How Not to Revitalize an Icon
In tidying up a deteriorating public park, did the city of
Seattle have to carve out its defining features?
By Brice Maryman, ASLA, and Elizabeth Umbanhowar, Associate ASLA
Just a few years ago Jim Brighton could be found taking
out-of-town guests through Seattle’s Occidental Park. Highlighting the simple
bosque of London plane trees that created a green, architectonic enclosure for
the space, he would draw visitors’ attention to the singular charms of the well-worn
sandstone cobbles underfoot and the hooped benches along the edges. When
conversation inevitably veered toward the drug dealers at the end of the
square, Brighton, who works in the area and was a member of a community group
working to revitalize the space, would not flinch. Instead he would
enthusiastically detail the community’s plans for revitalizing the space,
starting with the new retail shops and housing whose activity would feed into
the vibrancy of the space.
Those days of exuberance are over. For Brighton, the once
remarkable park is just another urban open space—banal, generic, and
rootless—transformed by a 2006, $2.3 million overhaul that took its cues from
the Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Seattle’s Department of Parks and
Recreation (DPR) directed the Seattle offices of the multidisciplinary
Portland-based firm Otak Inc. to perform extensive surgery on the space in an
effort to create a healthier public realm, more attractive to upstanding
citizens and less of a magnet for drug dealers and the homeless. As a result, a
number of mature London plane trees and a steel pergola were removed, while
precast concrete pavers took the place of the historic cobbles.
For Brighton, what had begun as a transparent
community-instigated process that sought to massage the bones of the park was
recast as an unnecessary surgery. In the end, the community of local interests
who advocated less invasive methods felt pushed out, and heated personal
attacks spilled over into public hearings. The acrimony went so far that
lawsuits were eventually filed against the city. Even today, more than a year
and a half after the park was redesigned, the wounds are still raw, and finger
pointing and recrimination abound.
At this difficult moment in the park’s history, Landscape Architecture is examining the
ongoing controversy that surrounds Occidental Park. Was it a battle between
design integrity and current park needs, historic intentions versus
contemporary uses, individual design egos versus community sensibility, or commerce
versus egalitarian open space? And what does this local skirmish in the Pacific
Northwest mean for the future of other urban open spaces across the country?
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