Madison Park: If fences make good neighbors, what happens when you take one down?

The affluent Seattle neighborhood is embroiled in a controversy over whether to remove a chain-link barrier on the lake shore in a public park.

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Madison Park offers Lake Washington locations and spectacular views.

The affluent Seattle neighborhood is embroiled in a controversy over whether to remove a chain-link barrier on the lake shore in a public park.

In some ways, Madison Park is the ideal Seattle neighborhood: a vibrant little business district, a great beach and park, the best Starbucks in Seattle designed to please Howard Schultz, who lives nearby. There is a great little grocery store (Bert's) and a family-owned hardware store that sells everything from nuts and bolts to toys. Emmett Watson, who once lived in Madison Park (he once lived in every neighborhood in Seattle) called it the "pentagon for housing, ordinance, supplies and information." It has also great pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating near the lake. 

It was designed as a streetcar resort town, a pleasure place where turn-of-the-century Seattleites vacationed by the lake, danced in the gazebo. It still is in summer: the bus brings hordes from Capitol Hill and elsewhere to the bathing beach, which seems neatly and naturally ordered into gay, singles, and family sections. People shop the shops, sit in the cafes, get ice cream from a family-owned ice cream shop.

In some ways, the place is almost to good to be true. There's a lot of money here. Before the bust, bungalows — and Madison Park is bungalow-rich — sold for up to a million dollars, and many were torn down for what I call "bungvillas," remodeled single-family homes that went multi-story to get top-floor views of the lake. Much of the housing stock is modest, except in price. A bit like Alki, the beach burb has grown up, and there's an ebb and flow of locals and seasonal visitors, outsiders and people settled here.

I say settled because, even though there is a transient population of tourists and renters, many residents are older retirees for whom this is the last stop. The final condo, the digs at the high-rise assisted living luxury of Park Shore. There are lots of affluent old people with lots of time for the Tennis Club and cafe-lounging. The archetypes seem to be tiny, birdlike former society matrons with walkers and paid companions, or white-haired men with glasses and polo shirts who look like retired doctors or dentists counting the days until they can get back to Sun Valley.

Madison Park feels like a wealthy village that can afford to have the old neighborhood amenities that all neighborhoods used to have. It has other privileges, too. One is free street parking, an abundance of it (save for the peak of summer). Another are the condo complexes that were built out over Lake Washington before they were outlawed for shoreline protection. Madison Park could easily have become a kind of damp mini Palm Beach. Those units, with fabulous, unobstructed views virtually surrounded by water, are pricey and desirable. Such a lifestyle has always been part of the place: early on, low-budget Seattleites camped on the shore or built summer houseboats of wood and canvas.

One odd thing I've noticed in the five or so years I've lived here. The line that comes to mind is: "What if they gave a walkable neighborhood and nobody came?" I live in an apartment complex that's a half-mile walk from the business district, an easy walk and even easier bus ride. Madison Valley is only a mile and a half away. And yes, there are joggers and dog walkers, but in Madison Park proper, I'm often surprised at how empty the streets are. The business district grows quiet early in the evening: this is not Mayor Mike McGinn's 24-hour city. On the residential streets, you rarely run into anyone. I often walk the whole half mile to Burt's past the tidy yards and bungvillas and will not pass anyone else. Whatever urban buzz there is doesn't get beyond the business district even during the summer. Despite its high-rises and apartments, the feel is very Kirkland, but with much less going on. Another urban enclave it reminds me of: the Marina district in San Francisco with its wide, mostly people-less residential streets.

That's easy to love, in its old Seattle kind of way. Especially in the fall with early darkness, blowing leaves, quiet homes buttoned up for the night, and just you. But there's a side to Madison Park that is pretty unpleasant. If wealth and the adaptation of old Seattle institutions into upscale amenities is part of the charm, there's also a lot of entitlement in the air. There seem to be a large number of SUVs and drivers who are loath to share the road, and too many designer dogs wearing designer outfits. 

