Pier 57 Ferris Wheel Circle of Fraud and Distortion to Gain Approval

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Over the last several months I have investigated the approval process for the Ferris wheel at Pier 57.  It seemed odd that such a project could gain approval, not only in the shoreline area but also located within a historical district, and on a historical site.  What I found is that the approval was only granted by the City after it and the owner engaged in a lot of machinations to circumvent the legal requirements that would have outright barred the approval and subsequent building of the structure.    The entire document that details what I learned about this project is online, it can be downloaded here.


             This critical review of the origination and permitting process for the Ferris Wheel demonstrates that at least at the City of Seattle level extensive effort went into providing approval for this project that was not merited, and that the City in concert with various departments and personnel, not to mention with the owner of Pier 57, fabricated stories around most if not all of the elements of the project in order that it could ostensibly be approvable, including probably the greatest fabrication that it generated, that Pier 57 was an outdoor sports facility.

The project owner misrepresented most of the parts of the project, for instance claiming that its piling work was just routine maintenance in order to get around environmental review laws; but even when the City apparently knew this wasn’t true, it did nothing to change the dynamic that was in place – the lax application of the codes and laws that applied to the project, and even outright ignoring those as City personnel saw fit.

The City and the landowner also in concert with each other conceived of a sham land transaction, and it is difficult given both the pier owner’s and the city’s familiarity with both the contract that they claimed they were doing the land transaction pursuant to and the shoreline laws and codes that were applicable, that both have demonstrably dealt with for decades, that they were innocently bargaining away the City’s property to a private business interest.

With a wink and a nod the Pier 57 owner proceeded with the project without one legitimate city or state approval, mortgaging his property and buying the Ferris Wheel, proceeding to have it fabricated, all with the acquiescence the City and the State also.

The City also with this project has not only amply demonstrated that it is not a steward of its own municipal code, an enforcer of the Federal, State, and City laws that govern shoreline development, but that it also flat out is not a steward of the environment, of the historic properties along the waterfront, of the waterfront itself, and that it has no intention of being bound by the mandates that it is given in the Seattle Municipal Code, its Shoreline Plan, and in its Comprehensive Plan.

The City and the Project owner have also with this Project demonstrated that they both are hypocrites when it comes to the public’s safety – on the one hand they both have demanded that, and in the case of the City, have ensured that the Alaskan Way Viaduct be torn down because they claim it is seismically unsafe, while in the meantime the City and the Pier owner have made a deal between themselves to build a just as seismically unsafe structure, the Ferris Wheel; but neither has bothered to share that information with the public.  They have not informed the public of that danger and instead allowed the public free access to a structure that neither believes is safe, so much so that they have memorialized the danger that the structure represents in a legal writing.

Neither interests, the governmental or the private interests are blameless in this matter, and both should be audited and investigated to the fullest extent of the law for the acts that they engaged in in order to produce a so called project approval for the Ferris Wheel installation on  Pier 57.


This review about the origination of the Pier 57 Ferris wheel project and how it went through the City of Seattle’s review and permitting process is intended to cast a critical light on that process, and particularly how it is being administered for high profile projects.  The City of Seattle is charged with administering project reviews to ensure that a project is both a good fit for the city and that it complies with a myriad of things such as the City’s land use policies, zoning restrictions, environmental standards, and building standards.  You would expect that the project review process is fairly undertaken, that it is objectively administered and results in decisions that lead to the construction of projects which are beneficial to the public, to Seattle’s social milieu, and to the local and regional environment.  The general answer is no, and this review sets out why those answers are no.

The Ferris wheel project is a representative high profile project that was processed by the City of Seattle, one of a growing number of high profile projects which the City has processed over the last decade.  Set out herein is an overview of how the City went about conducting the review of a project that is in part controversial, and is also one that the City for some reason has predetermined that it wants the project to proceed to construction.  The various sections of this report set out the standards – the laws and the codes that the City was to have applied to the project, and how the City of Seattle applied them, or didn’t apply them, in a highly subjective and biased review of the Ferris wheel project.  It appears that there was a predetermined outcome intended for the project, that it was to be approved.  That goal was driven by one or more persons’, at it would appear that approval was to be accomplished despite any issues related to the project that may in fact have indicated that it was probably not approvable, at least not without a large amount of reconfiguration of the criteria, the law and the code, which govern project review and permitting.

While this review focuses on a particular project, it is proposed here that the exceptional efforts on the part of the City that went into producing an approval for this project, that was not merited on the basis of the review criteria that should have applied to it, is indicative of a “culture” within the City that this is how its business is done, most likely for high profile projects that the City is highly motivated to approve.  Given the alacrity with how this process was managed, it would appear that this is not just an isolated aberration of process that occurred just for this project, but that the activity disclosed by this review is representative of a systemic corruption of the City’s project review and permitting processes –particularly those for high profile projects.

