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 By then the park was nearing 30 years old, and overgrown greenery and certain outdated design elements didn’t help bring in a new generation to appreciate the park as more than just a commuter path.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

Chris Vance has his doubts about the Republican party and where it is going. COURTESY PHOTO
From chairman of WA Republicans to party pariah, Chris Vance explains why

‘Biggest shock of my adult life has been the Republican Party’s complete capitulation to Donald Trump.’

File photo
$30 car tab proposal returns to ballot in November

Tim Eyman-led initiative would restrict car tabs and transportation benefit districts in Washington.

File photo
King County alcohol production ordinance could be approved by year’s end

Update to county code has been more than a year in the making.

Netflix series kept Lynnwood rape survivor in mind, creator says

Susannah Grant was inspired by The Marshall Project and ProPublica reporting to make “Unbelievable.”

Sound Transit seeks input on name change for University Street Station

Vote online or certain dates at station mezzanine

More than 100 horses are being hoarded by a nonprofit in Puget Sound

Under guise of nonprofit caring for rescued horses, allegations of animal cruelty arose.

KCSO found all but one of the 108 allegations of excessive or unnecessary use of force were justified

The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight has released its annual 2018 report.

To spur investment, marijuana businesses want rules eased

Another group has proposed a low-interest loan program, to help women- and minority-owned startups.

They got the signatures for I-1000. They want to get paid.

Citizen Solutions wants $1.1 million it says it’s owed by backers of the affirmative action law.

Most Read