Some people also believe they have a right to a sense of exclusivity here. That is manifest in the latest neighborhood controversy. There's a small public park along 43rd Avenue East, which follows the lake shore north and south at Lake Washington's edge, just north of the Madison Park beach and business district. It is a kind of pocket park, off the beaten track a bit, though it's right on a bus line (Route 11). There's not much there, mostly lawn, a swing set, some plantings. It is just about the only stretch of public lakefront in Seattle that is fenced off: a chain link barrier covered in blackberry vines blocks access to the water.

The park is set between two of the now-banned condo developments built out over the lake. The swatch of land is valued because it gives unobstructed views of the lake: no one's going to block your view on that public property. As a result, single-family homes have disappeared across the street from it and small, expensive, multi-million-dollar condos have popped up. You can see the lake, the Cascades, and lights of 520. It's a very pretty view of the lake from across the street or out on the private piers.

The fence first went up in the 1940s, not long after a child drowned nearby. The Parks Department wants to take it down. Many of the neighbors object. Some cite safety reasons: children might topple off the rip-rap. The water can get rough in there, as waves driven by the winds rebound from 520's south side and slosh around in the gap between the condos. A recent meeting of the parks board to take public comment drew many Madison Park speakers who opposed removing the fence. While some expressed the worries about safety, other concerns were that taking it down would attract more people. One resident frankly stated that she didn't want just anyone coming to the neighborhood, which would make it like any other Seattle neighborhood. She wanted Madison Park to retain its exclusivity. She gets points for honesty, at least.

Others worried about the property values going down if the park became popular, still others worried about the disappearance in the high season of street parking, another worried that the park was on a "dead end" street (it's not), but the implication seemed to be that trouble would collect in a kind of cul de sac. One of those speaking at the meeting seemed to feel the need to clarify that she was talking about rip-rap, not riff-raff, but just the fact that she brought that up made it uncomfortably clear that part of what is giving this debate its charge is what the fence means about Madison Park: it symbolizes embattled privilege.

Madison Park is not all wealthy folks, I am proof of that, but the culture of money is prevalent. Community investment of time and money has produced great stuff, like the redo of the actual Madison Park park a few years ago which is a vast improvement, especially for kids and nannies. And the McGilvra public school is embraced and supported by its parents. But fences seem like a Broadmoor thing, the Republican-friendly gated community up the hill that used to be surrounded by brick and barbed-wire, now overgrown by a tall hedge. Madison Park was born as a transit-friendly, blue-collar vacation spot that sought to attract the public. Worries over taking down a last barrier to the lake seem misplaced.

Kenan Block, a neighbor and friend from an old, civically engaged Seattle family, testified with his son at the parks meeting. He made an impassioned, rational appeal for reminding Madison Park that this park was public, for everyone's use. Seattle's waterfront neighborhoods sometimes need this reminder. The fight for getting Seattle's street-ends — the "string of pearls" — back into public access was considerable, and there are some gems (somewhat hidden) in Madison Park. The tendency for folks to encroach on adjacent parks and boulevard property with their driveways, pools, and landscaping has also been an ongoing issue all along the lake. 

It's also true that many Seattleites tend to think public parks are a nuisance: they bring strangers, garbage, crime, traffic, annoying uses. The best Seattle park is often thought to be an empty Seattle park.

It is also hard sometimes for people to separate love of neighborhood and the desire to care for it from the fact that the public has rights. The park on 43rd is little used, it has the potential for greater public use and access (kayakers, canoeists, picnickers, sunbathers). In fact, the city has a responsibility to ensure that its potential for the public is enhanced. Removing the fence is a small step in that direction.

It's hard to think that, given all the troubles in this world and city, this is such a big issue, but Madison Park might feel that it is under pressure. Even affluent retirees have had difficulties in these times as nest eggs have diminished and home values have declined. The 520 expansion promises to be a rough ride for the community. Changes to bridge access, Montlake, north-south travel, and reducing the drivability of the Arboretum will have impacts. The construction and potential eyesore it presents has upset many people.

But Madison Park is also a place —and many people get this — that ought to be shared, both for its benefits and on principle. Its public places like this park have more potential for legitimate uses. Madison Park, tear down that wall.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.