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 By then the park was nearing 30 years old, and overgrown greenery and certain outdated design elements didn’t help bring in a new generation to appreciate the park as more than just a commuter path.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

President’s Emergency Declaration Sparks Immediate Legal Backlash

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his team will sue the White House if federal funds originally intended for Washington state are interrupted.

Bill Targets Sexual Health Curriculum in Washington Schools

Senate Bill 5395 is co-sponsored by 17 Democratic representatives and introduced by Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way.

According to King County’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) annual report, Seattle had the highest rate of people using services at 36 percent of the total, followed by 31 percent from South King County, 18 percent from the greater Eastside, and 7 percent from north county including Shoreline.
Study Shows King County’s Treatment Funding Is Making Progress

A document on the county’s .1 percent health sales tax was accepted Wednesday by the county council.

Children’s play area at Seadrunar. Photo by Lauren Davis via Facebook
The Seedy Side of Seadrunar

Public records reveal that Seattle drug rehab center was accused of neglecting children and clients in its care.

Somali Community Faces SeaTac Displacement

Proposed redevelopment threatens the heart of the Somali business community.

14.1 Inches And Counting: Record-Breaking Snow Pounds King County

Several winter storms passed through the region, dumping more than 14 inches of snow.

My-Linh Thai Makes History as Washington’s First Refugee Legislator

The 41st district Democrat is an advocate for education and underrepresented communities.

Legislation Targets Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women Epidemic

Savanna’s Act co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA); Seattle and Washington rank among highest in nation

Infant with measles. Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Health/Centers for Disease Control
Mandatory MMR Vaccine Possible in Washington State

The measles outbreak slows as four new cases are confirmed in Oregon.

Most Read