Lake Union Park opens in Seattle on September 25, 2010.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 10/01/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9603

On the sunny Saturday of September 25, 2010, Seattle's new 12-acre waterfront park in the South Lake Union neighborhood is formally dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The culmination of a two-decade-long land acquisition effort by the city -- and a $20 million capital campaign led by the Seattle Parks Foundation -- this public park's Grand Opening festivities draw 20,000 participants to celebrate with food, music, and many cultural, physical fitness, and water-oriented activities.

Land, Sea, and Air 

Lake Union Park was developed on an historic area that had seen extreme changes over the years. For generations the area at Lake Union and the future Westlake Avenue was the site of a Duwamish village whose residents called the heart-shaped body of water XaXu7cHoo ("little lake." In the 1860s two pioneering new settlers staked claims to land parcels along the lake's southern shores. One was David Denny (1832-1903) -- who'd arrived here in September 25, 1851, and would later found a lumber sawmill there. The other was Thomas Mercer (1813-1898), who'd arrived in 1853, built his cabin nearby, and then -- in keeping with his vision that the lake should one day be united (via an eastward canal) to Lake Washington and also to Puget Sound (via Salmon Bay to the west) -- proposed naming it Lake Union.

Thus began the development and industrialization of the lakeshore and the subsequent arrival of other cabins, houseboats, and businesses. Still, the beauty of the lake inspired some folks to envision what might be the highest best use of the southern shoreline. In the first decade of the twentieth century. Seattle's Parks Board commissioned the famed New York-based landscape designer, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), to produce a report for the further development of the city's parks. In that plan Olmsted noted the South Lake Union as an ideal location for an urban waterfront park.

But to actualize that visionary idea would require the passing of another full century. During that century, industrial degradation proceeded. William E. Boeing's (1881-1956) early airplane facility, the Roanoke Hanger, was built along the shoreline just to the northeast and the Ford automobile plant was built just to the south. Then came the construction of the Alaska fishing fleet's home-base, and the addition, in 1940, of the Naval Reserve Armory building (860 Terry Avenue N). The massively paved-over land became a wasteland of visual blight: "Before park construction began, all that stood at the site was the deteriorating armory building and a vast, unkempt parking lot. No reminder existed of the beauty that was Lake Union before" the settlers had arrived (Unsinkable). 

An Uncommon Park

It was in 1991 that the idea for a major new park in the historic Cascade neighborhood -- today's South Lake Union area -- was once again broached. As public support gained momentum this "Seattle Commons" park was envisioned as an 80-acre urban refuge that would stretch from downtown all the way through the traffic-plagued "Mercer Mess" corridor bordering the area's southern edge (including Mercer Street and Terry Avenue) to the lake's shore. Efforts to consolidate land parcels began as did an educational effort to inform the citizenry of the possibilities to create Seattle's biggest inner-city park.  

The matter became a high-profile civic issue -- one that eventually fell victim to aroused populist passions against making a park that would benefit rich landowners who planned to build condominium towers and commercial spaces along its borders In both 1995 and then again in 1996 the electorate voted no -- and in recent years those condominium towers and commercial spaces have been packed in, albeit without the grand Commons park. However, along with the significantly increased residential and commercial occupancy levels in the area came a belated sense that the area still needed a park of some sort.  

Although scaled way back from what the Commons would have been -- it is, according to the Committee for the Seattle Commons' Chairman of the Board of Directors, attorney Gerry Johnson, in point of fact: "Not the eye-popping, city-defining oasis we had imagined, but Lake Union Park will preserve the lakeshore for public access and create what promises to be a highly successful, heavily used green space" (Johnson). Thus, various individuals and organizations carried on with their efforts and by 2000 enough land was consolidated that a park of some sort seemed feasible. The Seattle Parks Foundation managed to raise $20 million (toward a goal of $30 million) and on April 30, 2008, the park's first phase (1.6 acres) of development opened to the public. 

Grand Opening

The Seattle Parks Foundation and Seattle Parks and Recreation were joined by other partnering organizations -- MOHAI (Museum of History & Industry), The Center for Wooden Boats, and The United Indians of All Tribes Foundation -- in producing the park's Grand Opening events. On the evening of Friday, September 24, a "Green Tie Gala" dinner was held in a big tent where attendees enjoyed cocktails served while jazz crooner/pianist John Proulx serenaded them, a meal of Northwest cuisine provided by Seattle's renowned chef Tom Douglas, and more music by the Michael Benson Band.

The following day brought an even more elaborate celebratory agenda that included a parade, a farmer's market, environmental education, model boat races, a Family Fun Run, an all-ages dance, food vendors, seaplane demonstrations by nearby Kenmore Air, boat paddling and sailing demonstrations, a traditional Indian salmon barbeque, and two stages featuring musical performances -- including traditional Chinese music by Qin, breakdancing by Massive Monkees, bluegrass by the Tallboys, indie rock by Kay Kay and the Weathered Underground -- and much more.

But the real star of the show was the park itself. In addition to offering much-welcomed waterfront access, this new urban oasis provides visitors such amenities as  walking trails, waterfront steps, a pedestrian bridge, a model boat pond, and an expansive lawn. In short, the project's mission -- to "provide our growing city with water and green space access, connect Seattle's neighborhoods, and celebrate the cultural, industrial, and maritime heritage of the city and the region" -- has been accomplished (http://seattleparksfoundation.org).


Sources: "Lake Union Park," Seattle Parks Foundation website accessed on September 29, 2010 (http://seattleparksfoundation.org/project_LakeUnion.html); Howard Droker, Seattle's Unsinkable Houseboats: An Illustrated History (Seattle: Watermark Press, 1977); Gerry Johnson, "New Life Emerges in Wake of Seattle Commons' Failure," guest editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 4, 2006 (http://www.seattlepi.com); "What's Happening at Lake Union?," atlakeunion park.org website accessed on September 29, 2010 (http://www.atlakeunionpark.org/);  "Lake Union Park GRAND OPENING!," atlakeunion park.org website accessed on September 29, 2010 ((http://www.atlakeunionpark.org/activities-park/lake-union-park-grand-opening); Unsinkable, "Lake Union Park Grand Opening Celebration! Saturday the 25th, Sunrise to Sunset," P-I Reader Blog, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 24, 2010  (http://blog.seattlepi.com); "Thank You For Celebrating With US!," Seattle Parks Foundation website accessed on September 29, 2010 (http://seattleparksfoundation.org/LakeUnionParkGrandOpening.html).
Note: This essay was revised on May 11, 2015.

Related Topics:   Environment | Seattle Neighborhoods

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