Lake Union Park: a first assessment

Only a small part is done, and there are some missed opportunities. But the way South Lake Union opens up from the edges of the park is stunning and bold. The design pulls off the difficult trick of incorporating a working waterfront with a public park.
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Lake Union Park. (Seattle Parks Foundation)

Only a small part is done, and there are some missed opportunities. But the way South Lake Union opens up from the edges of the park is stunning and bold. The design pulls off the difficult trick of incorporating a working waterfront with a public park.

You can spot a Hargreaves landscape a mile away, or in this case, from a seaplane. Last week I landed in Lake Union, and from the window had an up-in-the-sky view of the first phase of South Lake Union Park. Designed by Hargreaves Associates (with offices in San Francisco, Cambridge, London, and New York), it is marked by elements that characterize the style of the firm: broad expanses of grass, plantings that are textural rather than colorful, and a web of paths — or desire lines — that alternately cut straight and swoop across the park.

These features are easily seen on the ground as well as from the sky, and are not particularly subtle moves in the landscape. Neither are the two boat-shaped planters, with more to come in future phases. What is elegant and complex about this first phase of Lake Union Park is the construction of a new working waterfront within a public park.

One might wonder why a firm from out-of-town was selected. Hargreaves has a high profile internationally (they completed extensive work for the Sydney Olympics) and is arguably the most experienced waterfront park firm in the country, with especially strong skills on the construction management side. It is worth visiting Crissy Field in San Francisco to experience how they transformed military land in the Presidio into an unexpected and terrific national park.

On the site of a former saw mill, asphalt plant, and garbage dump, Lake Union Park is now edged on its north and west sides by a wood-decked bulkhead. Giant cleats indicate that boats tie up here, and this working waterfront allows park visitors a direct connection to the water's edge. In a world full of fear of liability lawsuits, it is a neat trick to achieve unimpeded access to the deep end of the lake by combining bulkhead and park. (Of course, as soon as the edge transitions on the southwest side to a more naturalistic shoreline, the guardrails go up there). New parks don't often have the opportunity to take the risk of asking visitors to be mindful of their own bodies in space (if they did, our playgrounds would be much more varied and imaginative), so it's refreshing to encounter it here.

The two colliding landscape types may not look all that dramatic on the surface, but the challenge of constructing the bulkheads and preparing the ground for the lawn was substantial. Scott Smith, principal at Hargreaves (full disclosure: I worked for Hargreaves Associates in 2003 and 2004, but not on this project), told me that while pounding 100-plus foot piles into the lake to construct the seawall, they unsurprisingly encountered remnants of past activities on the site. "Imagine trying to shovel through a web of matchsticks. Many, many feet of logs from the former mill were laid over each other. It's hard to drive piles into that." The tolerances in this kind of work are within inches.

The bulkhead is higher on the west side than on the north (allowing for the accommodation of variously sized vessels). At the north side, facing the full sweep of Lake Union, the clear cedar wood deck steps down twice, bringing visitors closer to the water's edge and creating terraced seating. If nothing else, this park is a treat because it affords visitors an opportunity that they did not have before: to sit down on a generous public deck at the north end of downtown and watch the varied life of the lake go by — boats, planes, people on curious homemade floats. When I was there, I watched a pod of primary-colored kayaks filled with school-aged children paddle past and under the new steel pedestrian Safeco Bridge.

The design of the bridge belongs to the multi-disciplinary Seattle design firm Mithun (where I also used to work but again not on this project). Its steely blue-gray paint perfectly evokes the color into which Seattle sky and water dissolve on overcast days. The bridge doesn't take the opportunity for a major or iconic statement, leaving that to the vessels and the grand lake itself. It lacks that architectural quality of the best bridges that make you feel as if you are floating through steel or sticks, hovering or soaring above the water.

The deck of the bridge is flat, not arched, and it is split down the middle with steel grate on one side and wood planks on the other. This dual deck feels a bit squished by the narrowness of the bridge, and the grate is a little too tightly spaced to let you see much of the water flowing under your feet. I'm puzzled by the lack of alignment in the screws fastening down the wood. Rather than being in a perfectly straight line, they wiggle, and this continues across the entire deck of the bulkhead. It may seem like a minor detail, but it is the precise execution of a repeating pattern that makes something like a boardwalk stunning.

When the entire park opens in 2010, it will span 12 acres and will include (to name just a handful of the amenities): a signed historic trail marking the Native American, mill, lumber and various other past activities on the site; a model boat pond within a tall grass meadow; a grove of trees between the city and the lake; a beach for hand-launched boats; restored salmon habitat; a 300-foot long interactive fountain; swooping landforms; and areas for assembly. The Center for Wooden Boats, adjacent to the site, will get a new education center when the rest of the park is built. Their nifty small craft can tie up to the bulkhead. The future of the park also makes room for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation Northwest Native Canoe Center and the Museum of History and Industry, which will move into the U.S. Navy Armory, a landmark building in the northeast corner of the Park.

Phase one is a mere 1.6 acres, a small portion of the ultimate Lake Union Park. The lawn completed in phase one creates a space for passive recreation and mid- to large-sized gatherings, such as maritime-themed festivals or concerts. This is precisely what it looks like. The boat-shaped planters in the middle of the lawn, while lacking subtlety, perform a dual function, with seating integrated into their walls (corten steel backs for the seating along one edge is still to come). This has been thoughtfully detailed, with the concrete held back at the steel and a ribbon of gravel set in, so that rust doesn't stain the concrete. Smith says that the arc of the steel will reflect the gentle slope of the soil profile in the planters.

The plantings are textural, largely composed of grasses. At the moment they look sparse and a bit limp; with time and maintenance they will hopefully become a variegated mass that moves in the wind. There are certainly plenty of maintenance dollars going towards upkeep of the lawn. On one of my visits, I saw a phalanx of mowers take on the grass. They may have to tackle the problem of the Canadian geese, who promptly settled right in on the lawn, with equal fervor.

The flat openness that characterizes this phase of the project makes the place feel underwhelming as a park if you take it in on its own. But future phases introduce shade and landforms, and until these bits are built, I am inclined to reserve judgment on the sense some have of it being a somewhat disappointing park, and on how well the park will succeed in being a focal point for Seattle's maritime heritage and a place for celebrations, which are the stated goals. But let's be grateful. Lake Union Park clearly creates a lovely place for Seattleites to get closer to their lake. The view across to Gasworks Park, greenly beckoning at the far end of the lake, almost pulls you out into Lake Union. The two parks, quite different from each other, form bookends on this historic and active body of water. It makes me want to dive right in.


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