Crossroads: A Turning Point for Downtown’s Freeway Park?

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By Mike James and David Brewster

Editor’s Note: Freeway Park is a much-admired design by one of America’s most revered landscape architects, Lawrence Halprin. The 5.2-acre park, which bridges the I-5 Freeway, recently earned a $10-million donation from the expanded Convention Center nearby. Both authors have been members of the Freeway Park Association, a neighborhood support organization.


David Brewster:

Mike, I know you live right by Seattle’s Freeway Park and are active in supporting it, so I’d like to understand how the Park is going to use the $10 million windfall gift from the Convention Center expansion. Will it be exciting and magnetic, or will it be, as I fear, all spent on repairing neglected features like those rarely-active fountains?

Mike James:

I’d say your fears are well-founded. The perennial reality of city infrastructure, parks included, is an endless catch-up to restore and maintain, rarely to re-invent. Take that windfall $10 million, subtract all the design/planning/development/permitting costs, and you get just $6 million for actual construction.  In Freeway Park now that dictates a focus on plantings, repair of benches and other furnishings, restoration of pavement and the several fountains, better lighting and signage, and perhaps even an actual working bathroom.  

To the extent there’s any enhancement beyond basics, we might also see a children’s play area, better storage facilities, and a staffed information booth.  Don’t even ask where we’d be without that Convention Center money.  I always compare the park’s needs to the endless pothole game along our streets.  We fill in the holes again and again, but hardly ever get to the repaving.

All that said, the thrust of the planning is to whip the park into shape, make it easier to find with better lighting and wayfinding, add enough event programming to lure people back inside — all meant to help people discover or re-discover an iconic urban space.

David:

You make a good point about the city’s chronic problems in funding infrastructure and maintenance. But I also have the feeling that Freeway Park is punished as an orphan, left to scrape up its own money. One problem is that it straddles First Hill and Downtown, so neither really thinks it has responsibility. That straddle used to bedevil police responses to gangs and crime, since the dividing line between the East Precinct and West Precinct was I-5 (right down the middle of the park). Another problem is the internationally famous design of the park by Lawrence Halprin and his associate Angela Danadjieva — a fame that makes alterations of the hidey-place architecture likely to become an international act of war. Lastly, some of the features such as the waterfall are very costly to keep operating. You usually don’t put a water feature right underneath trees that shed needles and big leaves. I will say this, however, none of these factors has stopped the Parks Department from lavishing attention on the landscaping. I greatly admire the replanting that was undertaken by that gifted landscape architect, Iain Robertson of the University of Washington, now sadly deceased.

Mike:

Your “orphan” term for Freeway Park captures the perennial dilemma and real challenge for the city. I might choose another word, “undiscovered.” It’s a famous Lawrence Halprin design essentially hidden from view to all but the most inquisitive passersby.  A walk down Sixth Ave. reveals little, another down Pike, nothing.  Only a drive or stroll down Seneca reveals the Park, but then only a fraction of its reach.

So the real work of the Freeway Park Association, in its partnership with Seattle Parks, is all about discovery — helping citizens find the park and also creating events and features likely to bring them back. That’s why signage is critical, why events such as Dancing til Dusk, exercise and gardening classes, concerts and used-book sales now fill the calendar (though diminished by the Covid threat) almost year-round. 

We also need to change the public’s perception of the park.  For years, before the dramatic landscaping changes you mention, Freeway Park was a forbidding, overgrown forest, a place with a dangerous reputation such that nearby hotel staff would advise visitors to avoid it.  Even with all the changes and activities of the last years, that perception of danger still lingers. 

As to the problems with the Halprin design, I have to agree.  For all its innovation and iconic reputation and its status as the first park ever built over an interstate freeway, the park design poses difficult maintenance challenges, most evident in the essential abandonment (the only applicable word) of the Box Gardens section south of Seneca, long ago taken over by homeless encampments that are still there.

