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Westlake Park honeylocusts October 1990

Westlake Park

    Downtown Seattle's new Westlake Park has been much in the news lately. It was long delayed, controversial and costly. The loose paving and Pine Street closure are only part of the picture. As a concerned citizen, I hereby share my opinion of the park, and suggest what it could have been -- or might yet be. The issues addressed are not applicable to Westlake Park only, and the lessons derived can be applied elsewhere.
    First, examine the park's various elements, to see just what the 22 million dollars paid for. There are seven main elements.
    1) Open space. This is a needed break from row on row of towering buildings, and allows large gatherings of people, such as at rallies or other events. However, there was already a fair amount of open space before all the fuss began, and indeed when the Bartell building, monorail terminal, etc., were removed, there was a great space temporarily. Whether Pine Street is permanently opened or closed will also much affect the park.
    2) A place to sit. The Westlake benches are generic wooden models, comfortable though nothing special. Many more can be added to downtown if we care to -- and dare to. Our dislike of transients using benches as beds shouldn't force us to stand all the time.
    3) Tree groves. The southernmost is a geometric grid of identical Honeylocust trees spaced precisely 17 feet from one another. The northeast grove (near Nordstrom) is four Japanese trees known as Keyaki or Zelkova. Across Pine Street are 16 hybrid Sycamore or Plane trees (eventually replaced with 15 Callery Pear trees), each in its own little circular bed ringed attractively with wooden seating. The single Plane tree or Sycamore standing sentinel atop the grassy mound at Victor Steinbrueck Park has greater value than all 16 of the Westlake examples put together. The Westlake Plane trees are so crowded that 5 of them actually touch Westlake Center. Let us have quality, not mere quantity.
    4) Special paving. The much maligned three-color granite pavement is valuable stone, thoughtfully arranged. The opposite would have been a layer of ordinary asphalt. Just as we would rather drink from crystal glassware than out of clay mugs, even though both vessels hold the same amount, so we like occasionally to use the best materials in public works in order to show we care, and to stimulate an appreciation for quality.
    5) A stage. Everybody loves a show. Another open stage in Seattle is laudable, especially one downtown. It is questionable, nonetheless, whether Westlake Park's monumentally-built little stage is the ideal scale, or in the best precise location.
    6) A water-sculpture. Indeed this was a sight for sore eyes. (It is off now. Possibly it will always be off in winter?!) It pleased onlookers, offering the natural attraction and freshness of splashing water, thereby combining nature artfully with human ingenuity. A good attempt at balance, which is the kind of thing we need more of. Now that the sculpture's water is no longer running, however, its hard, imposing box form is daunting.
    7) Granite monoliths. There are some granite monoliths of sharp angles and highly polished surfaces, which must be some species of modern art. They are meaningless to my comprehension, though I tried to figure them out. These stone blocks are isolated at the southern end, obstructing partly the passage of pedestrians. Can someone explain their significance?
    So, along with trash receptacles, lights, flower-pots and drinking fountains, that covers the park amenities. The only other item is some inconspicuous little bronze square tiles scattered about underfoot. They are individually crafted and might amount to something worthwhile if they were larger and noticeable.
    To recap quickly, the park offers: space, seating, shade trees, fancy pavement, a stage, water-art and huge stone hunks. I think most people will agree that these seven things are good. But we have serious questions. The central concern might be whether the park is a sufficient improvement on the original space to be worth such an enormous expenditure. I am sure it is not. To me, the pre-existing open space was more comfortable, and was used just as much if not more than is the costly new park. The old lumpy and painted asphalt, the pigeon flocks and benches, were warmer and more intimate than what we have now. After all, space, whether large or small, and specially designed or not, is used according to how people perceive it. The old park was honest and unpretentious. The new one is overwrought and heartlessly intimidating, except on those occasions when musicians play and people throng.
    We should put aside the matter of money, for now, because no reasonable person will maintian that we couldn't have spent our millions more wisely. For the sake of argument, pretend the park was free. Supposing that, let us ask what is its primary purpose? and how does it meet that need? It should offer a pleasing resting spot from the surrounding commercial atmosphere; and provide expansive open space suitable for public gatherinmgs. If this is the purpose, then the mission is achieved, albeit clumsily, and with a low level of comfort.
