Park Here -- Whispering Firs And Salmon Runs: A Different Sort Of Downtown Space

Park Place.

Is there a major downtown park in our future? In your lifetime?

Maybe. Some very preliminary rustlings of maps; some highly speculative glances at large color aerial photos; a small group of people sitting in an office at City Hall, looking up from the papers and the maps and the photos and then smiling at each other, saying:

"You know, it's possible. It really is possible. Even if we are the only ones right now who are crazy enough to think so."

My involvement in the park project started in May 1989.

I was sitting in an office here at The Times doing what I do best. Complaining. I was angry at the way the Westlake project had turned out (and still am). A last chance for some genuine open space in downtown Seattle had been blown.

Instead we got some more pavement (which had to be repaired before it had even gotten used to Seattle rain), and another multistory commercial shopping mall. Whoopee.

The only bright spot occurred when it was discovered that Westlake Center, as originally constructed, was likely to get minorly run over by the Monorail. Alas, that defect was noted and corrected.

"What would you do?" editor Arlene Bryant asked me.

I told her I would do to Seattle what Baron Haussmann had done to Paris in the 19th century. Bulldoze marginal areas, create boulevards, open up the streets to the sky. AND BUILD A MAJOR PARK.


Between the present downtown center at Westlake and Fifth Avenue all the way to Lake Union, I said.

I grabbed a city map and penciled in a grand boulevard all along Westlake to Denny Way. From Denny north to the lake, I carved out a park from Terry Avenue west to Ninth Avenue, or possibly even to Dexter Avenue stretching from downtown to the proposed South Lake Union Park.

The Times published my ideas, along with a whimsical drawing by Times artist Christine Cox (she threw in a Venice-style canal up Yesler Way all on her own, but what the heck).

I followed up by inviting an old friend, architect Fred Bassetti, to drive around the area with me. At one point, near where the old Buick dealership has since been torn down, we stopped, got out and looked around.

"By God, you're right," Bassetti said, "and for a lot less money than people might think. There isn't a major (high-rise) building in the area."

Periodically, I walked the streets between Fairview Avenue North and Dexter Avenue, between Denny Park and Lake Union and along Westlake (which alternately appeared in my imagination as either a Northwest Champs Elyssees or London's Pall Mall). Knowing it was possible; sensing it would never happen.

Two years went by.

Then at a dinner I didn't even know was occurring, Holly Miller, Seattle superintendent of parks, turned to a guest, who happened to be Fred Bassetti, and expressed a fond wish that Seattle could have a major park, perhaps near the Regrade.

"You should talk to Hinterberger," Bassetti reportedly said to Miller.

Last week, the three of us met at City Hall during a lunch break. It was nothing official. Just three people daydreaming for part of an hour, wondering if something that Seattle needs so badly was achievable.

"If it is going to be done at all," Miller said, "the time window of opportunity for beginning is in the next two or three years. After that . . ."

"After that," said Bassetti, "major commercial developments will move in and there will be no chance for the city."

In front of Fred on the table was a map of the Lake Union/ Westlake neighborhoods, with a creek running from the south end of the lake toward the center of Seattle.

"Salmon could spawn there," he said. "Tourists and children could come and watch them swimming upstream, jumping up through small waterfalls."

"But, Fred, there isn't really a creek there," I said.

"There probably was 200 years ago," he said. He pointed to Queen Anne and Capitol hills. "There are the natural watersheds; this is the slope and drainage. The water had to go someplace. It would be easy to reconstruct it."

That's the funny thing about a dream. It has no limits, although it may have direction and a semblance of structure.

Imagine a salmon run in the middle of Seattle.

Imagine new groves of evergreens where once upon a time there was nothing but old groves of evergreens.

In short, imagine the essences of the Northwest - right here in the major urban defoliation of the Northwest.

How absurd.

How delicious.

Could it be done? Yes. Emphatically, yes.

Will it be done? If enough people in Seattle still care enough about the natural spirit of the Northwest and what it once was, yes. If they want to see and smell the grass and the trees downtown again, instead of another reckless, hopeless, earth-killing series of skyscrapers, yes.

It would be expensive. But not prohibitively so. It would take time; the kind of urban planning that looks forward a half century instead of half a fiscal year.

It would take vision and leadership.

We would need seed money for preliminary designs; perhaps some foundation money to fund a year of research.

But it could be done. Whispering firs, running waters, running paths, multifamily housing along the fringes. A brand-new salmon run, maybe all the way to a fake pond in back of City Hall.

How absurd.

How delightful.

How about it?

John Hinterberger's column appears Wednesdays in the Scene section of the Times and his restaurant and food columns appear in Sunday's Pacific magazine and Friday's Tempo.