The forest for the trees

OK, don't fence it in. Now where will the Arboretum find the funds and vision it needs?

WITH THE TWO MOST EXPLOSIVE issues—fences and admission fees—now off the table, the drafters of the Washington Park Arboretum master plan hope to turn the debate over the facility's future to horticultural and education issues.

Don't bet on it.

Critics of the document still have an array of complaints about the proposals for the 230-acre natural park, which sits between the Montlake neighborhood and the Broadmoor Golf Club ,and stretches from Madison Street to the Lake Washington shoreline. For starters, a 10-point resolution drafted by the Montlake Community Club has been approved by groups in several nearby neighborhoods. Among that resolution's proposals are a new parking lot near the park's north shoreline, the realignment of the northern portion of Lake Washington Boulevard, and the construction of several new buildings (mainly for students in grades K­12) inside park boundaries.

The dispute echoes Montlake's battle in the early 1970s against a University of Washington plan to fence 70 acres of the park and build several large buildings. "I think one of the things we ran into is that folks have long memories—and they should," says Clement Hamilton, director of the UW Center for Urban Horticulture. Montlake's Paul Gibson, drawing on his long memory, says it's only natural for new bureaucrats to want to change things as officials governing the Arboretum come and go. But the public's attitude toward the Arboretum just hasn't undergone a similar change, he adds. Other critics say they expect Arboretum officials and supporters to honor past agreements, including the 1974 City Council ordinance banning construction of fences or additional buildings within the park. Even though fees and fences are mentioned only in a plan appendix, they—along with plans for new building—polarized the debate from the start, notes Gibson.

Hamilton says he thinks compromise is possible, since the plan's critics have the Arboretum's best interests at heart. "I think of it as the loyal opposition—they are people who support the Arboretum and want to see it do many of the things that we do," he says. Citing the site's dual function as a city park and as a plant collection/educational facility, Hamilton scores the Washington Park Arboretum a 7 on a 10-point scale as parks go; as arboretums go, just a 4. Bringing up that score, he says, will take some work.

THAT'S AN UNDERSTATEMENT. The master plan lists some $45.9 million in possible improvements (with the largest part being $15 million for garden development). The plan also includes proposals to improve maintenance and landscaping at the Arboretum. The two alternatives to improve maintenance would drive up the Arboretum's $1.7 million annual budget to $2.3 million and $3.9 million respectively. Several of the possible funding sources for this upgrade are linked to the proposed new buildings, including meeting room rentals, educational program proceeds, and funding from a small tearoom/cafe at the south end of the park. Even with this extra revenue, projections call for the Arboretum Foundation to more than double its membership and achieve a similar increase in grants and donations in order to boost revenues sufficiently.

"If we have admission fees off the table, then we have to be working especially hard on the other (funding) possibilities," says Hamilton, who cites a taxing district approach in St. Louis, which funds that city's zoo, art museum, and Missouri Botanical Garden.

Beyond money issues, the trio of organizations overseeing the Arboretum (UW manages the plant collections, the city owns the park, and the foundation provides volunteer and financial support) needs to iron out many details in the plan. For example, Gibson isn't sold on "The Great Lawn," a proposed open grassy area adjacent to the visitors' center. Some critics even object to changing the arrangement of plants from the original 1930s plan credited to the park-planning Olmsted Brothers (but actually drafted by their associate, James Frederick Dawson).

City Council member Nick Licata says the next stage of the process is an environmental impact statement, which he feels should include several alternatives at varying levels of development. The EIS was to include analysis only of the Arboretum plan and a no-action alternative. "Given that they had such a strong reaction," says Licata, "they need to rethink what they had to offer."

 
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