    Why is it uncomfortable? Because it is monumental, drab and soulless. Rich landscaping and structural elements of local flavor are needed to erase the shortcomings and supply an inviting, warm presence. The park should not match the harsh, noisy streets of downtown, but rather contrast by being alive with restful greenery and human-scaled, local art. The last thing, after all, we need more of downtown is cold monumentalism. Pike Place Market is wildly popular precisely because it is the opposite of this heartless approach.
    Westlake Park, which should be a Seattle showcase, looks as if it might just as well be in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York City, Cleveland or Chicago. Exactly the same "stylistic elements" and choice of trees, that is. We were given not one thing (except some of the inconspicuous bronze tiles) that in any way sets off the park as distinctly SEATTLE, or even vaguely Northwestern. (The paving pattern reflects a Salish Indian basket design. Fine -- looked at from building tops; but on the sidewalk level this is in no way apparant.) So a globe-trotting visitor seeing the park for the first time would not so much as blink an eye, nor exclaim "what's this?" but would instead stifle a yawn, "what's new?" Cold, formal stark international style from one end to the other. No local flavor. Just more of the relentless homogenization which is making big cities everywhere so bland and vacuous.
    We hear much about Northwest Art, Northwest cuisine, even Northwest Architecture. By "Northwest" nobody insists upon slavish use of native materials or motifs, such as paving Westlake with geoduck shells -- but rather an appropriate blend of home-grown elements with the best of imported wares.
    For example, Westlake's benches, instead of being mass-produced and indistinguishable from those used everywhere else, could be an effective echo of our city's former forest heritage. That is, the benches could easily be shaped logs of the trees which once stood where the park is: Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Hemlock, Yew, Bigleaf Maple -- all carved by local Duwamish native-Americans. Or at least by Seattle artists. Additionally, these benches could be more carefully placed so to offer users the best shelter from wind and the most pleasing views. Perhaps with overhead rain protection as well. And if we do not want the benches used as beds we can place arm-rests in the middle of each.
    Regarding art, instead of polished granite monoliths imported from afar, we could have totem poles, or sculpture that appeals to people -- for example, the pig in Pike Place Market or Fremont's "Waiting for the Interurban." We could also have an informal outdoors public gallery where local artists take turns displaying their work.
    Plants are my specialty, so about those used in the park I want to elaborate. The Westlake trees are without floral beauty and furthermore are all but totally worthless to wildlife. They are the same old common kinds used in cities around the northern part of the world, and used in orderly rows around parking lots and at office parks in suburbs. Yes, they are inherently strong and good species. But our goal should be trees which are more dramatic, more ecologically useful and which say SEATTLE instead of ANYWHERE. The chosen trees of Westlake are common clones in crowded grids. They don't cut it.
    To complement the dull trees are some huge, rough concrete flower-bowls stintingly planted with pansies, which look as clumsily out of scale as would size-10 boots on a fifth-grade child. For proper scale and impact, the pots should have exuberant masses of plants arching and spilling fragrance and beauty over the edges.
    Our ideal landscape of local flavor and beauty, must not be limited to plants that grew here before the white settlers arrived, but would concentrate on species adapted to our soils and climate. It is a particular challenge to find plants capable of growing successfully downtown, where cold winds funnel viciously, sunlight is blocked by skyscrapers, the soil is sterile, compacted crud, and the air dark with choking car exhaust. All the more reason to plant with an aim of combating this blight. Such plant designs are well worth the additional thought and care needed over and above the simple requirements of the standard city plaza minimalistic monocultures.
    Imagine a Westlake Park full of bold, rich plants such as simply cannot survive in Midwestern and Eastern cities. Let us use our relatively benign climate to its fullest potential. Even the park's currently formidable water-sculpture and the ponderous stage could be softened and enhanced -- lush tendrils of kiwi vines could dance from their tops, or bamboo flutter elegantly in the breeze by their sides. A park atmosphere not rigorous and impersonal, but welcoming, delightful and teeming with life and color.
