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    Lake Union Park, trail: Seattle could have done so much more

    Another botched opportunity: Seattle again fails to develop a spectacular park in its urban core.  And a lake loop trail comes up short in terms of, well, fun. Bremerton does better on a waterfront park; Tacoma on a waterfront trail.

    Cheshiahud Loop sign with Lake Union in background.

    Cheshiahud Loop sign with Lake Union in background. Lawrence W. Cheek

    Lake Union Park: a visual airway for the city, but a bleak landscape for a park.

    Lake Union Park: a visual airway for the city, but a bleak landscape for a park. Lawrence W. Cheek

    A hike wants closure, a definable geometry. A peak bagged, a circuit completed. City rambles are no different. A loop around a significant hunk of urban geography is potentially more satisfying, and edifying, than an aimless roam.

    So here’s Lake Union, sapphire heart of the Emerald City, sporting a new 12-acre park at its south end and a 2-year-old urban trail, the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop. Let’s circumambulate, and see what a hike around this intensely urban lake shows us about Seattle. And whether it’s possible for the city to improvise a satisfying trail where none was really planned for.

    Like most everyone, I’ve frequently enjoyed the easy stroll around Green Lake. I also once walked around Lake Washington, a five-day, 76-mile hike that I undertook for the reason that Charles Darwin suggested blowing a trumpet at a bed of tulips: just to see what happens. On that Lake Washington hike I arrived at a better appreciation, and tolerance, of the messy vitality of our big lakefront.

    Lake Union tests that tolerance more severely, because it’s decidedly messier.

    The official loop is 6.2 miles, stitched together with strands of Burke-Gilman, a couple of bridges, assorted sidewalks, and ragged street edges, and meanderings through parks. Several stretches of it, notably the long 1.8 miles of Westlake Avenue, don’t provide much of a lake experience. I experimented with some moderate commercial trespassing, winding around the lakeside passages of a few office buildings to enjoy the water views. Seattle could have been more user-friendly if such businesses had been forced a few yards back, leaving a public-access strip around the lakeshore.

    But there’s more legal access to Lake Union than meets the casual eye, and hiking the full loop reveals it.

    On the east side of the lake on Fairview Avenue are several pocket parks and street ends, some well hidden from the road, which form delightful refuges for quiet contemplation. A city needs different kinds of public spaces: intimate settings where one can feel alone, sheltered from the hubbub; and large public agoras that engender that hubbub. Lake Union now offers both.

    The new Lake Union Park is that agora. It’s been lavishly praised since its official Sept. 25 opening, including here on the e-pages of Crosscut, but I’m less enthralled. On the plus side, it opens up a grand vista over the water from Westlake and Valley Street. It’s a visual airway off the thickening South Lake Union congestion, giving the city a way to breathe.

    But the park’s shortcomings are remarkable considering its $30 million price tag. The graveled polygons making up a plaza at the south end form a bleak tundra, and with a spacing of 50 to 70 feet between trees, giving the landscape a decade to mature isn’t going to make it feel lush. The fountain, which consists of 74 unruly arcs of water jetting out of a concrete strip, is perfunctory and pointless. There’s no art or sculptural hardscaping  to activate the space.

    Amble another six blocks south to Westlake and Denny, and check out the engaging sunken-rowboat planters in the little plaza at  Vulcan’s 2201 Westlake, or ferry over to Bremerton’s Harborside Fountain Park, which opened three years ago and continues to shame every other waterfront park in the region. Walker Macy of Portland designed both those parks, and they demonstrate a  richness of texture — and sense of fun — lacking in Hargreaves Associates' Lake Union design.

    Urban texture and fun: that’s what we expect from a hike around the lake. There’s plenty of the former, maybe not enough of the latter, to justify the legwork.

    I stop for a Clif Bar break at South Passage Point Park just after crossing University Bridge. I-5 streaks directly overhead, 182 feet above the water, its relentless roar a palpable presence. I can literally feel the traffic through my butt in contact with the park bench. It’s a vivid demonstration of the devil’s pact we’ve made for urban transportation: In return for an occasionally efficient route through the city, we’re chained to a monster that never sleeps.

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    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    The subject could use more nuance, and I would begin with the thought that for many of us, a nice loop to walk is one that begins and ends at our homes, or perhaps takes as long as a mid-day lunch break. A variation would be the ability to start and end the 'loop' at comfortable public transportation. The combination of the ferry rides and the walk make either Bremerton or Bainbridge nice day trips for pedestrians or bike-riders from Seattle.

    Frankly, walking around Lake Union (I lived there for 25 years)strikes me as about the least productive way to enjoy it. At some places you're at water level and not getting too much of that sweeping view effect, while at others you're forced back away from the water and can't see much of the lake. Local knowledge becomes paramount, as each part of the shore has a transcendant moment (be on Westlake and look at Eastlake during a red sunset) and at others is depressingly banal.

    A solution here might be a jaunt such as ascending the stairs from Westlake to the top of Queen Anne. Climb that hill on a clear sunny late-fall afternoon with a northern breeze, and you'll be rewarded with a view (try Taylor and Boston) of Seattle you never knew. And you'll be ready to patronize a lake-shore restaurant when you get back down.

    Far from thinking it's a shame we haven't finished the job by now, I think it's a good thing. It gives us time for new elements, such as the South Lake Union Streetcar, and, of course, the all-important element of more people walking, to fall into place. It gives us more time to discover the old stairways, the old streetcar routes, and the best of all, the old rowboats, that people once used to enjoy the lake.

    The important thing here is to never miss the chance for the public to obtain more access to the shore. If NOAA leaves, tight budgets should not be allowed to prevent the city from keeping public hands in charge at that already-public land. Where businesses on public waterways become obsolete, the city must negotiate rights of first refusal to any question of "what comes next"? The loss of NOAA may mean the loss of Lake Union Ship and Coolidge Propellor, and the city needs to be first in line in demanding shoreline access at that corner of the lake.

