Edmonds waterfront issues focus of first 2024 Comprehensive Plan update open house


This aerial photo shows most of the Waterfront Planning area between Edmonds Street and Pine Street on the north and south, and Third Avenue to the east. (All photos and artwork courtesy City of Edmonds)

The City of Edmonds Wednesday hosted 31 virtual attendees at the first open house in preparation for the city’s upcoming 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. While the plan provides a framework for development in all areas of the city, this initial open house focused strictly on issues relating to the Edmonds waterfront.

Wednesday’s open house is the first of many planned public engagement steps in the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update.

The Comprehensive Plan is a document that guides City of Edmonds decisions on a wide range of topics and services over a 20-year window. Because the plan acts as the blueprint for city development, it will have impacts on neighborhoods, businesses, traffic, the environment and residents. The plan is also meant to reflect the vision and priorities of the city and residents, while meeting the requirements of state and federal law. Click here to view the current Edmonds Comprehensive Plan.

Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) requires that cities and counties update their comprehensive plans on a periodic schedule  This is an opportunity to revise population and employment growth forecasts with the most up-to-date data, review existing policies to ensure they make sense for the community, write new policies that reflect local priorities, and confirm that all federal state and local requirements are met. Edmonds’ update is due June 20, 2024.

The primary drivers for the Waterfront Issues Comprehensive Plan update review are the Edmonds Crossing Ferry project and the Edmonds Marsh.

Although the Edmonds Crossing project has been abandoned, it still remains part of the Edmonds Comprehensive Plan. The 2024 Plan update will remove Edmonds Crossing. This will create new opportunities for planning on the waterfront, and including these in the Plan update will entail further public engagement, analysis and study.

The Edmonds Crossing project to move the ferry terminal from the current Main Street location to the south side of the Edmonds Marsh has been a prominent feature of the city’s Comprehensive Plan for many years. The Edmonds Crossing Project is no longer in the Washington State Ferries Long Range Plan which includes a 2040 planning horizon. Extracting the Edmonds Crossing from the Comprehensive Plan necessitates a re-evaluation of several issues related to the downtown waterfront area, including traffic, downtown connections, economic development and the Edmonds Marsh.

For example, with the Edmonds Crossing project now out of the picture, there is an opportunity for more extensive environmental improvements around Edmonds Marsh associated with the Willow Creek daylighting project. It also opens opportunities to explore a wider range of options for the entire waterfront area including walkways, business and economic activity, parks and other amenities.

Wednesday’s open house was hosted by Edmonds Environmental Programs Manager Kernen Lien and Acting Development Services Director Rob Chave. They brought in consultant representatives Bob Bengford and Scott Bonjukian of MAKERS, the Seattle-based architectural and design firm the city has retained to assist with this phase of the project. The session comprised a project overview identifying necessary changes to the plan, key planning issues and objectives relating to the waterfront. This was followed by polling of the attendees to help target the issues most important to the public, and an open-ended question-and-answer session.

“There’s lots going on with the waterfront, and much uncertainty,” began Bengford. “The current Comprehensive Plan devotes 30 pages to Edmonds Crossing (relocation of the ferry terminal), which has been cancelled. This has big implications for future ownership and uses of key properties, including marsh restoration and enhancement options.”

Bengford went on to enumerate some likely issues that will affect the evolution of the waterfront. These are as follows:

  • Marsh restoration plans and the Unocal property
  • Traffic and parking
  • Railroad double tracking
  • Emergency waterfront access
  • Climate change (stormwater, flooding, sea level rise and seawalls)
  • Land use and development
  • Economic development.

MAKERS’ project scope involves review of background materials, community engagement, identification of waterfront needs and opportunities, and suggestions of issues and items to be included in the Comprehensive Plan update.

The planning area is defined by Edmonds Street and Pine Street on the north and south, Third Avenue to the east and Puget Sound to the west.

The planning area is bounded by Pine Street on the south, Edmonds Street on north, Third Avenue on the east, and Puget Sound on the west. This area contains a mix of land uses, zoning and ownerships with different restrictions on uses, height limits and permitted activities (see maps).

