A wall comes down in Madison Park

After a long saga, has Madison Park's discomfort with interlopers lessened?
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The beach at Madison Park

After a long saga, has Madison Park's discomfort with interlopers lessened?

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."

--Robert Frost

Madison Park has been struggling with its own "Mending Wall" crises for some months now. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department wanted to take down a chain link fence blocking access to and views of the water along 43rd Avenue East, just a few blocks north of the Madison Park beach.

The park has the appearance of a private preserve: a broad lawn, some plantings, a swing set, and benches. It's the kind of place a nanny might sit while a toddler swings. Sometimes little kids play soccer there. Since the 1940s, a fence has stood at the top of a rip-rap rockery that drops off to Lake Washington below. The Parks Department doesn't monitor the park's use, but not many people seem to use the park. The street is not particularly busy and the neighbors like it that way.

At the end of last year, there was a contentious debate as many in Madison Park objected to the fence's removal: it would be a safety hazard, draw too many people, create parking problems. Madison Park's summer beach hordes tend to fill up the streets and sidewalks on warm days. But in the city's view, removing the fence is a simple maintenance issue and its removal furthers the Park's mission of enhancing, not inhibiting, public access to the water. Fences are an endangered species. Despite objections, parks decided to move ahead with getting rid of the fence.

There is plenty of unfenced waterfront in the city, some of it with similar rocky drop-offs (Myrtle Edwards Park, for example). While it could make it easier for folks to fall in, unfenced waterfront elsewhere has hardly led to hordes of toddlers falling in like lemmings. Still, caution is always warranted. As a wee child, I toppled off a stone wall near Seward Park in mid-winter and caught pneumonia. My dad fished me out, no one sued, and I learned a lesson. Given my father's Scandinavian heritage, it was likely thought the dunk was good for me.

Though parks let it be known that they weren't required to, they did convene an advisory panel to help shape plans for the fence removal. They picked four people who opposed the removal, and four (including me) who were in favor. We met twice, the first time in March, and suggested that a buffer of native plants could replace the fence, with some strategically placed logs to ensure that errant soccer balls wouldn't easily wind up in the lake.

The Parks Department was polite, letting us know they did not have the funds for major landscaping, but neither did they have money or plans for a major remake of shore access, such as making the park a kayak launching spot, or putting in stairs. They were also firm that the plantings should be meant as a visual cue, not a replacement of the fence with some kind of de facto hedge. Parks took our input, and made a plan.

Those against the fence removal voiced their objections to it at a second meeting. The Madison Park Blogger had an account of that here that is accurate: Parks employees were told that they ranked below "fecal matter" in the neighborhood's estimation, and veiled comments or insinuations about liability and litigation were made. If Robert Frost had quoted a 17th-century proverb about good fences making good neighbors in his famous poem, it also seemed that removing this fence was making for bad blood.

One reason for the passion is that this small, waterfront park has a lot of eyeballs on it. The residents of two over-the-water condo developments look down on it, and visually, residents may have the feeling that it is a kind of private yard. At a hearing last year, some residents made it known that they wanted to keep the riff-raff out.

But the neighbors are also more aware than anyone of what goes on there, and have concerns about the choppy waters created by backlash from waves pounding the 520 bridges: They've seen kayakers get stuck, people fall in. Many didn't like the chain link fence, but wished to replace it with a nice looking one. Fences were added at the Madrona beach, but we were told they were not for blocking access but to rather protect plantings.

My own opinion is that the city is right to expand access wherever possible. Still, they have a balance to achieve with locals. The city has a responsibility to everyone, but in many ways the city increasingly relies on locals to embrace and care for public property, from parking strips to pocket parks to non-profits that take on the responsibility of major projects and makeovers, removing endangered species, and adding gardens and benches. Parks are public, but the reality is that they are often public-private partnerships.

Disputes over them can go on forever, whether it's lighting at Magnuson Park or removing private plantings for public access at street ends. A dispute over a private hedge owned by Bill Gates' sister in Laurelhurst was just recently resolved after years of debate and negotiating. Real encroachment isn't right, but the city takes advantage of some degree of psychological encroachment, especially in tight budget times. If the Parks Department can't keep up the maintenance, it's the neighbors who will have to step in.

Parks presented its plan to the annual meeting of the Madison Park Council this week. Parks superintendent Christopher Williams answered questions, but didn't face any hostility by plan opponents. Could it be that, even with no real consensus, a decision to go forward and make the best of it had been reached? The meeting was civil and forward looking. The fence removal, the pulling of invasive plants like blackberry and ivy, and the planting and log installation look to take four or five weeks, says the Parks Department. Then nature will (it is hoped) take its course, burnishing thriving native salal, kinnikinnick, and other plants.

Let's hope that the neighborhood will come to feel at home with the new, more open and natural shoreline.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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