Lake Union as Seattle's Central Park

Center for Wooden Boats founder Dick Wagner has a big vision for the city's old Cascade neighborhood.
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Taking in the lakefront views in South Lake Union

Center for Wooden Boats founder Dick Wagner has a big vision for the city's old Cascade neighborhood.

I found a new world when I first strode the lanes of Seattle in 1957. I discovered very diverse neighborhoods from Ballard to Broadmoor, but the one with the most interesting history was Cascade — and it wasn’t a neighborhood at all.

Cascade didn’t have the elements for living, working, shopping, playing, learning or strolling. A neighborhood becomes one when volunteers offer their time, skills and money to preserve its public assets. It’s team building at its best.

More than half a century later I’m still intrigued by Cascade — now known as South Lake Union. But now it’s the neighborhood’s future that has my attention.

Today South Lake Union is a place of vitality. Big boxes of steel, concrete and glass have sprouted up from Denny Way to Mercer Street with branches on the east and west sides of the lake. There are about 16 cranes and hordes of people bustling around with backpacks, cell phones and a variety of electronic gizmos. There are new hotels, condos, offices, bistros of all tempos, restaurants, bars and markets selling everything from aspirin to ice axes. But where are the residences for low income workers? Where is the library? Where are the playgrounds? Where are the schools?

South Lake Union is full of academics inventing and experiencing math, science and technology. They can be the resource for schools to add to their curricula.

The surface of South Lake Union is a tilted plane from Denny Way to the lake. Many neighborhoods have the advantage of long views of the Cascades or Olympics and sometimes, on blue sky days, Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. South Lake Union needs a few skinny towers on the shoreside of the lake as its own iconic Alps.

Transportation is a problem. The roads in South Lake Union perpetually are congested and producing air pollution. Let’s put a funicular (a trolley on a string) and fly over the Great Wall of the I-5 freeway that separates South Lake Union from Capitol Hill. There should be community bikes — a good way to lose calories and carbon — and electrically-powered taxis, rickshaws and boats with bike racks.

In the fall of 2010, Lake Union Park was set free from the Cascade gritty industrial center and dedicated as a public asset. It is what every small town or neighborhood needs: 12 acres of rolling grass with a model boat pond, a path of working fountains where kids strip down and race through cascading water and a plethora of Northwest history in the park and the water around it. It’s a pleasure for all ages. When The Center for Wooden Boats’ new Education Center and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation’s workspace for Carving Cultural Connections are in place, South Lake Union will be even more bright and blooming.

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Beautiful bows are a common site at SLU's Center for Wooden Boats. Credit: Ingrid Taylar/Flickr

The lake itself is ready for a renaissance. Planting indigenous plants such as wapato and reeds will bring back the birds, bees, insects, river otters, beaver, muskrat, minks and turtles. The water needs a bath too. Connect the sewer to mini-parks at each street end. The mini-parks would cover tanks where storm-water runoff could be held and pumped to treatment plants when the demand was lower.

Less pollution means more fish and more of the native birds that feed on them — more Kingfishers, Blue Herons and Bald Eagles. Looking at old maps, there once were two or three streams that emptied into the lake. They’re all in culverts now. Why not open them up with pedestrian bridges? If the streams are wide enough, how about a gondola to traverse them? They did it in Venice. Strolling along South Lake Union can be a Living Museum of Nature, with the lake as our classroom.

There is an ongoing Underwater Archaeology Project in Lake Union, which can be regarded as a Museum of Lake Union, with “collections” in all neighborhoods touching the lake. The project is dedicated to finding and interpreting the lake’s sunken treasures where they sit. School kids could construct robots equipped with waterproof video cameras — they already are making them in middle school classrooms throughout King County — and take them out in rowboats from The Center for Wooden Boats to see the lake’s underwater artifacts on the soft bottom.

There are several unused street ends and waterways in South Lake Union. They should become public assets with simple stick-and-shingle gathering-place buildings used and maintained by nearby neighbors. Each one could have a simple skiff or two for teaching kids to row and sail. The boats also should be locally built and maintained. Unity of the South Lake Union neighborhood could be celebrated with a boat parade in the early fall, as a counterpoint to the spring Opening Day parade.

Lake Union needs a moveable island that can be used for viewing rowing and sailing races, concerts, overnight camping for youth, night sky watching, retreats, conferences or even the Mayor’s summer office. Top that Lake Washington!

The lake can be more than a freeway and parking lot for boats and seaplanes. It can be a place of entertainment and education. There already are on-water activities such as the Duck Dodge sail races, touring in historic boats and the World War II vintage “Ducks”. There are tours of houseboats, the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival, the July 4th Gas Works Park Fireworks and rowing races. There also should be floating arts and crafts, classic fishing boats, tugboats, Native carved canoes, steam, pedal and electric-powered traditional boats, antique and classic runabouts, Sea Scout boats, Mother’s and Father’s Days on-the-water activities. How about a few seasonal floating cafes?

This little lake in the Big City can be known as Seattle’s Central Park and South Lake Union will be its front door.


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