The Freeway Park Association also wants to make structural repairs and improvements, such as adding lighting around the park's iconic fountains.
The Freeway Park Association also wants to make structural repairs and improvements, such as adding lighting around the park's iconic fountains.

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.

“I think all the other things, I don’t know, they may help a little,” she said.

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.

Jim Erickson with the Freeway Park Association board said the Seattle Police Department worked with park rangers and businesses to form a committee four years ago with the goal of improving public perceptions surrounding the park. He said he was disappointed to learn through surveying that people are reluctant to use the park because of safety concerns.

Freeway Park has restroom facilities, but they’ve been closed since 2002, when a murder occurred there. A woman was stabbed to death, and police partially blamed the park’s “maze of pathways” for the suspect’s escape.

A comfort station and staff to monitor it are proposed, so restroom facilities can be restored for the public’s use.

“We definitely need a bathroom, a bathroom that functions,” Brands said. “It’s one of the biggest things people have asked about.”

Areas in need of improved lighting are still being identified, Brands said, and the hope is to also use lights to enhance the iconic fountains and plants in Freeway Park.

“They’re one of the jewels of the park,” Brands said of the fountains, “they’re real assets.”

Commissioner Rachel Gleeson didn’t like the idea of a moveable play structure proposed near the kids fountain in Seneca Plaza.

“We have lot of young families now living downtown, and they don’t have a lot of play areas,” Brands said.

Gleeson also did not like the idea of painting art on the underpass in the park.

“That seems like another odd juxtaposition that doesn’t really add to the park.”

She said there are other entrances not included in phase one plans that need attention due to safety concerns. Freeway Park Association executive director Riisa Conklin said DSA has partnered with the association to put sensors on light poles in order to better capture data on where people are entering and exiting the park.

Overall, the Seattle Design Commission encouraged the Freeway Park Association to focus more on restoration and repairs, and to adhere to Halprin’s original vision for the park.

A longer list of on- and off-site public benefits is expected to be presented to the design commission in December.

Seattle Design Commission director Michael Jenkins acknowledged letters the commission has received encouraging it to hurry up with its decisions on the WSCC Addition project, but said it’s important to get things right when dealing with the largest civic project in the downtown area in recent memory.

“We’re kind of making this up in some ways as we go along,” he said.

Even when the commission does move the Addition forward, the Seattle City Council will then hold its own meetings and hearings before street and alleyway vacation requests are decided.

“It’s being vetted in a way that is appropriate given it’s a $1.6 billion project,” Jenkins said.