Here’s Your Public Benefit: An Anorexic Version of Harbor Steps

One hundred and three ~6-foot wide concrete steps dropping ~60 feet across a ~130 foot span. That’s the public benefit the citizens of Seattle will receive for allowing the development of a luxury condo/hotel in one of the most prime urban locations in the entire Pacific Northwest. As we’ve already discussed on this blog, the contribution the new Four Seasons building will make to the public realm on 1st Ave is marginally better than the parking garage that it replaced. (And yes, I appreciate that the overlook from the end of Union Street will be nicer than it was: but functionally there will be little difference.)

The stair will provide a useful pedestrian connection down from 1st Ave to Western Ave, and then across the street to that pathetic fire escape of a stairway that takes you down to the waterfront. It will be interesting to see how much use it gets: I suspect its imposing look will discourage many. And of course there already was a more conventional stairway from the north side of Union down to Post Alley, but it will be closed permanently.

I have not been able to determine (i.e. google) who will retain ownership of the stair: the Four Seasons or the City. But in any case, reportedly it will remain open to the public 24-7. The top of the stair is precariously high above Post Alley: I can’t help imagining how ugly it could get when clubs like the Showbox empty out at 2 am, and if the access policy will change in the event of an accident.

19 Responses to “Here’s Your Public Benefit: An Anorexic Version of Harbor Steps”

  1. justin

    It looks like there was plenty of room to make this wider, being so narrow is terrible.

  2. Kirk H

    Hmmmmm….this somehow reminds me of a Death Cab album title….

    Anyways, if I’m ever asked what the purpose of urban design is, I’m going to point to the Four Seasons. The building seems to only care about itself, and gives the rest of the city the finger. Why do we have a design review board again?

  3. Sabina Pade

    I’m having a difficult time empathising with the anger Dan and many hugeass readers appear to feel toward the new Four Seasons.

    The photos Dan gives us above well illustrate the physical constraints of the Four Seasons building site. Perhaps the developer could have obtained air rights over the power substation between Post Alley and Western Avenue; likely this was prohibited either by code, or by considerations of cost. In all events, the presence of the power substation equipment would have prevented pedestrian-level access along Western Avenue, and significantly impaired any Harbor Steps-like development along the stairs descending to it.

    I agree that the Four Seasons does not espouse a FuzzyWarm decorative aesthetic. Should we feel resentment toward its builders and its embarrassingly wealthy future occupants? I don’t think so. The absence of a Four Seasons, in all its armoured splendour, would not make Seattle and Seattleites more wealthy; its presence, on the other hand, certainly does.

    FWIW, those 103 skinny steps hanging in the air really are a cool walk.

  4. Spencer


    I agree with you. the constraints are pretty apparent. There’s a street to the north and substation to the south. As you pointed out it’s very unlikely that an easement could have been obtained.

    The comparison to harbor steps is also a little unfair. There’s a lot less opportunity with this connection because the existing grade is more severe and again it has to contend with the substation.

    I would say it is a bad neighbor to post alley and what ever has replaced the hostel (if it was replaced). It might have been a little more playful with it’s landings and been less linear all together.

  5. dan bertolet

    My point is not that they should have built another Harbor Steps. I brought up Harbor Steps as a comparison to exemplify a project that provided substantial public benefit.

    Part of the reason the Four Seasons site is so valuable is because of the major investments the City made in the surrounding amenities, and it seems to me that it should be expected to give more than it does back to the public, especially since it is such a big money project.

    I am not bashing the developers or owners — they are playing the game by the rules. But I am bashing the culture that allows this to happen.

    And Sabina, if wealth is the only concern then we should also be working towards making all our neighborhoods just like Broadmoor (the gated “community” in Madison Park).

  6. Spencer


    the same could be said for my feelings toward the development of Columbia City.
    so, if this is a cultural problem, who is responsible if the developers and owners are not willing to give appropriately back to the public?

    Should the responsibility fall to architects who, we expect, are trained (and sympathetic)to know what the public needs? Shouldn’t the project architect have stood up to their client on behalf of the public? After all, it’s kind of in an unwritten code of ethics for architects to be better stewards to humanity. Or can they too be in it for the money and fame?

  7. BrianK

    Spencer, as an architect I vehemently reject the notion that we are in it for the fame and fortune. Based on the evidence, the majority of us are highly unskilled at achieving either. So it must be something else that draws us to the profession, e.g. masochism.

    Now for a “Why-is-Seattle-so-lame-compared-to-X?” comment: Each time I visit Vancouver BC (as I did this past weekend), I’m stunned by the latest crop of amazing high-rise buildings popping up. Built for the ridiculously wealthy (who are these people?), each one is more decadently beautiful and unattainable than the last. But despite (or because) of that, each one manages to offer more public benefit in its metaphorical little finger than the Four Seasons does from tip to toe. Human scale details and materials on the sidewalk, lightness not heaviness, relief, true amenities, and certainly more graceful accessories than this chunky flying stair.

    I was excited to see this thing under construction until I realized it was only half-baked. And how do I get to Post Alley now? Down the stairs, then back up the hill? Nice.

  8. keith

    Hey Spencer,

    I tried to answer your question on my site (it’s long so I posted it there). I hope it doesn’t come across as pedantic and preachy; it is as much an attempt at organizing my thoughts as it is answering your question. And, honestly, my answer isn’t much more than a hugeassmirror.

  9. old timer

    For all the supposed ‘luxe’ associated with that project, that stairway looks like the cheapest piece of shit they could throw up.
    Man, it’s nasty.

  10. dorian gray

    Old Timer, sadly sir, I know how much that likely cost, and I can assure you it is a princely sum of money.

  11. BrianM

    This whole complex is just so DOUR. The staircase looks scary, but it is better than some San Francisco stairs, so…it will do.

  12. Dan Staley

    Who’s Ann and why is she orexic?

  13. “The Right To The City” | hugeasscity

    […] in case you didn’t notice, that black and white orb hanging beneath the canopy on the Four Seasons building is a surveillance camera.  Is the camera pointed your way?  Is it recording 24×7? […]

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