WSCC commits to $10 million in Freeway Park improvements

The Washington State Convention Center is poised to invest $10 million into repairing and revitalizing Freeway Park between Downtown and First Hill. The vision for what that may look like that was created over the last nine months of community outreach wasn’t so well received by the Seattle Design Commission on Thursday.

Part of the Community Package Coalition vying for funding for various projects around the WSCC Addition through the convention center’s required public benefits package, the Freeway Park Association has spent the past nine months developing plans to improve access to the park, wayfinding and usage.

The WSCC and development partner Pine Street Group had previously attempted to qualify a 30,000-square-foot rooftop garden on its WSCC Addition as a public benefit in order to be allowed its requested street and alleyway vacations for the $1.6 billion project. The design commission in July questioned whether an elevated park with limited access would really benefit the public.

“As we went out into the community, we heard that more people would like us to do things offsite,” said Pine Street Group principal Matt Griffin during the Oct. 5 design commission meeting.

Griffin said WSCC is now ready to commit to the full $10 million the Finding Freeway Park campaign has identified for park improvements and activation, which would occur over time. The WSCC had originally offered just $1 million.

Seattle Parks and Recreation planner Chip Nevins said SPR supports this agreement, and the bulk of the funds would go to the department so the repairs and restorations designed by the Freeway Park Association can become a parks capital improvement project.

“It’s our largest park downtown at five acres,” he said, talking about demand for public space. “We’re busting at the seams, and we need to better utilize this park.”

The bulk of the $10 million estimated for the first phase of the Finding Freeway Park campaign is in hard costs projected at $6 million. That includes $1.5 million for lighting and electrical improvements, $1.1 million to improve park entrances, $700,000 for a comfort station, $695,000 for new park elements and $400,000 for plantings and irrigation.

The Freeway Park Association engaged the services of landscape architecture firm Site Workshop in April using grants from the Department of Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Street Fund.

The first phase of Freeway Park improvements call for creating right of way improvements around seven of the park’s 12 entrances, including crosswalks that are being funded through SDOT.

Site Workshop managing principal Mark Brands said the crosswalks around those entrances are proposed to be something unique, such as what was done in the International District or the rainbow patterns in Capitol Hill.

Design commissioner Lee Copeland didn’t feel the crosswalk designs shown on Thursday are appropriate, and suggested maybe using a different type of paving. Fellow commissioner John Savo agreed.

“I think going back to the natural palette whenever possible is a good idea,” said commissioner Laura Haddad. “I would not look at this crosswalk and think Freeway Park.”

Commissioners also didn’t care for the metal blade wayfinding signs, which Brands said are the same style being used for Swedish Medical Center’s First Hill Mile.

Savo said Freeway Park can give the impression in certain areas that it is an elevated plaza for a private building, so he favored the standard Seattle Parks signs to avoid confusion, as did Haddad.

The Seattle Design Commission agreed that anything that happens in Freeway Park should adhere to the principles of nature and respite established by architect Lawrence Halprin back when the park opened in 1976. Commissioners expressed a desire to see more repairs and restoration and fewer additions.

Commissioner Evan Fowler said he uses the park every day, and he’s drawn to it for its tranquility.

“I certainly don’t go to that park for programming or anything like that,” he said.

There is $750,000 included in the plans that would provide five years of park activation, with the bulk of that going to park staffing and security. Brands said the Downtown Seattle Association helped the Freeway Park Association reach that figure based on the work that group does activating Westlake and Occidental parks.