism, are little guarantee of success.
A grounded approach involves catalytic-based planning that seizes on the character of a place. Walkable neighborhoods and town centers, open space and shoreline access. Developments then build upon other catalytic land uses such as transportation, optimizing how people get there.
Development axioms aren’t new, of course. Making whole a realistic vision for Everett’s riverfront requires detailed legwork, and it will never be as alluring as landing a research university or REI store.
A second lesson from the Riverfront project is the need to enhance communication between the City Council and the mayor. Several councilmembers have expressed dismay that they were told late in the game about OliverMcMillan’s potential departure. A return to a council committee structure is one proactive strategy to keep council members in the loop. Committees focused on law enforcement, economic development, transportation and real estate facilitate engagement with the mayor’s office. There’s no reason councilmembers should be marginalized from what’s going on with the Riverfront effort and other questions vital to Everett’s civic health.