An elegant, well-conceived plan for Magnuson Park — inspired by citizens and designed by one of the best parks architects in the nation — was torpedoed by bureaucrats, even though the City Council had approved it.
To be sure, the park and its plan have had some improvements over the past decade of work by the parks department. There are, for instance, more opportunities for theater and the arts now than might have been expected. But what is most striking is the degree of lost opportunity in the changes from a brilliantly conceived design.
To understand what happened, it helps to read what one of the great landscape architects and parks designers had to say about creating parks, Frederick Law Olmsted. He said, "Suppose, that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; ... after the construction work had been completed (it turned out that) it would also be used as a Baptist Tabernacle with a huge organ, a pulpit and dipping pool. Then at intervals thereafter it would be used for a court house, a jail, skating rink, venue for circuses and dog shows? Pardon me if I overwhelm you; it is a matter of chronic anger with me."
Olmsted, who designed parks worldwide, including his team's considerable work in Seattle, believed that Landscape Architecture was an art and the finished product was little different than a painting or a symphony. If alive, he might say that we would not consider overpainting Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling by painting in Dumbo or Mickey Mouse or adding a new movement to Beethoven's "Symphony No.5" to reflect contemporary music. So, too, he believed that parks should be designed by those who understood the art and that tinkering with the conceptual plan by those without similar training or vision was a travesty. Olmsted understood his parks needed to work for the people who use them.
Magnuson Park's development has in fact suffered from just such tinkering with the original plan. It's a story that prompted these words in the private papers of former city councilmember Jeanette Williams, who chaired the citizens' design project, "Seattle's vaunted public process is a sham!"
Strong words. But Williams, a 20-year veteran of the Seattle City Council, was a woman who understood government and those who ran the system.
Magnuson Park is a sad story of how intrigue, bureaucracy, backroom deals, and selfishness cut the heart out of a brilliant conceptual plan. The story starts with the influence of legendary U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, for whom the park is named, and ends with local politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups selfishly reworking a design their minds never seemed to grasp.
After Williams left public office, she saw the opportunity to turn the sprawling 400-acre former Sand Point Naval Air Station site into a park of international stature. Her interest in this endeavor arose, in part, from her longstanding friendship with Magnuson. Maggie wanted the land to become a public asset as well as a park for Seattle, not a real-estate development intended to create revenue for the city.
Magnuson also believed the University of Washington should have access to part of the property. Likewise, local Muckleshoot Indians had history and interest in the site, as did some federal agencies.
Today, we easily forget that Sand Point was a highly developed naval air base at the peak of World War II with thick concrete runways, hangers for aircraft maintenance a fuel depot, a store, a laundry, even a brig. When the city began take over parts of it in the 1970s, it was not a pristine beach with natural habitat.
Even then, not every one was jumping with joy for what might happen. The fact that Sand Point was a fully developed airport which, with only minor tweaking, could become a center for civilian aviation caused major concern nearby. So did the information that there was interest in a major housing project of primarily low-income housing.
Ultimately, in 1975 a deal was struck with the feds. The agreement, in general, allowed the north part of the site to be reserved for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). There was commitment to low-income housing using existing housing units, and the rest of 195 acres was given to the City. Nobody got everything they wanted. Later, in 1990, then-Secretary of the Navy Dick Cheney brokered a plan that would give the remaining 151 acres to the city.
The task became what to do with the site. The city bureaucrats, elected officials, public figures, and a wealth of interest groups all had ideas and designs on parts of the property. Ultimately the city developed several in-house, general design concepts.
Meanwhile, Magnuson, who died in 1989, had shared with Williams the idea that the public should have a say in how the park would be created. Rather than a top-down plan, why not find out what people wanted in a park? It was a revolutionary idea. She organized a steering committee with the help and energy of friends like Tom Miller, Inge Strauss, Ann Lennartz, and many more. They ultimately reached out to hundreds of community organizations and interest groups, putting out surveys to elicit on what should be in a new park.
The organizing group collated the data and, with some generous contributions from a few parks patrons, hired landscape architect Richard Haag and Associates to create a design that incorporated as many of the ideas as would fit. Haag was chosen because he had gained international recognition for his holistic approach to landscape design and did much to advance the landscape architectural program at the University of Washington.
Using data from the citizens' survey, Haag set to work and ultimately created a master plan that gave life and space for a huge number of park uses. He masterfully blended and balanced the divergent uses in a way they could coexist without interfering with each other. Haag understood that there are distinct differences between recreational opportunities and a park.Haag didn’t require acclaim and preferred his plan be called "the citizens' plan."
The citizens steering committee promptly took the draft back to organizations that had contributed ideas. Ultimately the plan was submitted to the city. The effort was a triumph of public process that was brilliant.
Paul Schell, mayor in the late 1990s, appointed a blue ribbon committee chaired by former Mayor Charley Royer, who ably brought the plan to a still larger audience and gained approval with some adjustments. With the blue ribbon endorsement, it was then submitted to the city council. The council looked at the citizens' plan along with those the city had developed and chose — the citizens' plan. Council members adopted a resolution that provided additional design guidance, and, with a few more modifications, approved the plan Nov. 1, 1999. Those who had worked so hard celebrated that they lived in a city where the public would actually get what it wanted.
Rather than becoming just a location for intense activity, the park would bring natural beauty back to the site. Elegant in its simplicity, the plan also incorporated thoughtful details about sight lines, the quality of the beaches for swimming, prevailing winds, the character of the soil, preservation of existing trees, restoration of the wetlands, the best places for parking, recreation, open spaces, and the restoration of natural areas where the urban user could enjoy nature without being beaned by a fly ball from the baseball fields.
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