David:

The famous urbanist writer Jane Jacobs once wrote that urban parks (often relegated to out-of-the-way parcels) have to offer two things to be populated, otherwise they die. These parks either have to be linkages for pedestrians from one building to the other, or they have to have some unusual attractions to draw people. Freeway Park passes neither test. A Manhattan city planner similarly once added that such parks either have to be part of bike paths or have a dog run. Complicating factors for Freeway Park are that it involves making uphill grade changes and there are no anchors to create populated pathways.

The Halprin design, meant to be a sophisticated, stylized version of a forest walk amid concrete boulders, features many twists and surprises, but the hiding places create a sense of danger. That danger is further enhanced by the freeway noise. Pedestrians in urban parks need to feel subliminally that they are observed by others (in case of trouble) or heard by others (in case of crying out). When I was working at Town Hall nearby, we would interview people walking through the park at lunchtime. Women rarely go there alone, I learned, and one woman opened my eyes and ears by pointing out that shouts of Help! could not be heard. Duh!

As for creating a unique draw, I would suggest making it a notable botanical garden, or rather a shade garden because of all the trees. One of the great forest-floor gardens in the world is the Betty Miller home in the Highlands, and Mrs. Miller, a genius in garden design, was originally consulted about the landscaping for Freeway Park. Seattle doesn’t really have a botanical garden, and we have a famous climate and lots of gardener-volunteers.

Mike:

The Halprin design, even with its maintenance downsides, is a given. That design is nationally recognized, and under no current proposal is it likely to change dramatically.  So the question is, as ever, given the park’s somewhat hidden location, how to attract more visitors and to bring more life into the park.  The current restoration plan, set for construction bids by mid-summer, focuses first on basic repairs, then on better lighting, signage, programming, possibly even a functioning bathroom. All are aimed at attracting more public use into the park.  Every recent survey underlines the need for these improvements: people in surveys want a restroom, more lighting, more events and attractions to make Freeway Park more welcoming and safe.

Your botanical garden idea (though not part of the current plan) makes abundant sense.  When the Freeway Park Association asked visitors what really attracts them to the park they mentioned quiet walks, the greenery and plantings, the cascading fountains — welcome solitude in the heart of a city. Less desired was a constant stream of events.  In a nutshell that’s the challenge for Freeway Park, which is how to preserve the real beauty of this unique park — its trees and plantings, its respite from urban clutter and noise — while also peopling the park with attractive programming. All urban parks have to contend with that conflict.

The work to come is only another beginning.  As with any city park we treasure, attention cannot be intermittent and casual. It must be constant.

David:

I also hope the park, whose full name is James Ellis Freeway Park in honor of its true founder, will have a happy future, and I thank you for working hard for that goal. Attention, Mayor Harrell!

Now let’s talk a bit about its past history. It was funded by the Forward Thrust bond issue of 1968 as a way of building more urban parks and bridging the gap that the I-5 Freeway caused in cutting off downtown from First Hill. Jim Ellis, the indispensable downtown attorney who cooked up Forward Thrust and Metro, was a passionate advocate for Freeway Park. When Mayor Dorm Braman  grew disgusted at criticism of his politics, he suddenly resigned in 1969 and then took a job as assistant secretary in the federal Department of Transportation, Ellis convinced the sidelined former mayor to make Freeway Park a pet project, which he did. One clever maneuver was to define the park as an enhancement of the freeway off-ramps, hence able to be funded by transportation money (as well as Forward Thrust funds). 

Ellis was a fan of the Auditorium Fountains in Portland, designed by Lawrence Halprin, a leading American landscape architect, so the Halprin firm was hired. Among the clever ideas was to build loud waterfalls at the center of the park’s main plaza, hoping that the crashing water would drown out the freeway noise (it didn’t) and reinforce the basic metaphor of a cascade-decorated forest walk. The concrete forms in the main fountain and elsewhere echo the tall skyscrapers of downtown to the west.

Architects love these tropes more than park-users, and some of Halprin’s designs elsewhere have been demolished because of safety issues. Freeway Park worked better, in my view, in the early days (it opened July 4, 1976) when the trees were small and lots of sunshine dappled the park. Early on, it was very popular, basking in acclaim for bridging a freeway and the Halprin design features. Later, however, neglect set in and it became a gathering place for teen gangs and the homeless. Its popularity waned and the inherent design problems became more evident (but untouchable). 

