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Waterfront Park: A place for everyone. Accessible features and connections that support visitors of all abilities.

Blog stats: 1,800 words | 9-minute read 

Editor’s Note: This is a blog post from the Waterfront Seattle Program. The Waterfront Seattle Program is a collaboration between the Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects (OWCP) and other Seattle departments including the Mayor’s Office, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Planning and Community Development, and Parks and Recreation. 

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Waterfront Park is designed to ensure everyone feels welcome so it can be enjoyed by all. It is a waterfront created for all people, as a place to meet and engage with each other, a place to reconnect with the natural environment and a place to laugh and play.

Accessibility features are just one way the Waterfront Seattle project team has been intentional about the planning and design of this park space. Thanks to valuable community input, including a workshop led by Lighthouse for the Blind and a project-specific Disability Roundtable supported by the City of Seattle’s Disability Commission, the Office of the Waterfront & Civic Projects has incorporated an array of accessibility features intended to eliminate barriers that could limit the enjoyment of the space, which you can learn more about below. 

Shows and intersection where people will bike and walk.  It features accessibility features like tactile surfaces, bollards and planted buffers
Intersections where people biking and walking will overlap include accessibility features, such as detectable (tactile) surfaces, bollards and planted buffers.

Building a more accessible waterfront 

As with any public works construction, we must meet the guidelines and standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, with the help of the Lighthouse for the Blind and our Disability Roundtable, the Waterfront Seattle program developed additional elements to ensure greater accessibility along the waterfront. This included a tactile wayfinding strip to support people who are blind or have low vision to navigate the Park Promenade and indicate where street crossings are located.  

You’ll see a variety of tactile elements along the waterfront, including:  

  • Wayfinding strips running north-south to provide guidance to people navigating the Park Promenade, including a texture change that signifies where street crossings are located.  
  • Detectable warnings at crossings of Alaskan Way, on crossings of the protected bike path, and at other key decision points. 
Shows sidewalk with pavers that are detectable by hand-held mobility canes that act as a wayfinding element
A strip of pavers that are detectable by hand-held mobility canes runs north-south along the promenade as an element to help people find their way.
Part of a trail that shows the bike path with detectable warning plates on both sides.
Detectable warning plates will alert people that they are approaching the bike path. The protected bike path also includes intentional design features that will notify people biking that they are approaching an intersection, such as curves to slow bicyclists and installation of new bike signals.

Several more design elements help make Waterfront Park a place that is welcoming to all. These include: 

  • Three (3) new elevators connecting to the waterfront.  
    • Union St, connecting Western Ave and Alaskan Way  
    • Pike Place Market Garage, connecting Western Ave to Alaskan Way   
    • Seattle Aquarium Ocean Pavilion, connecting the Park Promenade and Overlook Walk.  
  • Creation of an on-street accessible loading zone and ADA parking stalls that provide easier access to the Colman Dock ferry terminal transit hub.  
  • Building more continuous pedestrian space for improved accessibility for people walking and rolling.  
A wide stairwell against a blue sky and metal artwork going over the top.  To the right is a see through building with an elevator.
The elevator at Union Street Pedestrian Bridge provides mobility assistance for people needing an accessible connection between Alaskan Way (below) and Western Ave (above).

Designing safer intersections 

Design of intersections is especially important as they are where people walking, biking and driving all travel and there are more points of potential conflict. To support safe crossings, the intersections along the waterfront include:  

  • Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) with push buttons at all signalized intersections across Alaskan and Elliott Ways between S King St and Elliott Ave to provide a non-visual notification for when to cross. 
  • Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) signals which work by turning on the walk signal three to seven seconds period to people driving getting a green light, giving people walking a head start and making them more visible to people driving.  
  • Tactile features to support navigation to ADA-accessible curb ramps that align directly with the crosswalks. 
Rendering of the waterfront showing tabs over design areas that help with accessibility.  Wayfinding strips provide detectable north-south navigation tools on the promenade, with gaps at crosswalks and intersections.  Detectable warning plates with truncated domes for caning over on either side of protected bike lane.  Accessible pedestrian signals with push buttons at crossing over protected bike lane.  And at all signalized intersections, which offer non-visual formats to indicate when to cross.  Raised intersections that is three inches above the roadway to prioritize pedestrians.  Directional curb ramps aligned directly with the crosswalk.
A visualization showing the following accessibilty features at intersections along the waterfront: wayfinding strips, see-through mesh on railings, detectable warning plates, raised intersections, directional curb ramps, and accessible pedestrian signals (APS).

Free Waterfront Shuttle is returning later this month!  

A woman using a lift to assist a person in a wheelchair get out of the shuttle
The Free Waterfront Shuttle is ADA-accessible. Photo by Riwa Sabbak, courtesy of Friends of Waterfront Seattle. 