    To really drive home the special sense of place, the uniqueness of Seattle, we can add to the park an eighth element. This would be a native plant garden. It would consist of one or two large islands or beds planted thickly with dozens of kinds of Seattle native plants. Trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns would be planted in a manner at once richly attractive and horticulturally sound. The island would be naturally shaped and mounded, not a flat, harsh little rectangle or triangle. It would be surrounded by a bench, which would be as special as the garden itself.
    The bench would be sheltered from overhead rain by glass above, and gently warmed by a heating cable in winter, so as to be always a welcome seat. In, or near the bench (which might be of wood, stone or metal -- maybe all), would be colorful handcrafted ceramic tiles displaying the pictures, names and interesting facts about the nearby plants. For example, of the red-flowering currant bush, the tile would say how its gorgeous flowers were pollinated by hummingbirds, its powder-blue berries were edible, and its maple-like leaves fragrant. Done right, such a garden would be a first. It would be inspiring and worth emulating elsewhere.
    I can think of two probable objections to my visionary park. First, too costly. It will be claimed that the current manifestation of Westlake was the best park money could buy; that my dream park will simply cost too much. Lack of money is the universal excuse of this age. It is invalid as often as not, to the degree that what is really at blame is careless or improper use of time, energy and money. Money was never the limiting factor in Westlake Park; the limiting factor was the vision of the planners. They did not choose to do a park of local plants and art, of a comfortable scale. Indeed, the designers (who are residents of Philadelphia it may be noted) are likely incapable of doing what I proposed. After all, landscape architects are trained to work with space, and most of them use plants as mere design elements, so to plan an ecologically sound garden of native plants is a specialty beyond their usual scope. The concept of living beings nutured in living soil, interacting in subtle but crucial ways, is one more to be learned by working closely with and observing nature, than it is a doctrine to be taught in school.
    Another objection is that such a park would not work even if it could be afforded. "Bums will trash the garden" one might protest, "sleep on the benches, burn the wood; the plants will die in the downtown air," etc. To this I say that the plants, if properly placed together in the special soil blend, will work. As for transients, vagabonds and rogues, let us for a moment think more charitably of them. If we will not provide public restrooms, of course they will need to urinate somewhere. If we do not offer them counseling, shelters, clean quarters and dignified jobs, they will ever wander the streets causing mischief and wasting their lives. But they may not be all so blind to beauty or so callous as we may think. Most park landscaping that they have trashed was very different in detail than the kind I am proposing. It may be too optimistic to hope that the beautiful ferns, wildflowers and shrubs will please the transients enough so as to engender protective respect -- but there are two concrete steps I propose to further safeguard the plants. One is to plant the native garden very densely and in such a way that it will afford no hiding place.
    The second safeguard is another first, and should be very effective. The normal maintenance of a downtown park is a truckload of workers coming by on certain days, rain or shine, to listlessly perform menial grooming tasks. I believe an unspoiled, well-kept garden-park needs a dedicated caretaker. Let the caretaker be there often, taking full responsibility for keeping the place ever neat. The gardener-caretaker would take pride in expertly pruning, grooming and watering all the plants, and in talking with visitors. One truly dedicated and knowledgeable person, so employed that his or her personal work would be the focus of thousands of eyes, would cherish the job as a rare challenge.
    We cannot afford a full-time gardener. But we can offer him or her payment indirectly somehow. Such as licensing one or two vendors or retailers exclusive rights to market their wares in the park, if they in return pay the gardener's salary. The vendors also would guard the park against vandals, by calling the police whenever any thugs tried to cause trouble.
    If the park was done superbly, by designers with love of beauty on their hearts, a sense of civic pride, the ability to cooperate, and above all a clear-headed commitment to the highest standards of work, then the result would be a truly world class park. To call it it so now, as some have, is a rude mockery. But yes, it could be. Westlake Park could be transformed from an expensive example of mediocre quality, with cold wind whipping across an empty expanse of precious pavement, into a beckoning place of stimulating diversity; a real downtown oasis and gathering place.
    I have looked at what the park was, what it is, what it should be, and why. The place is not totally botched, nor do I have all the answers. But there is much room for improvement, and some of the ideas advanced here need wider circulation, to inspire designers to be still more creative and daring. As it is now, one new park looks so much like all the rest. This is bad and unjustified. We should and could do our work with more care, passionately insisting upon the best possible mixture of function, beauty and sound ecology.

(January 1990.)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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