Neighbors Join Forces To Restore Ravine -- Threat Of Housing Project Spurs West Seattle Residents Into Action

A tiny western hemlock, spindly and growing in a green ravine in West Seattle's Admiral District, is a living symbol of what can be accomplished when residents join together and hold high the banner of open-space preservation.

A couple of hundred people, a dozen or so more determined than the rest, apparently have won the battle of the College Street Ravine. It now seems safe from the incursion of builders - at least for the present.

The five-acre ravine, which lies between 47th and 51st avenues Southwest, includes public and private property. An undeveloped part of Southwest College Street lies along the bottom of the ravine, but back yards of homes perched above it extend down the steep sides, which are thick with trees, ferns, ivy and other vegetation.

A narrow path meanders along the wooded street right of way, and to stroll amid this leafy solitude is like being deep in a forest. All is quiet except for the birds singing in the trees.

It's a good place to go to relax after a bad day at work, says Charlie Chong, president of the Admiral Community Council.

Near the path is the newly planted hemlock, 3 feet tall and slowly reaching for the sky. It and hundreds of other trees and plants were planted this spring by residents, some of whose homes are on the lip of the ravine.

It was more than a year ago - when a developer had plans to build some homes on a triangular piece of wooded property that goes down one side of the ravine, and to build a street in the right of way - that the Friends of the College Street Ravine galvanized themselves into action.

Other citizen groups alarmed about the looming loss of greenbelts in Seattle could well rip a page or two from their preservation plan.

It's a study in activism by residents well aware that others in their midst have a right to build on their own property. It's about neighborhood meetings, phone calls and letters, and about lobbying government officials.

All have paid off.

At the urging of the residents, the city Parks Department bought the triangular property late last year for about $200,000, thus preserving it as open space.

The money came from $1.1 million the city obtained from King County through the conservation futures tax, which is collected as part of property taxes.

The residents also were able to get a $6,600 neighborhood grant from the city and are matching that with their own labor to remove trash and alien vegetation from the ravine and replace it with trees and plants native to the Northwest.

Goods and services have been donated by nurseries, horticulturists and others.

Chong, a retired federal employee whose home overlooks the ravine, has been a facilitator for much of the conservation effort. But it is a student of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, Blair Constantine, who has the long-term job of designing a new and better ravine.

Constantine also lives near the ravine and played in it as a child. Now it is almost a spiritual experience for him to step into the ravine and visualize what it might be like in 100 years or more. He talks about an eventual ``cathedral of trees.''

``I consider this the heart of the ravine. This is where the project had its beginning,'' he said as he stood halfway along the path and pointed to a slope where a backhoe had scraped vegetation away in preparation for the homes that were to have been built. The ravine is wider at this point of the path and sunlight streams down on it.

The ravine was logged many years ago, but nature has begun to creep back. The conifers that were cut down are now being replaced, nurtured by bark that residents have hauled in.

``As opposed to just planting a lot of trees down here,'' Constantine said, ``I've thought about the existing space and spirit of the ravine and tried to work with those elements to enhance it.''

Lee Van Antwerp, another leader in the ravine restoration, paused to look at the little hemlock and said, ``I'm just amazed at how little things we transplanted have taken hold.''

The residents also want the ravine to continue to be a refuge for band-tailed pigeons, raccoons and other wildlife. A great-horned owl has been seen there.

Don Harris, the Parks Department's director of project development, also walked through the ravine this week, and he said he was impressed with the residents' efforts. There are at least 40 similar natural areas in the city that could be threatened by development as land becomes more scarce, he said.

Harris said he doesn't believe those who live near the ravine are merely interested in having a kind of private preserve at public expense, but would welcome others there.

``They are encouraging people to use and enjoy the property,'' he said. ``They are not just viewing it as an extension of their own back yards.''