“This mix of parameters presents a host of uncertainties,” Bengford added. “Edmonds Crossing may be out of the picture, but many of the problems it was intended to resolve still remain, so we need to start from scratch to address this area and the problems around it.

The Unocal property transfer to the Washington Department of Transportation will be completed once the Department of Ecology certifies that the cleanup is complete. Once WSDOT takes over the property, the City of Edmonds has first right of refusal to purchase it from WSDOT.

“Regarding the transfer of the Unocal property, the City of Edmonds still has first right of refusal to acquire property rights when the Department of Ecology deems it sufficiently cleaned up and the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) declare it surplus,” Bengford continued. “Groundwater cleanup is ongoing and may be complete as soon as 2023.”

While this map indicates the rerouted Willow Creek flowing adjacent to the railroad tracks, the final route will likely be further east flowing through pending the Unocal property being acquired by the City of Edmonds

Edmonds Marsh restoration would involve daylighting Willow Creek and re-establishing barrier-free fish access. Cost of this alone is estimated at between $13 million and $16 million. This project also dovetails with the Marina Beach Master Plan to develop the park. Design and construction would occur in the 2024-2026 timeframe.

A rebuilt bulkhead and pedestrian walkway are needed to replace the current deteriorated features.

Another ongoing project is reconstruction of the portwalk promenade, which will include complete replacement of the aging and deteriorated bulkheads, new walking surfaces, railings, lighting and security gates, public art and educational features. This work is presently in permitting.

Projects with uncertainties include Sound Transit access improvements such as bus bays, bike lockers and additional parking. This includes $25 million in projects delayed at least 10 years until Sound Transit finances improve, which probably amounts to a de facto cancellation but may yet be revived if the financial picture brightens.

The consultants also included the proposed BNSF double tracking through Edmonds as an uncertainty, since details of the project including transit center reconfiguration, loading platforms and marsh mitigation plans have not yet been made public.

Another uncertainty is whether the ferries will institute a ferry reservation system and how this might affect traffic and ferry schedules in Edmonds.

The issues of climate change and resultant sea level rise also inject uncertainty into waterfront planning. Sea levels are expected to rise between 0.3 and 4 feet over the next century, and according to the latest federal flood map, the entire waterfront is currently within the 100-year flood plane, which means that each year there is a 1% chance of flooding the railroad tracks, the marsh and Harbor Square (see map).

The gap in the waterfront promenade in front of the Ebb Tide condominiums is due to the Ebb Tides’ ownership of this section. The City of Edmonds has an easement to cross this, but the terms of the easement are currently in litigation.

Also uncertain is a resolution to the “missing link,” the section of waterfront belonging to the Ebb Tide condominiums that constitutes a gap in the waterfront promenade. The city has an easement for access across this section and a shoreline permit has been issued, but the use of this easement is still in litigation and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

Audience polling was next, as the team posed nine multiple-choice questions designed to gauge the relative importance of the elements under discussion to help shape their place in the Comprehensive Plan update.

Highest rated was marsh restoration, with 75%t giving it a four or a five on a one to five scale. Ratings for the importance of mitigating ferry traffic impacts were spread evenly, indicating that while some felt it was highly important to address, others would rather put efforts elsewhere. Waterfront access, including pedestrian and emergency vehicle access, fared slightly better, with 54% rating it a four or a five. Inclusion of waterfront amenities such as public art and viewing spots drew a middle-of-the-road response, with 48% rating it as a three. Providing for flooding and rising sea level, by contrast, was rated highly important, with 71% giving it a four or a five.  Lowest rated was strategic enhancement of waterfront development opportunities such as expansion of hotels and other businesses, with most respondents rating it one out of five. Only slightly more favored was tourism promotions, drawing an average of two out of five. Using the waterfront as an asset in recruiting and retaining businesses in Edmonds drew an even response across the board, indicating some felt it important and others did not.

To help further refine audience preferences, the moderators opened the Zoom chat function for attendees to identify particular issues they feel need to prioritize and to express their vision and hopes for the future of the waterfront.

