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How Gas Works Park shapes the Northwest today

The National Register of Historic Places has just honored the repurposed park. No wonder: The Seattle project started a whole new way of preserving and building on the past for the entire region.
Gas Works Park

Gas Works Park Yogesh Mahtre/Flickr

Artist's rendering of a proposed Prairie Line Trail where it would go through the University of Washington Tacoma campus.

Artist's rendering of a proposed Prairie Line Trail where it would go through the University of Washington Tacoma campus. UW Tacoma

Some Northwest cities have embraced remnants of their industrial past in bolder, greener designs. Leading the way: Seattle's newly honored Gas Works Park.

In Astoria, Oregon there's a boutique hotel on the Columbia River, the Cannery Pier Hotel. It's in the shadow of the impressive steel Astoria-Megler Bridge that arcs above the river to allow massive ships underneath. From your suite, you can look out and observe the ship traffic, diving cormorants and swimming seals.

The hotel was built over the water on the site of an old co-op cannery operation founded by Finnish fisherman and their allies that was once the busiest fish packing plant in a cannery town. Right next to the hotel is another rotting pier just like the one the hotel is built on. Its deck is crumbling; moss and greenery hangs from its dilapidated structure. It is quite beautiful, like an abstract modern sculpture. It gives you an idea of the "before" to the hotel's "after," of the maritime and working heritage of the site and city.

Astoria used to be a place you drove through on the way to the Oregon Coast. Now it combines the flavors of historic Port Townsend and hipster Portland mixed with a genuine working class city where fisherman and loggers still occasionally brawl in the streets. Ships ply the river at the mouth of the Pacific, and on the highway to Astoria you'll pass logging trucks filled with something other than match-stick timbers. The "Sometimes a Great Notion" Northwest still lives, but with inns, galleries and cool restaurants.

The Cannery Hotel represents the newer Astoria, but one built by locals who also embrace the old, industrial waterfront. The hotel is built on century old, old-growth timbers that are still as fresh as the day they were pounded into the muck of the river bottom. The town feels rooted in such foundations.

It's way too tempting and easy to remake cities in the boutique image while tearing down the old, dirty and industrial. But even a dirty industrial legacy can prove adaptable. In Seattle, railroad right of ways have been converted to trails like the Burke-Gilman. In Tacoma, the old railroad corridor that runs through the downtown site of the UW Tacoma is slated to become the Prairie Line Trail, and park, through a campus that has already incorporated many old buildings. New York's High Line is an example too. With projects like Seattle's big waterfront re-make in the offing and the gentrification of SoDo and South Lake Union/Cascade offer chances to adapt industrial legacies. Already, some city landmark structures like smokestacks have been preserved.

There is an extraordinary and pioneering example of industrial adaptation in Seattle to inspire us, and it lies on the north shores of Lake Union. It's Gas Works Park, which earlier this year was honored, with a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Allyson Brooks, the state's historic preservation officer, explains, "The design conserved part of Seattle's industrial heritage along with introducing a groundbreaking experiment in bioremediation into urban life." In that, it was a radical, national experiment and the first of its kind.

This year represents the 50th anniversary of the city of Seattle making its first payment to purchase the site, and the 40th anniversary of the opening of its first phase to the public (the giant mound) in 1973. The finished park opened in 1975.

Gasworks was the site of a turn-of-the-century gas plant dating from 1906 that produced gas from coal for lighting, heating, cooking and other purposes. At one time, they even made charcoal briquettes there. It closed in 1956. The Olmsteds had much earlier identified the property as having city park potential. In the early 1960s Seattle finally bought the old plant with its spectacular views of the city and lake with the intent to convert it into an urban park on an industrial lake that was shifting toward recreational uses.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Feb 2, 1:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Gas Works Park is pleasant enough but it's significance as a functional park is really overhyped in that on a day to day basis it is very lightly used. There is a great view and fireworks once per year but there are no ball fields, significant play structures, or large enough area to get good exercise walking or jogging. Unless you fly a kite or want to use it as an unofficial off leash area, there is no point going there more than once or twice a year.

WSDW

Posted Sat, Feb 2, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

I believe Haag is the only two-time recipient of the Gold Medal of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Once for Gasworks Park and once for the Bloedel Reserve. Two more disparate design projects are hard to imagine and each is brilliant.

The fact that government environmental authorities have closed portions of the park in recent years for further remediation is evidence of what a witches brew of toxic material continues to brew not far beneath the park's playground.

Posted Mon, Feb 4, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Gasworks park stands more as a monument to our inability to hold the oil/coal industries liable for their pollution than as an architectural asset. While I am a great supporter of keeping industrial waterfront lands, working, once such a prime piece of real estate is determined to be made public, it should be put to its best public use. While I liked the idea of preserving some of the equipment as a play area as a nod to its history, the retention of the gas works themselves, not only blocks views and takes up valuable space, but has hindered the cleanup of that toxic site - the liability for which the city has assumed from the industry. Not only are kids directed not to eat the dirt, but the EPA has found that the aquatic sediments offshore the Park are highly toxic. This can't be good for the salmon bound to and from Lake Washington or those that eat them.

Posted Thu, Feb 14, 1 a.m. Inappropriate

While I appreciate the ode to Seattle's history, the hulking rusted gasworks, covered in grafitti and surrounded by chainlink fence and barbed wire are anything but welcoming. In addition, the covered "activity" area is dark, smells like urine and has a bunch of creepy looking guys hanging out there. I walked my dog there earlier this week and outside of the giant mound and the view, it has precious little to offer. Too bad there's not a more subtle way to honor Seattle's industrial past.

johnnyo

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