The $29.6 million semi-secret on the shores of Seattle's Lake Union
Seattle's newest park, taking shape on the southern shore of Lake Union, is the Great Civic Debate we forgot to have. The park has all the ingredients of a free-for-all: tax dollars going to a project that at least indirectly benefits a wealthy developer (Paul Allen), a beloved old thing a vocal group wants to save (the schooner Wawona), an historic building with an uncertain purpose (the former Naval Reserve Building), a big project cost and a skeptical press that hints of outwitted city officials. The combined elements could have been another chapter in the Seattle Process, but this park is the little engine that could. It keeps going. The first phase of 12-acre Lake Union Park opens by December, with the entire park completed by 2010. If you don't know about the park, that's no surprise. Maybe next to Terry Pettus Park in the Eastlake neighborhood, it may be the city's most forgotten waterfront, obscured for years by construction gear and trucks. Even if you know about it, it's tricky to get there. You cross dangerous Valley Street, a mini freeway for cars headed west to Seattle Center and Queen Anne. Last week, Group Health chipped in $100,000, according to the Seattle Parks Foundation. Another much bigger donation will be announced soon, bringing total fundraising to nearly $18 million. Taxpayers contributed $9.6 million of the overall $29.6 million budget for the park. The fate of the Wawona, which has been told to move, is uncertain but the Naval Reserve building will be occupied by the Museum of History and Industry. MOHAI's arrival is a two-fer, settling what could have been a rancorous debate about the naval building and averting a wrongheaded move by the museum into the belly of the state convention center. The cost to overhaul the naval building and install MOHAI's exhibits is roughly $35 million. So Seattle gets a new park at south Lake Union. And to think it only took a century since the Olmsteds suggested the idea. Remarkably, the project takes shape while controversy still flares over a road project that is critical to the park's design: moving thousands of cars off Valley Street, the park's southern border and planned gateway. Fixing Valley involves routing most of those cars through a redesigned Mercer Street. A quieter Valley becomes a more attractive edge and access point to the park. Excitement about the new park has been eclipsed by the larger debate over the $119 million Mercer Corridor Project, which some have called too expensive and too generous to nearby developers, especially Paul Allen. And yet at some point we have to put down our sabers and recognize a good thing, a welcome contrast to recent fiascos (Sonics, Monorail, Viaduct). Please sign the thank you card to the Seattle Parks Foundation and its energetic executive director, Karen Daubert. A video on the foundation's website gives a nifty "fly over" of the park's design, which shows the MOHAI building (scheduled to complete refurbishment by 2011), a place to launch small watercraft, a model boat pond, a 300-foot "interactive" fountain, boardwalk and bridge. Walkers, sitters, and boaters enjoy the waterfront on a sunny day. The scene is welcoming, though perhaps restrained and almost corporate in its formality. Please add some frivolity and maybe a Frankfurter stand. Knowing the effect that hot weather and nearby water has on Seattle residents, I noticed something missing in the generic crowd of park users. Not a single swimmer. A foundation spokesman told me that swimming probably would not be encouraged because of toxins in the lakebed from past industrial uses. Sorry, I don't care. On some summer day a few years hence, I'll be there with a towel, glad this was one civic debate we never had. UPDATE A few budget numbers in this story have been corrected. Also, the Parks Foundation says the flyover video shows something that could be a Frankfurter stand. We report, but you decide. Check out the video and see if you can find your Bockwurst.