Navigating the Maze That Is Freeway Park

Advocates try to find a path forward for downtown’s largest—and most overlooked—park.

Seattle’s First Hill is one of the most densely populated areas in the Pacific Northwest, but it has a problem. It severely lacks public open spaces, the type that are crucial to a healthy city life. And with real estate costs skyrocketing, buying land to create new parks in our densest urban areas isn’t feasible.

Considering the situation, the labyrinthine Freeway Park should be an oasis for First Hill residents, but the enduring fear of crime and general lack of awareness of its existence keep many people away. The Freeway Park Association and a community of the park’s devotees are working hard to change that.

“We call [it] Seattle’s best-kept secret,” says Freeway Park Association Executive Director Riisa Conklin. “Even though it’s [downtown] Seattle’s largest park, people don’t really know about it. They don’t know what’s going on here.”

Founded in 1993, the Freeway Park Association is a nonprofit that advocates for the park and its legacy. While it only has two staff members, it works closely with Seattle Parks Department and is supported by over 100 volunteer members.

Freeway Park’s urban waterfalls. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

Freeway Park’s urban waterfalls. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

When Freeway Park opened to the public on July 4, 1976, people flocked to marvel at landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s groundbreaking urban vision that fused together sharp concrete walls, geometric patches of grass, and an artificial waterfall. Halprin had built a new kind of public space with an edge and a purpose. It was the first of its kind to bridge areas of the city that were separated by the construction of freeways.

As time went on, the maze-like walkways and hidden corners started to attract the seedy side of the city, too. A string of violent crimes in the early 2000s damaged the park’s reputation. By then the park was nearing 30 years old, and overgrown greenery and certain outdated design elements didn’t help bring in a new generation to appreciate the park as more than just a commuter path.

“We need to do more work to remind people that the Freeway Park is here, and it’s beautiful,” Conklin says.

Greenery at Freeway Park. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

Greenery at Freeway Park. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

As stewards of this space, the Freeway Park Association works on activation programs like community art events, fundraisers, and public meetings. A 2010 renovation focused on updating the trees and plants to brighten the area.

In 2017, the group worked with local landscape architecture firm Site Workshop to lead community workshops which crafted plans to improve the park by bringing in more pedestrian lighting, wayfinding, and restrooms, and repairing existing facilities. They also brainstormed plans for cafes, murals, and even a performance stage.

Earlier this year, the Freeway Park Association also received a public benefits package of $10 million from the Washington State Convention Center as part of the Community Package Coalition. This funding is a major addition to their efforts, because the city is incapable of assisting public spaces like the Freeway Park on their own. The money from the package will go toward future repair and enhancement projects.

For Conklin and others, bringing awareness to this unique space above I-5 is about community. Sure, Freeway Park has a place in history as a precedent-setting park in American architecture, but it’s also a space where the neighborhood can simply unwind.

“We need to put more resources towards our parks and open spaces,” says Conklin. “They’re open and free for everyone. They are equitable, democratic places where people can gather and experience nature together.”

kdeluca@seattleweekly.com

Correction (May 14): The original version stated that the Freeway Park Association was supported by over 1,000 volunteers, but the number is actually over 100.

Taking the stairs at Freeway Park. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

Taking the stairs at Freeway Park. Photo by Keiko DeLuca

More in News & Comment

Matt Marshall, leader of the Washington Three Percenters gun rights group, addresses a crowd rallying for Second Amendment rights Jan. 17 at the state Capitol in Olympia. Marshall condemned Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, which expelled Rep. Matt Shea from the Republican Caucus. Marshall announced his candidacy for the 2nd District seat held by House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox. Photo by Cameron Sheppard, WNPA News Service
Gun rights advocates rally at Capitol

Criticism levied at Matt Shea investigation, Republican leadership.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (center) announced a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson in a press conference Jan. 2. Debbie Warfield of Everett (left) lost her son to a heroin overdose in 2012. Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki (right) lost her son to an overdose of OxyContin in 2017. They are joined by Rep. Lauren Davis of Shoreline (second from right), founder of the Washington Recovery Alliance. (TVW screenshot)
AG Bob Ferguson talks lawsuits, gun control

Washington state Attorney General stopped by Sound Publishing’s Kirkland office.

Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, the primary sponsor of SB 5323, speaking on the bill. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Sabio-Howell)
Proposed law adds a fee to plastic bags at checkout

Senate passes bill to ban single-use plastic bags, place 8-cent fee on reusable plastic bags.

Renton Education Association board voted out by union

Union members use their power to remove leaders from office

In November 2019, Washington voters approved Initiative 976, which calls for $30 car tabs. Sound Publishing file photo
Republicans try to guarantee $30 car tabs amid court hangup

Lawmakers sponsor companion bills in the House and Senate.

King County Metro’s battery-electric bus. Photo courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County could bump up Metro electrification deadlines

Transportation generates nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his 2020 State of the State Address on Tuesday, Jan. 14. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Office of the Governor)
Gov. Inslee delivers State of the State Address

By Leona Vaughn, WNPA News Service OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee stood… Continue reading

A 50-minute film called “Spawning Grounds,” which documents the effort to save a freshwater variety of kokanee salmon from Lake Sammamish, is finally ready for its debut in North Bend on Jan. 18. (Screenshot from film)
Spawning Grounds: Lake Sammamish kokanee documentary premieres Jan. 18

The film tracks the ‘all hands on deck’ effort to save the little red fish from extinction.

Family, friends of paraplegic man killed in shootout with Federal Way police outraged over his death

Family says the 23-year-old man’s death was “senseless”; accuse police of excessive force and withholding information that the man used a wheelchair.

Most Read