Seattle’s New Gem of a Waterfront Park

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Looking east from Fritz Hedges Waterway Park 

Fritz in his Speedo was the surest harbinger of summer in Seattle. As soon as the temperature went above 65 and the sun shone brightly he would put on this abbreviated uniform, drag his ratty old deck chair from his floating home to the end of his dock, and sit for hours basking in the solar warmth. 

Fritz was the long-time secretary of our floating home co-op across Portage Bay from the University of Washington. The highlight of our annual meeting was always his spirited if somewhat obtuse reading of the minutes from the previous year’s gathering, not always coinciding with others’ memories.

In his working life, Fritz was a beloved and highly valued employee of Seattle Parks and Recreation, a planning guru who deeply believed in parks as central to urban life. His untimely death in 2004 saddened all who knew him. In October of this past year to honor his years of service to the citizens of Seattle the city’s newest park, hugging the shores of Portage Bay, was opened to the public – Fritz Hedges Waterway Park. 

The site is rich in Seattle’s history. Prior to European settlement the area was likely a meadow and the Duwamish planted and harvested crops close to what is now the I-5 Bridge. Nearby was a portage trail they used to carry their canoes overland from the bay to Lake Washington before the Montlake Cut allowed traversal over water. The last Duwamish encampment in Seattle was located just across Portage Bay near the end of E. Shelby St.

Over the years since European settlement the park’s site hosted a number of industrial businesses including the Puget Sound Lumber Company. It and its predecessors have long been rumored in floating home lore to be the source of “liberated” old-growth cedar logs spirited across the bay in the wee hours of the a.m. to be used as flotation.

Starting in 1928, Bryant’s Marina occupied the land with various buildings and docks, some from former enterprises such as the mill, others built by the marina over the course of several decades. The marina’s owner Jerry Bryant was instrumental in advancing Seattle as one of the leading boating communities in the United States. He was a founder of the annual Seattle Boat Show, and in 1937 became the first dealer in the Pacific Northwest for Chris-Craft, the country’s most well-known builder of motorized watercraft.

In 1970 the land was sold to the ever-expanding University of Washington to be used for a variety of purposes on land and water, most importantly as the headquarters for the university’s police department. 

The new park, 3.6 acres total, a bit less than half on dry land, came about as the result of a highly choreographed dance between the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) which is undertaking massive improvements in the nearby 520 bridge corridor, the City of Seattle, and the University of Washington.  

In mitigating the impact of its work on part of the Arboretum as required by funds received from the federal government, WSDOT agreed to buy for $13.6 million the nearby parcel of land from the University of Washington in 2013 minus a sliver the university retained. The property was then transferred to the City of Seattle for the purpose of creating a public park which was also funded by WSDOT. 

The sale gave the university the long-desired opportunity to move its police headquarters closer to the center of campus, not to mention waterfront space for its community to enjoy. Because of years of industrial and commercial contamination, both land and water needed clean-up with the university providing $2.4 million of the cost.

This complicated tango resulted in a nifty new public space already being well-used by locals hungry for nearby outdoor places in the time of COVID. As I write I glance out my window and can see it across the bay, as would have Fritz were he still with us. As a daily witness to the park being built, I was interested in the design process that brought it from vision to reality. 

The city sent out a Request for Qualifications with seven firms responding. Walker/Macy, based in Seattle and Portland, was judged most qualified because of design expertise and its familiarity with engineering, budgeting, permitting and contamination removal. I was able to interview landscape architect Lara Rose, the lead for Walker/Macy, and David Graves, who was her counterpart from Parks and Recreation. 

The wonderful yellow chairs on the pier with a view across Portage Bay

Lara spent a good deal of time not only on-site, but researching the Native American connections. This knowledge informed a design that would have the park “feel contextual with the land and its history” in a location whose shoreline had been heavily transformed over the previous 150 years.  In order to obtain public input on what stake-holders might want, Parks and Recreation in partnership with Walker/Macy held at least three public meetings, as well as numerous discussions with local businesses and organizations including UW. 

