Lake Union Park: a first look at its design

The $30 million park opened last weekend, and our critic finds it "simply stunning." It's a vast improvement on the sullen landscape of asphalt and dirt it replaces.

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The new Lake Union Park

The $30 million park opened last weekend, and our critic finds it "simply stunning." It's a vast improvement on the sullen landscape of asphalt and dirt it replaces.

This past Saturday the 12-acre, $30 million Lake Union Park was unveiled to the public with great hoopla and fanfare. Marching bands, vendors, entertainment, warm weather, and a sparkling Lake Union all made for a great event. The new park is simply stunning and will just get better in years to come, with the maturing of trees and the upcoming move of MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry, into the old Naval Reserve building and other planned additions.

For now, the park opens up a large crescent of public access, arching around the southwest corner of Lake Union. Far more enticing and captivating than earlier efforts to wind trails and diminutive overlooks in between businesses and parking lots, this new park is grand in scale and not disrupted by cars skittering about.

Pre-dating the Naval Reserve armory, the area had been occupied by a sawmill — an industry that spent decades dumping scrap, chips, and sawdust into the lower reaches of the lake. Eventually, dozens of feet of fetid fill could barely support a parking lot for the Naval Reserve; the lot had humps and valleys from the differing rates of settlement and weak load bearing capacity.

A century ago, the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm recommended the area for a park, as part of the network of parks, boulevards, and greenways they planned for Seattle. That vision has been finally realized. The park was designed by the internationally known Hargreaves Associates, based in New York, San Francisco and other cities, along with the locally based Mithun.

$20 million of the total cost was raised by the non-profit Seattle Parks Foundation, headed by the affable and unflappable Karen Daubert.  Vulcan, the Paul-Allen-led development company with many nearby projects, contributed half of the private funds. The remainder of the funding came from public sources, including a voter-approved Pro-Parks Levy. The project was initiated under former Mayor Greg Nickels and former Parks Superintendant Ken Bounds. Thanks to these efforts, a vast stretch of asphalt and dirt has been totally transformed.

Today, there is a smooth plane of grass and granite chips crisscrossed by pathways and lines of trees. Where once were mucky, weedy shallows in the west waterway, there is now habitat for birds and fish. A gracefully-designed pedestrian bridge allows for people to peer down into the lake and observe the growing marine life. A little clump of trees and lawn at the west end of the bridge offers a supremely serene view of water and vegetation with the backdrop of a dynamic, changing skyline.

A wide diagonal walkway framed by arcing water jets denotes the original shoreline of the lake before it was filled. Originally, the design concept called for a canal that would slice across at that angle, but that idea proved infeasible.

A model boat basin anchors the center of the park, resembling similar shallow circular ponds in parks like the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Here, as there, small sailboats are gently pushed off on a short course with long bamboo poles by both children and adults. Unexpected gusts of wind suddenly deflect the direction of the little vessels, causing much scurrying about to receive them on the other side.

The wood-planked esplanade lining the northwest corner invites quiet contemplation of the entire panorama of the lake: sailboats and motorboats, sea planes landing and taking off, birds, buildings, houseboats, and a row of historic ships moored off to the side. It's a rich array of commerce, recreation, and maritime heritage.

The west waterway contains a feature unusual if not unique in central Seattle — a place to launch kayaks by hand. A sloping, sandy beach is one means, the other is a slender dock. The beach, although small, should attract contingents of sun-worshippers on nice days, including former Californians like me in occasional desperate search for needed UVA.

As good as the new park is now, there is more to come. Mercer and Valley are about to be transformed into tree-lined streets. Valley will be narrow and quiet (unlike the random whizzing traffic and cacophony today). Mercer will be a divided, two-way boulevard with wide sidewalks and large trees and ornamental street lights. The South Lake Union Streetcar already allows many people to reach the park by transit.

The Center for Wooden Boats is gathering funds to build an education center at the end of the east waterway. The building will showcase the construction of various small watercraft and hold classes and interpretive tours. This will expand upon the small village-like grouping of houseboat-like sheds and boats for rent.

At some point the United Indians of All Tribes will develop its own educational and interpretive center near the west bank of the west waterway. When all these various projects are completed, there will be a whole series of buildings, spaces, and vessels portraying the past as the future unfolds in all directions.

The new Lake Union Park also offers lessons for the upcoming design of the Central Waterfront public spaces. Parks and public spaces do not do well on their own; they need buildings and uses that provide activation. The role of on-going programming is also critical; organizations must monitor and maintain the space as well as manage and promote events. Otherwise parks can fall into disuse or misuse.

The recent rise of mean-spirited, anti-government activists has spread a collective malaise that government does not act in our best interests and that taxpayers are being milked, if not bilked, at every opportunity. Well, Lake Union Park is an example of government not just doing things right, but doing them superbly. Two-thirds of the cost came from private donors, not the taxpaying public. All in all, it’s a pretty good deal.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).