A walking tour of the South Lake Union that might have been
Presented by Crosscut Festival
Living in a growing city offers the curious citizen a particular luxury, to imagine what might have been. The eye can marvel at what successful planners have done in a city like Seattle — the roads they have laid, the parks they have built, the tunnels they have dug — but it takes a bit more study and imagination to marvel at the designs that never took shape.
The landscape of great cities is filled with these ghosted plans, each meticulously developed, passionately fought for and ultimately defeated – at the ballot box, in council chambers, in the courts. And to really understand a place, you need be able to see them.
Weston Brinkley sees them. A native Seattleite and the owner of Street Sounds Ecology, Brinkley is a student of his city, an urban geographer eager to tell the stories of its abandoned utopias. When he met Chris Blado while working at an environmental organization a decade ago, he found an eager audience.
Blado was a recent transplant from Wisconsin, who was drawn to Seattle. When he looked at the city he saw great beauty, but he didn’t see what Brinkley saw. And so he listened and one day heard a story that captured his imagination.
“He had unspooled this story about South Lake Union and the Seattle Commons and that there was this massive redevelopment plan that narrowly failed, and how it could have been quite a bit different,” Blado says now.
The Seattle Commons was a vision first put forth by former Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger and championed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The billionaire put his own money down to transform South Lake Union, then a low-rise neighborhood that was home to warehouses, light manufacturing and some low-income housing. In the early ’90s, Allen loaned $20 million to a committee to purchase land that would be turned into a 61-acre park stretching from downtown to Lake Union, if voters would approve the plan. Proponents envisioned it as a kind of central park, a “civic lawn” that would be surrounded by a high-rise neighborhood filled with tech businesses, condos and restaurants.
There was, of course, resistance to the plan. Some critics noted that it would disrupt more than a hundred businesses; others focused on how it would displace low-income residents. Many blanched at the quarter billion dollars in public funding needed to complete the urban oasis. The plan was ultimately defeated in two separate votes, in 1995 and 1996. And then it drifted into memory, alongside other doomed municipal mega-projects.
After the vote, Allen took ownership of the land that was purchased with his loan. And then the tech companies, condos and restaurants that he had hoped would surround the Commons came anyway.
Now the neighborhood is a tech hub without a civic center. Its urban canyons are filled with people, mostly Amazon workers, but anyone who walks the acreage between Denny Avenue and the lake where lush grass was once proposed will see mostly concrete and glass.
Brinkley and Blado are hoping to change that, not by demolishing buildings and planting trees, but by engaging with our imaginations. Serving as field agents for Atlas Obscura, they will be leading a tour of what would have been the Seattle Commons on Sunday, May 5, as part of the Crosscut Festival.
The tour will begin at Denny Park, which would have been at the southern edge of the Commons, cut down to Westlake Avenue, and then wind its way through the neighborhood as the pair tells stories of the neighborhood’s development through the structures that have been built since 1996 and those that have survived the development. The tour will end at Lake Union Park, what Brinkley calls “a concession prize."
Along the way, Blado and Brinkley will map out the original Seattle Commons plan while looking at the historical factors that have shaped the area, including glaciation, the regrading of Denny Hill and the lowering of Lake Union by way of the ship canal. They will also talk about what the area has become, how it has come to represent the disparities of wealth and poverty in the city and how it has helped shape civic conversations about affordable housing and public spending. And they will also look to the future and imagine other possibilities.
“It is easy to have this paradise-lost perspective, but we try to complicate that,” says Blado. “Weston does a good job of emphasizing that this is one potential change in a region that has experienced a lot of very sizable changes. People are always imagining and reimagining what this place should look like.”
The pair of tour guides point to the current downtown waterfront development, the Lake to Bay Loop and the public park space that could one day be created by a proposed I-5 lid as just the latest examples of the city’s imagination at work.
“We can’t view the Commons as the lost opportunity,” says Brinkley. “Who knows what is going to happen in the next 50 years.”
The Alternative History Walking Tour of the Seattle Commons begins at 1 p.m. at Denny Park. A ticket for the tour is not included in the Crosscut Festival pass and must be purchased separately here. For the complete tour route, see the map below.
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