Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Bob Davidson, Seattle Aquarium

  • By Dominic Black
  • Posted 10/26/2022
  • Essay 22582

Bob Davidson is the President and CEO of Seattle Aquarium. In this recording he discusses the history of the aquarium and how it dovetails with the wider history of Seattle's waterfront. He also explains how his professional background in politics gave him insights into the processes by which you can get things done in Seattle, and how that's enabled him to successfully contribute to the redevelopment of the waterfront in the wake of the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Davidson spoke with Dominic Black of Historylink on July 23, 2022. 

Childhood Memories and the Waterfront

Bob Davidson: So I grew up in Seattle. I was the first member of my family born in the State of Washington as they came from farmlands in North Dakota to Ballard with all the other Scandinavians, and I grew up coming to the waterfront maybe once a month. On payday, my dad would drive us down and we'd park under the viaduct and he'd run in and get fish and chips at Ivar's. And so, I am familiar with coming in on the viaduct and that was the waterfront of my childhood. I remember.

So I spent the early part of my life in politics, in the government, and was a chief of staff for Congressman Joel Pritchard. And in that life, I remember an event at something called the Chowder Society that David Brewster had organized. And the program speaker was Charley Royer or not Charley Royer, it was Paul Schell, who was at that time the head of the city's Department of Community Development. And the topic was the waterfront, and he had a model of the city, the downtown, and the waterfront, and he was talking and he said, "Now, here's something I'd like you to consider." And he removed the viaduct from the model. And that's the first time I thought of even the notion of removing the viaduct from the city. And that was probably in the 1980s. And people, I think there was a general skepticism that that could ever happen, but the notion that it was a good idea.

Dominic Black: What was it like when you were coming here as a child?

BD: It was very industrial; it was very gritty. There wasn't a real sense of ... The tourism presence that we see today was really not much there.

DB: When you say it was industrial and gritty, what would you see as a young boy? What do you remember seeing as you're walking along with your dad?

BD: Well, there was the port. I mean, a bunch of piers that were in various stages of disrepair. There were ships that were being loaded or unloaded. This was pre-container ships. So there was that and trucks. And it was definitely something apart from the downtown. There was no sense of connection to the downtown. And it wasn't a place of welcoming recreation. So, I mean, that's kind of how I remember it.

DB: I'm just wondering, do you think of it fondly when you think of your dad though? That's pretty nice.

BD: Of course. Yeah, no, this was a treat. And Ivar was somebody that I would see on children's TV in Seattle playing his guitar, making jokes, and being Ivar, who was bigger than life.

Making Change Happen 

BD: I would say there are a couple of things that were on my mind over the years. So in my professional life I was in government and so I dealt with a lot of elected officials nationally and here in Seattle, and became very familiar with the process of how things get done or don't get done.

When I got involved at Woodland Park Zoo, on the board of the Zoo Society, I was involved in a ... at a period of time when we had the opportunity to envision what the zoo might become and how that might be done, and what it would cost, and how long it would take. And that came to pass. And so, that was a process. That was something that helped me to understand that the conditions of the city were not static. That people could change it if they wanted to.

DB: What are the tenets then that you established at the zoo that then you were transferring to the Aquarium? What are the key tenets for successful process?

BD: Well, starting with a vision and an understanding of what is the value that whatever -- in that case, the zoo as an institution in the city, in this case, the Aquarium -- what do they offer? What could they offer? And who are the people who might share that vision? And then, in my earlier world in politics, politics was heavily driven by volunteers in those days, and volunteers have all kinds of motivations but they give their time and their advice freely. And so I learned how important that was. I learned how to recruit volunteers and how to respect them and how to take advantage of the skills that they offered to an objective. And that was very powerful at the zoo, it's been very powerful at the Aquarium, it's been very powerful on the development and thinking of the waterfront.

A 16-Year-Long Emergency

BD: Well, number one, the city -- this was prior to the Nisqually earthquake and the urgency of a plan for the waterfront was not there. And so this was not a big priority for the city government to think differently about the waterfront. And the Aquarium as an institution owned by the city and run by the park department at that time was dependent upon ... Nothing was going to happen for the Aquarium without the city deciding that the waterfront was a priority. And so the single biggest factor in that was the Nisqually earthquake. And good ideas like nothing better than a crisis to get support -- and suddenly it was an emergency. And I'll share this: I'm going to give you a document which was surviving that emergency for the Aquarium and the waterfront. 

And it was an emergency. Nobody ... There wasn't great death and destruction from that earthquake, but there could have been, and it took 16 years for that viaduct to come down after the Nisqually earthquake. And so that's just a statement about the definition of an emergency.

But in the meantime it led to a lot of thinking. It provoked an opportunity and some very visionary civic leaders -- Maggie Walker, Charley Royer, Jerry Johnson, others, John Nesholm -- were very engaged in thinking of what could be done and how might it happen. And the Aquarium, and I in particular, was involved with that from the very beginning because the future of the waterfront and the future of the Aquarium were completely integrated in my mind

The Aquarium as Key Partner

BD: The city, in the leadership position of creating a structure for public engagement in the form of the committee, the citizens' committee that was appointed -- this goes back to 2009 -- and I was at that first meeting of that citizens' group and we've had, I know thousands of meetings since. But it was very carefully structured to bring in a wide assortment of interests of the geographic representation of where people live in the city and how the waterfront is important to all of the city not just to the downtown. And from the beginning that drove the citizen engagement, and the concept of A Waterfront For All emerged very quickly in that process. And the city provided the staffing support for that public process. On my wall over here is ... you see the picture to the far left.

DB: Mm-hmm.

BD: That's the public kickoff of the new waterfront, which took place ... here at the Aquarium in ... Let's see, on July 12th, 2012. And the Aquarium from the beginning was a key ingredient. We were regarded and called out in the planning documents as a key public partner of the city. And so the Pike Place Market was the other primary partner. And of course, other partners along the way, including the Pioneer Square group and the Historic Waterfront businesses.

And so, in that planning process, it was always ... It wasn't just something that the city was going to do by itself. It was a recognition that this was going to be a broadly spread effort with important ingredients spread all around, and that the Aquarium’s role -- while we have the existing historic piers -- the Aquarium's role would be to imagine how it could most effectively energize that new waterfront as it was emerging. 

Inspiring Conservation

BD: It's important that we have a cultural attraction that not only draws people but also can invite them in to have an experience that is beyond simply a park -- and furthermore, what's happened in those intervening years is that the notion that the role of an aquarium has evolved. And our mission, inspiring the conservation of our marine environment even, is not enough.

We have realized that we have a need in our own community to activate people, to be good citizens, to be good voters, to be knowledgeable in how they live in the world, how light is their footprint. Are we making the planet worse? Are we making it better? And then to take advantage of this gift, of this place, where we're building the Aquarium, which the city could have turned over to any number of corporations to do something. But they instead chose to have the Aquarium expand, and to expand in a way that -- this is going to be a building that is recognized around the world as reflective of Seattle. 

What Is, What Might be

BD: I've spent a big chunk of my life with, and all the things I've done, looking and trying to understand what is, and trying to think what might be. I've had pretty good success with that. That's why I was hired to come to the Aquarium. And so my role as helping to develop the vision for what the Aquarium could be was part and parcel of what the Waterfront could be. And so, one of the people who used to be on my senior team said, "Well, Bob, you have the luxury of living in the future, but we have to live in the present." And there's some truth to that. So, I would say that from the earliest notions of post-Nisqually earthquake, thinking of what could be, I have loved being involved in thinking about the future. And then in the 20 years, I've also lived making it happen.

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