It will take a lot of work, as you say, to recover that steady use. It would help if a mayor would really adopt the park, as only Mayor Greg Nickels (whose wife worked in an adjacent office building) has done. Alas, Seattle seems to specialize in pathbreaking ideas that draw great press only to later decline in funding and patronage.

Mike:

It really is a time of reckoning for the park, a moment to draw lessons from its 46-year history, to imagine what may come. I too remember those early days you recall with families gathering in the park, children splashing in the water, and sunlight slowly fading behind a growing forest and rising buildings. But Freeway Park seemed to fall off the community radar. Its reputation was darkened by tree overgrowth and fears about safety. Maintenance became a perennial issue. Just count the times those main fountains fell silent as the underground pumps failed.

That’s where you and others came in, building the Freeway Park Association, a partnership with the city, creating a pressure point for the park’s revival.  Without that pressure, I wonder if Seattle Parks would really have removed dozens of trees, bringing light and proportion back to a park with thin soil never meant to become a dark forest.  Iain Robertson’s imaginative replanting of lower growth vine maples and hemlock visually transformed the park; what he said at the time still seems the best guide for its future: “Freeway Park is really a city-sized window box — that’s the best way to think of it.  We’ll have to cycle plants through every 5 to 10 years to see the park perpetually fresh.”

The construction beginning later this year will keep that rebirth alive, but is only incremental. The ambitious master plan for the park’s future is projected to cost $23 million. Thanks to the Convention Center’s largesse, we have just $6 million, enough to begin what must be a continuing vision and commitment to its realization.

In closing, remember that Jim Ellis Freeway Park, with all the accomplishments listed here, is still an orphan.  The enduring test for FPA and Seattle Parks is to finally realize its full adoption by this city and to find the dollars essential to that task.  In the end we get, as we surely know, what we are willing to fund.


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14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this good discussion, Mike and David. Some good history and constructive ideas. A botanical garden is an inspiring idea. A comfort station is also a good idea, perhaps co-located with an information kiosk. The main caveat is staffing. Either would not work without surveillance. Remember the City Council’s failed attempt to supply toilets. Who should fund such an amenity? Convention Center? Parks? Washdot? Would hours be limited?

  2. I am a female resident of Horizon House located above the park and connected to it by a wheelchair and walker friendly winding path, a joint project funded by HH and Parks. I walk in the park almost every day. I came from a neighborhood full of beautiful trees to the concrete jungle of the city. The park is my refuge. I am fully aware of the well-documented benefits of being around trees, smaller vegetation, and water.

    “Will it be exciting and magnetic, or will it be, as I fear, all spent on repairing neglected features like those rarely-active fountains?” Your Fear is my Hope. “Exciting?” The Park is designed to be peaceful and relaxing. If you want excitement, go to a sporting event. I would be happy to see most of the Convention Center’s generous donation be spent of restoring the fountains/waterfalls, the heart and most unique feature of the Park. I know this will be expensive–my understanding is that the problem is not falling leaves but outdated unmaintained pipes and pumps.

    Another thought: Perhaps a bit of remedial education of the staff of our hotels is in order. We old folks do not feel fear when we walk there and there have been no nasty incidents to my knowledge.

    The waterfalls do mitigate the sound of the freeway, especially in the Canyon where you hear and see only awesome rushing water and sky.

    A Comfort station is a good idea if it can be designed to be safe and clean. But some signage informing people of the public restrooms within the Convention Center would be a start.

    Any new plantings/gardens will have to have ground level sprinkler systems (or plantings of desert-type plants) as our climate’s warming situation is unlikely to abate. I watched with great sadness as several beautiful rhododendrons near the Convention Center slowly and finally died during this summer’s heat.

