What 'Seattle process'? Big wheel turns up fast

What 'Seattle process'? Big wheel turns up fast
Seattle Great Wheel owners Hal Griffith (right) and son Kyle go for a test ride on the waterfront Ferris wheel during final construction, as seen from one of the six-passenger gondolas earlier this month. (Photo: Anthony Bolante / Puget Sound Business Journal)
One year and eight months after applying for permits, the owners of Pier 57 are opening a 16-story Ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront - a feat of civic diplomacy and salesmanship.

At 175 feet, it is the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast, and is bolted so close to the end of the pier that it extends 40 feet over the bay.

To the casual observer, the Seattle Great Wheel, opening June 30, seemed to appear almost overnight, blooming in a matter of weeks at the water's edge. The project, including retrofitting the pilings that support the pier, actually took almost three years - still a relatively short period of time in a city famous for its ability to debate and equivocate a decision to death.

Building major developments in Seattle can be an "overly burdensome process," said someone who ought to know, Brian Robinson of ArenaSolution.org, a basketball arena booster group. "We have a lot of political leadership afraid to be decisive."

Longtime Seattle real estate consultant and developer William Justen was surprised to see the wheel come to life so quickly.

"Shorelines are pretty restrictive for development," he said, "so it's impressive they were able to get it through the process quickly."

So how did the Seattle Great Wheel get built with so little drama?

Success wasn't pre-ordained. The city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD) was just one of the agencies with a say.

"Agencies I didn't know even existed were involved, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers," said Kyle Griffith. He and his brother, Troy, and his father, Hal, own the pier and all of its attendant businesses and attractions, known collectively as Miners Landing.
But for the most part, the wheel avoided the politics that bedevil other forms of urban development. The city reviewed the wheel's possible environmental impact to the marine environment, as well as how it would change the view across the waterfront (which the Department of Planning and Development deemed nominal because the wheel is positioned perpendicular to the shore).

The DPD posted its decision in November, 13 months after the Griffiths applied for permits. The legs of the wheel arrived on trucks in May and the attraction quickly took shape.

"There was public notice," said Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the DPD, "and we didn't get any appeals on the decision (to allow its construction). From what I understand, there was interest in the community to maintain activity on the waterfront."

Measured a different way, patriarch Hal Griffith's quest to build the wheel took nearly a quarter century.

He first attempted to bring a Ferris wheel to the waterfront in the late 1980s, when he added a carousel at Miners Landing. At that time, he applied for permission to erect a Ferris wheel similar to the one at Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles, proposing to locate it in the Waterfront Park between Pier 57 and the Seattle Aquarium.

"He got permission for the carousel but not the wheel," said Kyle Griffith, "so the idea sat on a shelf for a number of years."

Successfully reviving the idea and threading the bureaucratic needle to get it built quickly were the result of several factors.

"When the (demolition) of the (Alaskan Way) viaduct became a reality," Kyle Griffith said, "we kind of came together as a community at the waterfront and recognized we had better try to do something proactively to stay viable and keep people wanting to come and enjoy the waterfront during all the construction."

With community sentiment on its side, the Ferris wheel became a cause, not just for Miners Landing, but for the entire waterfront and to a lesser extent the city, whose stake in the success of the waterfront only increased with the decision to replace the viaduct with an underground tunnel.

"All of our neighbors have been very supportive of it," said Adriana Pinegar, spokeswoman for Miners Landing.

Kyle and Troy were in grade school when their father first tried to build a Ferris wheel on the waterfront. Kyle is now 32, Troy 29, and they are graduates of the University of Washington and Washington State University, respectively.

In the intervening years, the engineering and art of Ferris wheel design has improved, as evidenced by London's new landmark on the River Thames, the London Eye, which is more than twice the height of the Seattle Great Wheel. Like the London Eye, the Great Wheel has enclosed gondolas and is built on a relatively small footprint.

That allowed the Griffiths to build the wheel on their own property rather than the Waterfront Park, which is public property, making the permitting process simpler.

"It's almost like it was meant to be," Kyle Griffith said. "It fits perfectly at the end of the pier; it's the biggest wheel that would fit there. A lot of things did come together."

Building the wheel required filing piles of paperwork addressing environmental concerns of several agencies. A benefit of the new wheel, Kyle Griffith said, was the opportunity to replace century-old wood pilings covered in creosote with more expensive steel pilings that do not leach toxins into the water. Because steel posts are stronger than wood, fewer were needed, allowing more light to penetrate the water, a benefit to marine life, he said.

"Just about everything you could imagine was regulated and thoroughly checked," he said. "We had to go through a lot of hoops to do even the simplest thing… From living in Seattle all our lives, we were already aware of some of the challenges we'd face in that way. We were doing something pretty unique. We really have no complaints."

The Great Wheel is the third of its size and kind in North America. Similar wheels were installed at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and in Myrtle Beach, S.C., by the same company that built the Seattle wheel, Chance Rides, of Wichita, Kan. The Griffiths budgeted $15 million for the wheel and ended up spending more than $20 million. They financed a portion of its cost with a bank loan, but paid for most of it themselves.

The Great Wheel has 42 enclosed gondolas, including a "VIP" gondola equipped with leather seats, all fabricated in Germany. Kyle Griffith called them "the Mercedes-Benz" of Ferris wheel gondolas. A ride on the wheel costs $13 and takes about 15 minutes, allowing three revolutions complete with views of the city and Puget Sound.

The lights on the wheel can be customized, and the Griffiths are planning to use certain colors for certain occasions - blue, silver and green for Seahawk games, for example, or perhaps green and yellow for a new SuperSonics basketball team if developers lure a new franchise to Seattle and build an arena.

"It's the role of the city government to provide community benefits we can all enjoy with our families," Robinson, the arena booster, said. "It's important to have attractions and events to bring people to this city."

Compared to an arena, a waterfront attraction is probably an easy sell, he said.

"That should not be a major debate," he said. "It's a Ferris wheel."

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