Responses included rezoning the Unocal property as open space and establishing it as a wildlife preserve, addressing the “missing link” in front of the Ebb Tide condominiums and making a continuous promenade from Marina Beach to Caspers Street, and planning for predicted sea level rises.

This map details the various development zones in the project area and development guidelines for each

The session next moved to direct questions and answers.

One attendee questioned why the study area ends at Edmonds Street on the north and does not extend to Caspers Street. The team responded that with the abandonment of the Edmonds Crossing project, the plan’s primary focus is on the area that will be most affected by this change, namely the ferry terminal area to Marina Beach.

Another pointed out that routing the Willow Creek channel along the railroad tracks (see map) has already been declared by fisheries scientists as inappropriate for salmon habitat, and questioned why the plan seems to propose this. Edmonds Public Works and Utilities Director Phil Williams responded directly, pointing out that this graphic is preliminary and does not indicate the route currently under consideration. He indicated that more work is being done on the topic, and that the city is “going to do what it can to move it further east.” Kernen Lien added that should the city acquire the Unocal property, the possibility would open to have the creek meander through that site.

An attendee asked if WSDOT was invited to participate in this planning process since the ferry terminal is not being relocated. Lien responded that WSDOT is a primary stakeholder and that the city is doing target outreach to them and other stakeholders (for example, the ferry system).

Asked about the city’s view of the marsh’s primary function, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Angie Feser responded that from the parks department’s perspective, the marsh is designated open space, and its role includes providing ecological functions, environmental education and opportunities for wildlife habitat. “We are really focused on restoration efforts in the marsh,” Feser added.

The next question asked about plans to accommodate a third ferry to serve the run between Edmonds and Kingston. Phil Williams responded that while he can’t speak directly for the ferries, he knows that with Edmonds Crossing out of the picture, the ferry system is looking for improvements in the current location. Whether these plans include a third boat, a second slip and/or enhanced parking is not known at this juncture, but if the ferries are to stay in this spot, improvements will be needed. “The City of Edmonds will have a lot to say about that when recommendations are made,” he added.

Asked about the ownership status of the Unocal property, Williams responded that while Unocal is still the title holder, WSDOT has paid for the property but has not yet taken title and won’t until the state Department of Ecology certifies that the cleanup is complete. He went on to say that while the city is not part of that process, city officials are very interested in the property and that moved the city to obtain first right of refusal when WSDOT does decide to sell.  “The city would like to have control of this property,” Williams said.

Regarding how much the property might cost, Williams could only say that it’s a hugely important site and is worth spending money to acquire, adding that the city wlll look to legislative partners and other funding sources to help when the opportunity to purchase comes up.

Asked about status of the Ebb Tide missing link, Angie Feser responded that the easement is still in litigation, and there has been no progress for at least a year and a half. Kernen Lien added that a shoreline permit has been issued for a missing link connector in the easement area, and that the Edmonds city attorney is looking to move on this “in the near future.”

Asked why we’re looking at an update of the existing Comprehensive Plan rather than a complete re-do, Rob Chave pointed out that the Growth Management Act requires that the city coordinate its plan with other agencies and governmental units. “We’re not in this alone,” he said. “We need to coordinate this work with other agencies or risk leaving ourselves open to litigation. Under GMA you can be challenged in court for not following the process which includes adequate consultation.

“We want to be careful to do all our due diligence before rushing to a conclusion. We want to avoid potential for challenge and having to do it over,” Chave said.

Another questioner asked that since the marsh is already a superfund site, why can’t the city buy the whole thing and leave it alone and not develop it. Phil Williams clarified that the marsh is not actually a federal superfund site, but rather a cleanup site under the Washington State Model Toxic Control Act (MATCA), and that therefore the Ecology Department  is managing cleanup with Unocal paying the bill.  He added that the city has not expressed a desire to develop the property at all, beyond building an environmentally functional channel across it with appropriate setbacks.

