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

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

A few minutes later I’m taking photos of Linmar, a 78-foot wooden motor yacht berthed on the lake’s northeast shore, when a voice calls out and invites me aboard. No problem! It turns out to be the owner, Kuhrt Wieneke, who tells me he bought the 78-year-old boat as salvage after a disastrous fire four years ago. He brought her back from the dead — every wooden piece of the hull and interior was either replaced or reworked — and now lives aboard and offers charter cruises.

“You must have been incredibly courageous,” I tell him.

“Either that or incredibly optimistic,” he counters, and either way I figure it’s an appropriate quality to have on exhibit around the lake. More than most cities, Seattle is all about the faith that civilization can coexist with a spectacular natural setting without overwhelming it or being overwhelmed by it. On a walk around Lake Union, you want to think that equilibrium, however flawed and impermanent, might be possible.

More texture: A front yard clotted with quirky scrap-metal sculptures of fishermen and dinosaurs. Another filled with hand-painted signs warning of “DEMONS” at work among us. Realtors’ signs hawking floating homes up to $925,000, but juxtaposed with such unapproachable luxury, frequent glimpses of the improvisatory, still-somewhat-funky houseboat communities. I had been worrying that the funk quotient of Seattle was being inexorably ground down by the city’s increasing wealth and ambition, but a walk around the lake restores hope. For the time being.

 At the loop’s end, I have a vague feeling of letdown. The walk was intermittently interesting, but not really satisfying. For want of any more precise or exotic term, it wasn’t a lot of fun. For me, the finest attraction remains the Center for Wooden Boats, but I’m a member and frequent visitor, so the loop introduces nothing new there. Gasworks Park needs another half-century before it begins to feel enough like a ruin to be intriguing.

What’s missing from the loop is a critical mass of humanity, or spontaneous happenings, or art and architecture — all these, actually. The Green Lake circumambulation is a delight because so many people, with all their quirks and agendas, activate the experience. The blossoming Tacoma waterfront walk along Thea Foss Waterway is enlivened by interesting architecture on one flank and a good visual connection with the water on the other — both in scarce supply around Lake Union.            

Seattle’s entire core is an unbroken string of botched opportunities and half-successful mitigations. The Elliott Bay waterfront is a tragedy, and the excellent Olympic Sculpture Park redeems only one small wedge of it. Downtown is sprinkled with imaginative parklets and plazas like the privately developed Harbor Steps, but it lacks the visionary grand blowout park. And so goes the Lake Union waterfront: the makeshift loop and the new park are welcome improvements, but we could have had so much more.

However, if you have access to a kayak or canoe or modest daysailer, all of Lake Union is a park, and there isn’t a better urban spectacle anywhere in the country.

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