    Sure, make that circular hike to meet your lake. But if you're starting at the south end, you might consider just renting a boat from the Center for Wooden Boats and rowing instead of walking. It's a whole new perspective.

    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Never miss the chance for the public to obtain more access to the shore" — indeed. But we could start by asserting our right to access shoreland that is already public yet inaccessible, whether because of topography or because of encroachment by neighboring private landowners.

    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    In praise of less is more. The comparison of Hargreaves park with Walker Macy's parks fails to make the distinction betweeen decoration and "stuff" with metaphor and restraint. What you refer to as richness and texture it apears like prefering a bunch of ideas and things to make urban open space "fun". Gas Works Park and South Lake Union Park are about big ideas and counterpoints to the complexity of urban life. Yes parks require time to mature but places without too many things are places for imagination. Take a second look with an eye toward expression and simplicity and there is still room in Seattle for the other kind of stuff...


    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    There are two more artworks worth paying attention to on the Lake Union Loop: "Blanche," a floating sound sculpture by Peter and Sue Richards that generates music created by the lake's waves (find out more here: http://artbeat.seattle.gov/2010/03/09/new-sound-sculpture-at-lake-union-park/) as well as "Field Notes: Observing Lake Union," a sound installation that explores the ecology and history of Lake Union. Visitors can call numbers posted at various points throughout the loop to hear about the site.

    The artists behind "Field Notes," the San Francisco-based Studio for Urban Projects, will be giving a free tour of their artwork and the Lake Union Loop this Saturday, October 23rd, from 3 to 5 p.m. The tour is free and open to the public. More information here: http://artbeat.seattle.gov/2010/10/20/free-walking-tour-of-cheshiahud-lake-union-audio-artwork-oct-23/


    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    Forty years ago almost all of the public land around Lake Union had been encroached upon. This includes street ends, public waterways, land the city owns (or other government) and the odd situation at Fairview where the road runs over the lake and there were formerly fuel unloading docks for the steam plant.

    The Portage Bay people, I think, were the first to take back a streetend, followed by Eastlake. All of these streetends should be inventoried, described, and the tasks needed to fully reclaim them, a list that any city department could consult to see what they could do, especially when other work needed to be done in the vicinity. This would be a good task for a student of landscape architecture- or a professor teaching a course.

    In the 70s the city began demanding rents for waterways, and the state began charging fees for the use of state tidelands. This curbed flagrant abuse and means that many of the remaining users are economically healthy and important to Seattle's economy.

    On Westlake North, however, the coincidence of the railroad spur line along the shore, and the Shoreline Management Act prohibiting overwater building of non-maritime uses, has preserved some 'low intensity' waterways. These would actually be great for little swimming parks and simple walkways were it not for the liability problems of allowing people to swim there. Maybe wiser people in the future could see their way more clearly among societal values.

    In short, it won't be as easy as it was to find public land that has been encroached upon, either by others, or by our own timidity. Careful inventories should be done, with special attention to places, like the NOAA base, where several jurisdictions may have acted together, and special efforts will be needed to maintain the public interest. Then some of this information should form 'to-do' lists that any agency planning to impact the shoreline of Lake Union would be required to consult.

    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    serial_catowner, our shoreline street ends have been inventoried:

    There is also a group, Friends of Street Ends, working to open them up to the public. They don't have a Web presence, but if anyone is interested in contacting them, send me an e-mail.

    Posted Thu, Oct 21, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    Much of Lake Union’s intrigue and excitement lies in the sometimes messy interaction between industry, water traffic, residences and commercial development that characterize its setting. While I will agree that much more could be done to stitch together the disparate network of trails and paths that one must navigate to get around the lake, I feel it would be a mistake to remake the waterfront in the landscaped promenade form that so common. It’s not that there isn’t a place for this sort of thing, indeed Green Lake is a fine example, it just that Lake Union so much more.


    Posted Fri, Oct 22, 5:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    Bleak is the exact word that occurred to me too when I first saw the finished product. Years if not decades in the making, Lake Union park is a big turnoff, unless you're a fan of redundant concrete sidewalks... However, I do have to admit that Lake Union Park has been lavishly praised by Seattle Parks. LMAO.

    Mud Baby

    Posted Sat, Oct 23, 7:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    Why the parks dept suburban lawns in the city? Sculpture, Gasworks, Steinbrueck, Seattle Center, now Lake Union Park, LUP. Myrtle Edwards too more a fairway than a natural water's edge, about the right amount and kind of trees, more than Sculpture and LUP. Current parks dept designers are not all that great.

    Demand rough and semi-finished Waterfront rebuilding renditions before december, Seattlers, not like sometime like, next like, year, sometime. Sorry for being such a pill, but, I don't mean harm, just the opposite, U armchair engineer-typish wannabees that like the stupid DBT.


    Posted Mon, Oct 25, 12:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    As someone who has been running the lake off and on for years, the project has made great improvements particularly at the south and west sides of the lake. Gravel parking lots and rail lines have been paved and made walkable and rideable. If that alone reflected the $30m invested I'm not surprised. However I agree it isn't much in the way or park design. These areas are still very commercial and the design is more typical of a strip mall than a park. Still, it is a safe connection through an area that once reminded me more of a minefield.

    The biggest disappointment however is the Fairview "missing link" between E Edgar and E Roanoke. Having to walk (or ride) the detour up one of the city's steepest streets, then DOWN AN ALLEY seems a huge failure. I'd have been embarrassed to post one of these "Cheshiahud Loop" signs pointing down that alley - though they did pave that alley nicely.


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