    • Yes on finally getting those fountains flowing consistently! You are right – the problem is not in the leaves (though cleaning them out of the fountain structures is costly work) but in the mechanics. For now, the focus of the Convention Center money is on the right list — restoration. And agree – let’s give hotel staffs a tour this spring.

  3. Was one of those great ideas that doesn’t work. It can never be tranquil with the freeway noise so it’s uses are limited. How bout a downtown dog park or a homeless village or even a homeless rest station with showers and laundry facilities?Maybe a food circus like the “Bite,” but year round (that would get the office people there).

  4. Times change. It’s time for a new riff on this space. Less emphasis on plants and more on light. I’d propose that it become a light garden. Maybe a light and sound garden. It’s never going to be a quiet space.

    One can leave the basic building blocks. I’d bring in a light artist to reinforce the hard edged fundamental design by creating sculptural lighting elements. It’s dark and it needs to be colorful, whimsical as a counterpoint to the hard and noisy.

  5. “Take that windfall $10 million, subtract all the design/planning/development/permitting costs, and you get just $6 million for actual construction.”

    Yikes! Freeway park just can’t lose 4 million to paper pushers. Actually I believe all the rundown parts of the City currently in disrepair have to stop losing money to paper pushers… Seattle needs roll-up-your-sleeves solutions and not endless permits and planning. 100 years ago, Seattle built things. Today will talk and plan solutions to death.

  6. What is the origin of the “$10 million windfall gift from the Convention Center expansion?” Can one public entity make a gift to another public entity? And in these times when the need for huge conventions is being reassessed, can you guess the number of times per year that the expanded center will be full? As I go by the massive structure, I speculate on how empty spaces might be used if not by convention-goers. Sheltering the homeless is one use that comes to mind.

    • Interesting questions, Abe. The Convention Center, expanding to a controversial third location, needed to spread some money around the neighborhood, so it donated funds to Freeway Park and the Pike-Pine Corridor. Technically, the money was probably not given to a government but to nonprofits such as the Freeway Park Association. Moreover, the Convention Center is itself not a governmental organization, and most of its funding comes from bonds serviced by hotel-motel and restaurant taxes, using the argument that they are the chief beneficiaries of the increased visitors. It’s a cozy, mutually reinforcing circle. One wonders how much convention business there will be due to the pandemic and the arrival of Zoom technology, and Seattle’s awkward tripartite configuration is late in the big-city game.

  7. Excellent write-up; highly informative. The key is… you have to remove vegetation. Let the sunshine in. Go to the municipal archives and take a look… a very attractive space when the park first opened. This postcard, for example:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/seattlemunicipalarchives/8358885272

    We are tree freaks in Seattle. Sometimes, to make a street better or a park better or a VIEW better… trees have to be removed. But oh no… not in Seattle.

  8. I worked at the nearby Federal Courthouse in 1976 when the park was built, and spent many a happy lunch hour with crowds of friends and co-workers lolling about the fountains in the summer sunshine. The fountains and pools were a true inner-city delight, and I’d love to see them return to their old glory. For the next 30+ years, I worked in Park Place, the adjacent office building, and again, lunch hours were more wonderful spent on the benches outside, and attending afternoon concerts in the park, and book sales. I have loved that place for 40-some years and would be so heartened to see it refreshed, renewed and restored. It is truly one of our beautiful city’s hidden jewels, well worth any efforts.

  9. Something that I hope will be included in the “rehab” plans: I am a big fan of George Tsutakawa’s Naramore fountain at Seneca and 6th in the small section of Freeway Park across the freeway exit. When I worked downtown and took the #2 bus home I would sometimes get off the bus and sit by this fountain for a while. It is a lovely small counterpoint to the big waterfalls in the main section of the Park. Sadly, the water has not been flowing for quite a few years. I heard a rumor that the pipes that carry the water upward were made of copper and vandals stripped them out during the time when thieves were stealing any bits of copper they could get their hands on. Is this rumor true? What would it take to get the water flowing again?

    Here are pictures of the fountain:
    https://pauldorpat.com/2009/12/05/seattle-now-then-the-naramore-fountain/

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