Jim Ellis, the Washington civic leader and one of the Seattle citizens most responsible for the vision that created First Hill and lower Capitol Hill’s connection to downtown through Freeway Park and the convention center, died last week at the age of 98. A celebration of his life will take place, appropriately enough, at the skybridge connecting the park to the Washington State Convention Center in December.
With a $10 million boost from the $80 million community benefits package formed to cover the value of public right of way being dedicated to the convention center’s expansion, Seattle Parks is setting about a process to “to repair, restore and possibly enhance” the Jim Ellis Freeway Park.
The process began earlier this week at a Freeway Park Improvements Open House and Panel Discussion. Five experts on Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect behind the design of Seattle’s Freeway Park, the first park in the United States that incorporated a lid over an interstate highway, were gathered at Town Hall to speak about why the park is important to the citizens of Seattle and what can be done to improve it.
The scope of the capital project could include infrastructure upgrades, lighting, wayfinding, and possibly a new restroom. The project team is led by landscape architecture and planning firm Walker Macy for Seattle Parks and Recreation in partnership with the Freeway Park Association.
When it first opened on July 4th, 1976, the park was a busy, open-lighted space. It served as a connector between downtown Seattle and the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and First Hill. And according to many of the panelists it made art out of the freeway.
“When you look at a work of landscape architecture that’s a work of art, then managing this is no different from a work of art that decomposes, that changes, that has to be managed and has a stewardship complexity associated with it – that we have to remember that we are dealing with something that is a great significant work by a master,” Charles Birnbaum, President and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said. “We should respond to that accordingly.”
Today, the park is still an intriguing and potentially attractive public space but it suffers from a variety of issues including poorly marked entrances, lack of proper lighting, confusing paths, and just overall disuse — all mentioned as areas that need work to bring the people of Seattle back to the park.
Kenneth Helpland, Professor Emeritus, Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon, mentioned that he was dismayed that people just aren’t aware of the Freeway Park as much as other Seattle attractions.
The goal is to make the park more attractive to visitors, officials said.
“It’s an amazing place in the middle of a city – it looks like nothing else,” Helpland said. “Anything that is proposed to do I think you’re trying to enhance that sense of a discovery and surprise of encountering the space in the middle of a city.”
Other panelists replied with ideas, such as fixing the fountains, re-establishing the connection with the freeway, and increasing marketing and outreach to educate people on the existence and purpose of the park.
Other questions that were asked during the panel were about how the park has resisted change – and changed – since 1976; is the freeway connection necessary, the connection of the park to the homeless issue; what does Seattle lose if the park were developed; and how would lidding more of the freeway affect the park.
“When we now come back to bring this place back, to manage change with continuity, how do we do we do that in a way that honors that design intention?” Birnbaum said. “And I think when we move away from that the landscape will tell us.”
Birnbaum went on to explain that changes to the park shouldn’t be pieces, but as a whole – a dance – and then use that perspective to make the necessary changes needed.
Issues around homelessness and encampments were also addressed.
Lara Rose of the Freeway Park improvements design team said that they had reached out to diverse group of park users, and that these people had great interest in seeing the park as safe, especially those who spend a great deal of time there. She also said that it is very important to separate the idea of homelessness from criminality.
“if you can find things like that that welcome people who are trying hard and want to tell their stories, want to make space, and stay safe, that goes a long way to utilizing the parks,” Randy Gragg, Executive Director of the Portland Parks Foundation, said.
In response to a question of lidding the freeway, Robertson’s answer was met by applause even as he joked about making a run for it.
“I don’t think if Halprin saw the freeway today he would say that we need that connection,” Robertson said. “The better way we could respect Halprin’s legacy would be to say let us be as adventurous and audacious as we want with the park and let’s lid over the rest of the freeway.”
The Lid I-5 effort continues with a completed feasibility study but questions about how the major project will eventually move forward.
Monday night, officials also announced Freeway Park has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
In the end, the consensus of the evening’s discussion was making the park a more viable public space where people could appreciate the aspects of urban living – which happens to include a freeway.
While it continues to work out the scope of the work and changes, the city hopes to complete the improvements to Freeway Park by the end of 2021. The design phase is expected to be complete, with all necessary permits, approvals and construction bid documents, by June 2020.