Next steps in the Waterfront Issues Study will include targeted stakeholder outreach to further identify waterfront needs and opportunities, with the consultant presenting a report with suggestions for specific items to be addressed in the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update.  This will be followed by developing plan alternatives for consideration and continued public engagement.

The full video of this meeting is available for viewing on the City of Edmonds website here.  The Power Point presentation is on the 2024 Comprehensive Plan web page and  may be viewed here.

Additional questions or comments may be directed to Kernen Lien at kernen.lien@edmondswa.gov.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. It’s fairly clear, to an outsider, at this point, that the ‘decision’ by DOT/Ferries [made many, many years ago, incidentally] to abandon the Edmonds Crossing terminal relocation proposal/project was primarily based on economics. It is difficult to see at this point in time how any other proposed major adjustment/improvement to our waterfront will survive economic criteria.

  2. As always, Larry Vogel provides an excellent summary of what was presented during the open house. The presenters though needed to stress the primary driver for the Comp Plan change was to remove the ‘defunct’ Comp Plan language which dictated land use priority around the Marsh, AND to establish future use of the land that was otherwise designated for WSDOT’s relocated ferry terminal (i.e., the old Unocal property). WSDOT does address ferry system changes they are considering in Edmonds in their long-range plan (without terminal relocation), but have refused to discuss their plans for use/disposition of the “un-needed’ Unocal property until they receive title to the property. That is why citizens approached City staff and Council in late 2020 to request a Comp Plan change to prevent the Unocal property from being used for development and to ensure the property could be used in the future for a tidal channel across it to restore the Edmonds Marsh-Estuary.

    Also, the City does not have a valid estimate of Marsh restoration costs – – the $16M estimate derived from hydrology work is very uncertain. We won’t know costs until tidal-wetland restoration experts develop an ecological restoration design for a tidal channel as well as the interior Marsh that has been plagued with poor circulation and sedimentation due to a tide gate restricting flows in the winter. The recent community volunteer effort to remove fencing and invasives along Highway 104 demonstrated that the Marsh was being impaired by freshwater flow aspects that weren’t even considered in the hydrology studies.

    Ms. Feser also did not state that the Edmonds Marsh was deeded to the City as a wildlife reserve and that is the priority. Many citizens are concerned that the Marsh is instead being viewed as a storm basin as evidenced by Marsh Restoration placed under a “Stormwater” heading in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan.

    1. Thank you Larry for an excellent summary.

      Joe is accurate in his history of this project and since I have been on WRIA 8 (Watershed Resource Inventory Area 8) for over a decade, I can also share the grant documents. The 2013 grant request was for a feasibility study and Shannon and Wilson was awarded that project and yes, the hydrology did suggest that salmon would return to the near-shore estuary.

      It was during the “Connector” negotiations with WSDOT that the Administration went ahead and used Shannon Wilson to come up with six designs. Once the “connector” was voted down by Council, the Administration attempted to obtain grant funding in 2020 for design six but was denied by WRIA 8 because of the uncertainty over the UNOCAL and the potential to move the tidal channel away from the railroad tracks.

      It was in 2019 that the Edmonds Marsh was placed in Stormwater at a $16MM still using the Shannon Wilson design. The simple majority of Council since 2019 have left the marsh in stormwater and your utility rates are predicated on this amount. It should be place back into Parks and Recreation so that it can be treated as a holistic project for salmon recovery as there are millions of federal and state grant monies available

      The City Council has yet to approve any contractor to work on the restoration of the Marsh and to provide an estimate based on hydrology studies and design is not consistent with best management practices of a near-shore estuary restoration or native wildlife habitat.

      Salmon recovery begins at Marina Beach and to separate it out at a price tag of $5MM because it is a “park” is short-sighted. Additionally, the Administration has committed the City to fund $4MM of our taxpayers’ dollars whereas there are many examples in the WRIA 8 jurisdiction (Meadowdale Beach near-shore estuary) that highlight how grant funds are available for these salmon recovery projects, if treated as a holistic project.

      Please pay attention to the Marsh and how expensive it is broken out into two separate components.

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