New On The Waterfront -- Bell Street Pier Offers Vibrant Array Of Attractions For Both Locals And Visitors

Sydney, Australia, shares many similar characteristics with Seattle.

That dynamic port city on the other side of the Pacific Rim has a skyline bursting with gleaming towers that hug the edge of a spectacular waterfront. A well-preserved historic district is a stone's throw from the "Circular Quay" containing a cruise ship terminal, a fleet of ferry boats that glide across the inlet, and a sinuous esplanade filled with strollers.

Sydney has both a monorail that circles around downtown, and a spiky needle-like tower complete with the requisite revolving restaurant. The waterfront is even lined with a multilevel viaduct - although Sydney's structural behemoth carries not cars but sleek subway trains.

Last year, Sydney completed one of the last pieces of Darling Harbour, a huge crescent of public spaces, shops, hotels, housing, museums and meeting facilities. The scale and grandeur of the harbor is astonishing; it is virtually a city within the city. A few blocks away, a public market bustles with the business of selling fruit, fish and vegetables.

This month Seattle saw a similarly impressive public project open on its central waterfront. Put together by the Port of Seattle, the Bell Street Pier complex provides an amazing array of attractions for both locals and visitors. Following close on the heels of its recently completed and exquisitely designed headquarters a few piers to the north, this new development is carefully designed to reflect its place in the city and the region.

That such an extraordinary project could have been done at all in this era of timid government agencies, diminished dollars and public opposition to almost anything is a story in itself - best told by a column on local politics. Suffice it to say that much of the credit goes to port commissioners who promoted the project as a long-term investment in global trade, Port project manager Karen Ross who tirelessly guided the development process, and the architectural firm of Hewitt Isley which gave form to this splendid new "front door" to the city.

From a distance, the Bell Street Pier looks like a compact collection of colorful metal sheds that might have been progressively plunked down in a helter-skelter manner along the water's edge. This was entirely intended on the part of the designers, drawing from the quirky industrial accretions that grow, barnacle-like, along many urban waterfronts.

But upon closer inspection, the individual parts and pieces are artfully arranged and delicately detailed to offer a setting that is at the same time refined and rough. When the huge cruise ships start appearing, along with the fishing trawlers along the quay, the pier will burst into life, merging maritime commerce and culture with recreation and relaxation. It also will be possible to actually observe the processing of fish and then buy some to take home.

Even now, the new short-stay marina is being discovered. Recently open to public use, its berths will fill up with boats visiting from around the world. Patterned after the marina in Victoria's inner harbor, this protected moorage presents a fine welcome mat to Seattle. The end of the breakwater is marked with a fantastical column by New York artist R.M. Fischer that is as visually intriguing during the night as it is during the day.

Local artist Ann Gardner was commissioned to create a piece that helps shape the central plaza along Alaskan Way. A serpentine wall displaying an intricate mosaic pattern, it forms a lively backdrop to the public "stage" in the center. Opposite the wall, the Odyssey Maritime Museum, to be completed next year, will house interactive exhibits.

Farther toward the water is a small fountain in the form of a flopping fish. It is entirely expected that kids will want to wade into its shallow, swirling pool. This energetic water feature was designed by landscape architect Kris Snider, who was inspired by his 5-year-old son, Drew.

Although the pier itself is intended for use by passenger ships and trawlers, people will be able to walk right up to the water's edge via a space that is separated from the maritime commerce by a clever arrangement of sliding gates. Magnificent views will be possible both from the public spaces that swirl around the complex and from raised levels of the restaurant building that will house Anthony's Home Port.

Of all the public spaces, the most dramatic is that perched atop the main building. Accessible by a grand staircase and elevators from Alaskan Way, this deck offers a jaw-dropping 360-degree view of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains and downtown.

This public space is at the same elevation as the intersection of Bell Street and Elliott Avenue. It can be reached directly from Belltown via a two-level pedestrian bridge that dramatically spans Alaskan Way and the train tracks below.

Another access point from downtown is the Lenora Street bridge, a combination of the former concrete viaduct and a new elevator and stair tower. Port Commissioner Paige Miller points out that these two bridges offer the first handicapped-accessible routes directly from downtown to the waterfront.

Unfortunately, the visual impact of each bridge is somewhat marred by the addition of mesh-covered fences required by Burlington Northern Railroad to prevent things from being thrown off. The design team did its best to work the additions into the bridge structures, but they still seem tacked on.

Another odd spot is the intersection of the Bell Street pedestrian bridge with the entrance to the rooftop plaza. What was an opportunity for an dramatic terminus to the walk is instead a quite ordinary arrangement of angled walls and roof forms.

But despite these few flaws, the place is superb. And it continues to expand and add new parts. The project included the building of wide sidewalks and decorative street lighting along Alaskan Way over a stretch that has been rough and unattractive. Shops selling products associated with maritime activity will line the street.

Just opened is the Bell Harbor Conference Center, an elegantly styled complex containing meeting rooms, a dining room with stunning views of the water and mountains, and a striking, state-of-the-art auditorium that is outfitted for simultaneous translation into multiple languages. CRG Hospitality, Inc. is the company hired to operate the center. Already, dozens of groups from around the world have booked meetings.

On the east side of Alaskan Way, the Intracorp Development Company is building Waterfront Landings condominium complex. It was designed by the architecture firm GGLO, which is well-known for sophisticated urban housing. A series of similar, but varied residential buildings are wrapped around courtyards. Located downhill from Pike Place Market, this development further demonstrates how quickly downtown is becoming a desirable place to live.

The best thing about the Bell Street Pier is that it perfectly fits this city. It is elegant but not ostentatious. It is more gangly than grand. It feels like it belongs here and nowhere else.

Mark L. Hinshaw is a private consultant who provides urban design services to local governments. His column runs monthly in the Home/Real Estate section of The Seattle Times.