Expecting from previous experience that there might be dissension and diverging opinions,  Lara and David were pleasantly surprised at how much agreement there was — in part because the  concept had no controversial aspects such as a baseball field with night lighting. Public desires included a place to launch kayaks, views from the nearby bridges, comfortable seating, appropriate plantings, accessibility from nearby streets,  and excellent views of the water.

These goals had to be balanced against practical issues of a limited budget that had to fund additional contamination clean-up; removal of an old bulkhead wall and in its place a shallow grade to the water with a special gravel called “fish mix”; a barrier built under soil to prevent water contamination; demolition of the building on-site; and no disturbances to salmon migration, which placed limits on construction times. There was an attempt to landmark the old building from lumber/marina days, which was not approved. 

Fritz Hedges Waterway Park is now essentially complete except for some educational signage. It packs a lot into its diminutive size. It has several levels and distinct grassy plots divided by elegant concrete walls that can double as seating. There is a small pebbled beach, a boat slide for kayaks and canoes, and a lovely metal grated pier with seating that carries out over the water. The grassy upper level is a transitional area from Boat Street that leads into the lower levels that are more integrated into the maritime setting. Beautiful old growth wood was reclaimed from the former building on the site and used for both decorative and functional purposes. 

Old growth beams repurposed for a timber slide for boats (courtesy Seattle Parks and Recreation)

The park evokes times prior to its commercial development with the small upper “meadow” and the pebbled beach. These are complemented by man-made structures including a sculpted bike rack that beguile the viewers eyes and give a rhythmical sensibility to what could have been a more sterile open space. 

Perhaps my favorite element are the very comfortable bright yellow metal chairs that are placed around the site in discrete and aesthetically pleasing arrangements. The pier is also painted yellow. All this provides a note of dash and wit to the enterprise. These colors are meant to be seen not only from land, but as a signature of the park as viewed from the water and the floating homes across the bay. 

I do have a few reservations about the park’s design.  Missing, at least for now, are dimensionality and variety that more plantings might have offered. Currently they are mostly segregated from the open, grassy areas perhaps to provide maximum space for users. As the park and its greenery are so new, I should probably reserve judgement for a few years. Native plants have been placed near to the water, and some new plantings have not survived and are being removed. Upon my third visit workers had just cut down several trees.   

 Bike rack as minimalist sculpture (courtesy Joan Zegree)

Casualties of the limited, $9 million budget provided by WSDOT were a shaded area and restrooms, though lines for the latter have been plumbed should money become available. David would have liked a larger pier over the water, pointing out that a permit could have been easily obtained given how much smaller the park’s water coverage was compared to what was previously there. There is no on-site parking since the designers wanted to use the limited acreage for people and not cars.

Fritz Hedges Waterway Park is already being used by folks old and young. It’s also a favorite spot for a number of Seattle’s non-human residents —  Canada geese and their poop in epic proportions. 

By all means visit this lovely new gem on Boat Street. Enjoy the wonderful views and the comfy chairs. But watch where you’re stepping.  

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Spider Kedelsky is a former choreographer, performing arts producer, and a co-founder of Town Hall Seattle.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I visited this new park earlier this week. It’s beautiful! And, you’re correct, the yellow chairs are wonderful. Visit this Portage Bay park and then dream about what the new Elliott Bay park on our central waterfront will be like when it’s completed in the coming years.

  2. This park and the one at South Lake Union remind me of some wise words from Jane Jacobs, who wrote that urban parks either have to be athwart natural crossing patterns or, failing that, they need to have attractions (dog runs, playgrounds, arts) that draws people. She adds that often urban parks are in disused lands (former rail yards, bridging a freeway) that compounds the problem of too few users. Seattle Parks discourages any commercial intrusions, but at least one can go down to Agua Verde Cafe for some food and kayak rentals.

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