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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.