Partner organization Friends of Waterfront Seattle is bringing back the Free Waterfront Shuttle, beginning late-May and through Labor Day. The Free Waterfront Shuttle, funded in part by the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association and King County, is an accessible transportation option for visitors to the waterfront, with stops in International District, Pioneer Square, the waterfront, Belltown and Seattle Center. Learn more at:  

How community input helped shape the park’s design  

The accessibility improvements included in this project were closely informed by recommendations and feedback from various community groups representing people with disabilities. This included people from low-vision, blind, and deaf/blind communities, the Northwest ADA Center, the King County Mobility Coalition and several other groups that came together to help us understand what improvements could make the waterfront more accessible for everyone. Our design team used new technology by engaging a makerspace in Tacoma that used laser technology to create a 3D model showing where blind community members could feel the street intersections and the features we planned to build along the waterfront, and these people could provide feedback that helped improve our design.  

Our community partners also helped us develop a list of recommendations that guided the improvements for Waterfront Park design. Through these recommendations, we created the Waterfront Seattle Accessibility Plan, which highlights improvements made based on community feedback. From bulbing and curbing sidewalks to calm traffic in Pioneer Square, to creating a detectable wayfinding element across the central waterfront, we are adding a host of improvements to ensure people of all abilities can seamlessly enjoy all the waterfront has to offer. 

Meet several members of the team 

Emily Burns, Asset Management Program Manager 
Emily Burns smiling against a blue background. She has brown chin-length hair and blue eyes.  She's wearing a polka-dotted shirt.

I have been part of Waterfront Seattle since…  

I started working with the team on operations and maintenance planning and the curb ramp program in 2018. Then, in 2022 I accepted an opportunity to work directly with the Office of the Waterfront & Civic Projects.   

My favorite accessibility feature on the waterfront is…

Accessibility requires an integrated approach to how we design and communicate the built environment to support all users. We employ both constructed assets and technology to reach this objective. The Seattle Accessible Route Planner map interactively displays our accessible infrastructure. This is just one of several tools that will be employed to help people plan their waterfront visit and engage with the new, accessible features. 

My professional background is in…  

Public administration, asset management, facilitation, strategic planning, and capital and technology project management.  

My key contributions to the project include: 

  • Working with City departments to commission, transfer, and onboard their assets into maps and databases 
  • Establishing budgeting guidance and life cycle planning for maintenance and replacement  
  • Strengthening lines of communication between City departments by developing operations and maintenance agreements that clarify responsibilities  
  • Developing asset protection business practices and training 

My proudest moment on this project is…  

Walking along the corridor and experiencing the incredible environment that is being built for all users. I’ve lived in the Seattle area since 1980 and never imagined what the Waterfront would feel like without the viaduct. Honestly, I loved driving Highway 99, but as a pedestrian, the structure created a psychological barrier. The new visceral experience of seeing sunlight grace the buildings, hearing birds singing and people laughing, watching people explore Habitat Beach and the new art installations, and breathing in the cleanliness of the air is like stepping into another world. I feel so grateful to be part of a team creating this welcoming, front door to our city.

My favorite memory of working on the waterfront is… 

Anytime people ask me what I do and then watching them positively light up and tell me about their experiences with the waterfront and memories of the viaduct removal. 

My favorite things outside of work include… 

Engaging in art and creative pursuits, spending quality time with friends and family, music, volunteering, and exploring the natural environment.  

Mario Macias, ADA Engineer 

Mario Macias against a white sided background.  He's got short salt and pepper hair, and a big smile.  He's wearing a dark gray shirt.

I have been part of Waterfront Seattle since… 

October 2017 

My favorite accessibility feature on the waterfront is… 

All of them. I don’t mean to sound cliché, but ADA accessibility is the minimum whereas SDOT is pushing for more Universal Design which is usable by a wide range of people and their abilities. I’m really excited to see how all of them come together and how the people that benefit the most react to all accessible elements within the Waterfront.  

My professional background is in…  

Civil Engineering. I was consultant for 10 years prior to joining SDOT in August 2017. As I consultant my focus was on roadway and pedestrian facilities including street lighting. I joined SDOT as the ADA Engineer for the newly created ADA Program. 

My key contributions to the project include… 

The Waterfront is a massive undertaking with several projects coming together to deliver a Seattle jewel. Part of these improvements include several non-standard, first-time materials, and unique finishes not typically found in the public right of way. There will be also large open spaces that will go beyond typical sidewalks. Seattle does not have many similar projects in the public right of way to draw experience from. Reviewing and providing feedback on these issues is where I believe I made the biggest difference. 

My proudest moment on this project is… 

Reaching Final design. These are complex projects with many stakeholders and interests at hand.  ADA requirements can be pretty stringent and it’s always a challenge to balance the concept design with site constraints, all while making sure we are designing a space that is accessible and usable by everyone. Working out these issues can be a difficult process and reaching an agreement is very rewarding.  

My favorite memory of working on the waterfront is…  

When they demolished the Viaduct. Once it was gone you knew the Waterfront was changed forever in a good way. I can’t wait to see the finished product. 

My favorite things outside of work include…  

Traveling with my family, warm and sunny places preferred. Also love short drives around our beautiful Puget Sound, even better if a ferry ride is included. Enjoy working on the yard, and lately building Legos with my son.  

To learn more: