Alki Beach, full of potential, needs a boost of fun and functional design

West Seattle's northern shoreline may be the most enticing place on Puget Sound. A century and a half ago, it inspired the Denny party to found the first white settlement in the region. Alki Beach's apparent potential as a port, industrial center and metropolis proved elusive, but it later took on a more laid-back role as our democratic and accessible Riviera, when funky beach cottages and Luna Park, "the Coney Island of the West," set the scene for Alki's second act early in the last century.

Now it is well into Act Three. The amusement park is long gone, but in recent decades zoning codes and developers' pro formas have produced an impressive frontage of about 50 multifamily buildings of five to seven levels extending in spurts for about three miles along the inland side of Alki and Harbor avenues. The result is a strong urban frontage found nowhere else in the region outside of the city core.

Here is Seattle's version of Rio or Miami Beach, a cliff-dwellers' littoral of spectacular skyline views in one direction, and nearly unspoiled vistas of the Sound, its forested islands, and the Olympics in the other. Alki Beach's sand, skating lanes, and eating and drinking places are for everyone, but the waterfront condos are more exclusive, with current asking prices starting above $250,000 and reaching $1.6 million. The market tells us that these are desirable places to live, but there's more to the story than high property values, spacious units, prime location and drop-dead views.

For all of its economic potency, this intense — by low-density Seattle standards — and luxurious waterside development doesn't fully match the potential of its superb setting. This can be said for both the private and public realm.

This array of buildings is impressive as a collective mass, but the shoreline and its wall of buildings is scaled more to the automobile than to pedestrians. Outside of the six-block Alki business district, there is virtually no commerce or concentrated human activity to enliven the walking experience.

Only two retail businesses (a nail salon and a tiny coffeehouse) occupy any of the four-dozen large residential buildings in one two-mile stretch. Nor is there much ground-level transparency or detail. Instead, people on foot generally are greeted by blank walls, berms, exposed carports and large garage doors. Many surviving older apartments and homes provide sidewalk-level, human-scale interest, but the bigger, newer, more luxurious buildings generally don't.

Less cars, more foot traffic

Rather than being a lively mixed-use urban zone (as is the beach business district), most of Alki is exclusively residential, and thus somewhat sterile. It's better experienced at 30 motorized mph than at three on foot.

Perplexingly, nine different zoning classifications apply to different sections of the Alki/Duwamish Head waterfront, suggesting that the city fathers and mothers may not have a clear vision of what the place can or should be. This is not totally surprising, since Seattle may be the only U.S. city of its size without a full-fledged city planning department or an urban redevelopment agency.

The roadway is almost a purely automotive domain, since bus service is very limited. The two bus lines that run along Alki and Harbor avenues (one street under two names) do so infrequently on weekdays, only twice on Saturday, and never on Sunday. The local water taxi service to downtown runs far more often than the bus, but there's virtually no way for most people to get to that foot ferry without driving.

The landscape design of the public zone along Alki's shore is neither offensive nor inspired. Accommodations for foot traffic, skaters, bicyclists and skateboarders is more utilitarian than esthetic. Plantings are scarce and grass has been trampled into a dirt path by pedestrians who shun the inadequate sidewalks. There was little attempt to treat the paving creatively, as in Rio's famous boldly patterned sidewalks, and the public art there is reticent and easily overlooked, in contrast to Donald Fels' wonderful boat-frame sculpture located on port property a couple of miles to the south, where few people can see it.

Landscaping is similarly richer where pedestrians are sparser, abutting port property. West Seattle's shoreline amenities are maldistributed and haven't always been put where they could do the most good for the most people.

Lackluster buildings

The architectural quality of the condos varies. A few are pretentious, most are unremarkable, and some are well-crafted in a quiet way. Not many of them respond wholeheartedly to the festive character of their setting — living at the beach should make every day a special occasion, but few of these buildings manage to capture that holiday feeling well. The water may sparkle, but too many of the buildings are dull.

It's true that balconies and large widows abound, but they too typically show more utility than style. Quite a few buildings use curves in their design, but usually not with full commitment. None employ a nautically-inspired style, like the delightfully iconic portholed and streamlined Admiral movie theater up the hill.

Rarely is color used to celebrate Alki's special sense of place. Some condos use soft shades of blue or green to evoke the water, but the most popular colors are beige, off-white, or light gray.

Doing it right

The prime exception, at 1374 Alki Ave., combines a rich terra cotta with aqua and pale pink. It stands adjacent to two of the best-formed buildings on the water, a subtly elaborated stucco-and-metal clad double building at 1388 (probably the best-designed large structure on the shore), and a simply and strongly formed concrete structure at 1402. If all the condos were of similar design quality to this trio, Alki would be just fine. But as it is, its better buildings are not as lively or adept as the better recent residential buildings in Belltown or Capitol Hill, or as a typical recent waterfront residential structure in central Vancouver, B.C.

The two most sophisticated designs in this zone are relatively small. One is a vacant two-story structure at 2783 Harbor Ave. that was been remodeled twice in the past eight years, and is now suitable as a live-work unit or a commercial space. This crisply formed and detailed building was deftly clad by architect Erich Remash in two contrasting patterns and shades of shining corrugated metal, and is a simple, well-proportioned, and near-perfect visual specimen.

The more complex architectural gem is a recently completed five-level, three-unit condo at 2122 Alki skillfully designed by Arellano-Christofides architects and built to high standards by the contracting firm of Constructive Energy.

Its three main living levels step back successively to create large front terraces that give each unit the feeling of a rooftop penthouse. Floor-to-ceiling windows face in three directions to maximize the sweeping water view, which is also enhanced by nearly invisible glass guardrails at the edge of the deck.

The building is not clad in the typical Alki stucco, but primarily in vertical cedar boards and horizontal battens stained a warm greenish-brown color. The topmost unit contains a loft, is pitch-roofed with a large flat dormer, and is sheathed in silvery-gray metal siding. Each unit is snappily accented by bright red steel trellises.

The end result is a warm, spirited building that achieves clean-lined modernity without starkness or pretension. The building was developed by local realty agents Tom and Nancy Roth, who occupy the smallest topmost unit. (The others average more than 2,600 square feet, not counting the decks and garages.)

Their home is filled with light, and lends itself to their stylish furniture, fixtures and art — both are collectors, and Tom is architecturally trained. Their project clearly reflects personal passion and informed, venturesome taste, ingredients missing from most of the other Alki condo projects.

In their very different ways, 2783 Harbor and 1374, 1388, 1402 and 2122 Alki show that good design is certainly possible along the West Seattle shoreline.

Seattle's Riviera could become a functionally and visually richer place by taking some obvious steps: more mixed use; greater attention to the ground floor of large projects; redeveloping some shoreline segments more imaginatively, using the region's best design architects; and upgrading the Alki Avenue-Harbor Avenue thoroughfare to more boulevard-like standards. How did the Olmsted Brothers, the legendary landscape architectural firm that designed a citywide system of parks and boulevards in Seattle starting in 1903, ever miss this one?

Other steps that would help: undergrounding the utilities, replacing the flimsy tubular streetlights with better looking ones that don't vibrate noisily in the wind, and establishing a weekend shuttle to link the water taxi to the beach business district.

The city would do well to recognize this zone as a visually critical area, create a multidisciplinary master plan for it under the auspices of its CityDesign agency, and apply its established design review process to all substantial developments there.

Seattle writer John Pastier is an architecture critic and design consultant.