Similar and recent high profile projects going through this same set of City planning and review systems, which the City has an absolute monopoly on, vis-à-vis the barriers it has set in place to bar public knowledge about a project and to bar the public from exercising their advise and consent roles related to a project, also include not just this private owner project, the Ferris wheel project but also the whole South Lake Union development project, and public ownership projects such as the Alaskan Way deep bored tunnel project, the Central Waterfront revitalization project, the Fort Lawton housing development project, the 15th Avenue Northwest/Interbay rezoning project, the Yesler Terrace redevelopment project, and even the City’s city wide plans for a streetcar line.  All of these projects have been and are being run through the same project review system, that produced the approval for the Ferris wheel project, all received green lights before even a fraction of the projects had made their way through the City’s review and permitting processes.  At every turn their trajectories towards approval has been assured by the City, including if necessary through an ad hoc review and permitting process that requires that things that will enable a project are left in and things that might undermine a project are to be either modified or left out of the process.

The Ferris wheel and each of these other high profile projects all have in common the fact that they are being run through the City’s Department of Planning and Development and the Seattle Transportation Department, and each project has and is being fast tracked through the planning,  review, and permitting processes (what’s known in planning parlance as “streamlining”).  Each has emerged into the public sphere of awareness predominately well on their way towards having gained unofficial but albeit “official” approval as projects that are proceeding.  And for each, the public has been and is being circumscribed by the City in their ability to first even offer an opinion about whether the projects should proceed in the first place, and then secondly in their ability to have a meaningful say in the configuration and implementation of these projects; in other words, when the public finds out about these projects, they are “done deals”, and any input the public might offer about them cannot be meaningful because their input has been circumscribed by the fact that the City has already decided to approve them regardless of what the public might have to say about them; even if the public might outright oppose them.

The City planning, review, and permitting systems have set up their systems such that at least for these projects the critical planning, review, and permitting mass that is to shape the project is so far along and has been so tightly managed by the City and others, mainly to forestall any challenges to the project, that the public has no meaningful opportunity to say or do anything that may change the underlying premise or scope of the project.  This is how the projects become the now ubiquitous done deals in Seattle.

What this review of the Ferris wheel project also sets out is the mechanics of this predetermined outcome scheme that the City has established, and it showcases how the City departments responsible for project planning, review, and permitting work in concert with each other and in concert with the project owner to ensure that the project is approved.  Rather than objectively reviewing the appropriateness of the use and the locational applicability of the project this other approach is taken.

For the Ferris wheel project nothing was done by the City in terms of code enforcement or compliance oversight of this project that could be considered to be objective.  Instead City officials and employees worked with the owner of Pier 57, spent their time crafting the review framework for the project so that it avoided public oversight, so that it avoided having to comply with multiple statutory and code land use and environmental requirements that would have normally resulted in its not being eligible for approval, permitting, and then construction.  The review die was  cast by the parties that was most favorable for the project, which required removing from consideration federal, state, and city laws, policies, and codes that would impede the City’s, and even the State’s ability to confer their stamps of “approval” on the Ferris wheel project.

The majority of the effort by the parties involved in the planning and review of the project, the owner and the governmental agencies participating in the approval process went into establishing administrative and faux administrative scenarios for the project whereby its approval was assured.  This as opposed to the project being subjected to an objective approval process whereby the applicable review processes, codes and statutes were legitimately applied to the project and then a decision made as to whether the project was consistent with the zoning for the project’s site.  This would have been a legitimate manner to proceed, taking into legitimate consideration the City’s development and land use policies, and them overlay zoning districts for the location.  By doing this, the City could have arrived at a reasonable, and more importantly, a lawful conclusion that the Ferris wheel was an appropriate structure and use for the Central Seattle waterfront.

This latter scenario is the sort of administrative level of detail and behavior that the public has a right to expect, at least from our government – which includes the governmental employees and officials who are supposed to manage the work of the government with honesty and in accordance with the laws (which includes codes and rules) that they are both guided by and obligated to enforce.

While we also expect a like standard of honesty and fair dealing from business, and have a right, both legally and morally to expect the same out of this type of private sector actor, that they would instead seek to circumvent or at least thwart the approval processes is not entirely surprising.  On the other hand when governmental actors start scoffing at the law it is more troubling because they at least have a legalized trust relationship with the public that they are bound by, that is codified, and as such they have the highest obligation to act on the public’s behalf at all times.  Accordingly they have been established in their position to act on the public’s behalf as a whole, not to act in the institution of government’s best interests, and not to act either in favor of special, non-governmental interests to the detriment of the public’s interest.  And “detriment” can include, not just the outright damage that deviant government behavior can engender, but the intrinsic damage that is done to the trust relationship between the governed and the governors – the latter’s failure to comply with the rule of law.

Filed in: City of Seattle, Dept Planning & Development, Environment, Government, State of Washington Tags: 

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