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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2005 Issue

Contested Terrain
This month's LA Forum visits two ailing Seattle parks to ponder the question: To what extent should these icons be preserved?

By Susan Hines
Photography by David Perry

Contested Terrain
David Perry

How should the landscape architecture profession respond when public works of significant stature are reconsidered and perhaps substantially altered? Landscape Architecture convened a forum to explore what makes two well-known landscapes iconic and to consider to what extent they should be adapted or preserved for the enjoyment of future users.

In Seattle, Freeway Park and Occidental Square are slated for renovation. Designed and constructed in the 1970s, Freeway and Occidental were quickly recognized as significant urban landscapes. Although very different in purpose and feel, these parks addressed problems and conditions that seemed compelling at the time. Designed by Grant Jones, FASLA, and Ilze Jones, FASLA, in the early 1970s to revitalize Seattle’s newly designated Pioneer Square historic district, Occidental is notable as the first urban revitalization project undertaken by landscape architects in the Pacific Northwest.

Opened to the public just a few years later, Freeway Park, by Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, was the first park built over a freeway in the United States. Based on an idea Halprin suggested in his 1966 book Freeways, the park reclaimed the airspace over Interstate 5 and reconnected the neighborhoods bisected by the road. Designed as a retreat rather than a public promenade, the park features zigzagging paths and extensive structural concrete walls and fountains. Trees and shrubs were selected and sited to work in concert with the waterfalls, in an effort to minimize the constant din of the highway below the park and the city just beyond its walls.

It is widely accepted now that both parks are ailing, if not failing, spaces. Underused by the public, they have evolved into destinations for the displaced. Once a vibrant public square, Occidental is now dominated by the homeless. And during the early weeks of 2002, Freeway was the scene of both a murder and a rape, drawing attention not only to the issue of crime in the park but also to the ways its meandering design and heavily planted edges offer refuge for criminals and hamper crime prevention. Since then, the perception of danger in the park has grown, and people have continued to avoid what one local paper referred to as Freeway’s “Topology of Terror.”

Recently, the city’s parks department invited Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to engage users in one of its signature placemaking workshops aimed at developing revitalization programs for these parks. More than 140 community participants shaped the PPS vision for Freeway Park, among them the members of the Freeway Park Neighborhood Association. The Occidental Park recommendations are based on input from four workshops with 120 citizens, some of whom belonged to the Pioneer Square Community Association. In both parks, it is hoped that increased use will diminish opportunities for criminal activities.

Seattleites appreciate both vibrant city life and vanguard design, and in addition to the historic legacy of busy Pike Place Market and the Olmsted firm’s park system, the city has worked successfully to keep an active downtown retail core. Seattle also enjoys adding to its collection of architectural and landscape architectural eye candy. Last year, the extensively remodeled opera house with exterior spaces by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, opened. It is a neighbor to the curvy Frank Gehry building that houses Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. Very recently, the Rem Koolhaas-designed downtown library was completed. Even the new federal high-rise courthouse features an elegant one-acre plaza designed by Peter Walker, FASLA.

If the design intent of Freeway Park and Occidental Square can’t survive intact here, how will modern landscapes fare in more conservative cities, with audiences less appreciative of innovative work?

At Freeway Park, the PPS vision has two major components: to make the park a destination place for walking and to encourage people to spend time in the park by creating at least 10 destinations. Short-term recommendations include creating a designated walking loop; selectively lowering or removing concrete walls to open up sight lines and increase orientation and safety; planning seasonal programs and events; improving connections to anchor buildings; and supporting lunchtime use by adding chairs, tables, umbrellas, vending carts, and games. Building a series of major destinations around the convention center and adjacent to Park Plaza and the Canyon and Cascade Fountains is among the proposed long-term solutions. PPS also suggests that Pigott Corridor should be connected to adjacent buildings—a practical idea that could be incorporated in future development on the edges of the park.

On a sunny day in late February, Landscape Architecture accompanied the invited discussants on a walking tour of Freeway Park and Occidental Square. Seattle resident Mark Hinshaw, a frequent contributor to the magazine, led both the tour and the discussion. The walking tour participants were Seattle Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds; Fred Kent, founder and president of PPS; Richard Haag, FASLA, principal of Richard Haag Associates and long-time advocate for Seattle public spaces; Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, coordinator of the National Park Service’s Historic Landscape Initiative and founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation; and Linda Jewell, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Walking Through Freeway Park

The forum convened at Horizon House, one of several high-rise retirement communities on the eastern edge of Freeway Park. Leaving Horizon House, we entered the park by way of Pigott Corridor—a heavily used entrance that provides access from the First Hill neighborhood. As the group paused at the top of the stairs to take in one of the best views of the park, a homeless man arrived as if on cue to berate us, yelling for several minutes as Bounds explained that the stairs and corridor were designed by Angela Danajieva, Halprin’s lead designer for Freeway, and were added to the park in 1984. The stranger’s verbal assault could easily dissuade a lone visitor or older couple from descending the stairs, whose relatively high walls tend to obscure activities. Like battle-hardened urbanites, we moved along without acknowledging the man.

Here, as elsewhere throughout the park, the water features are inactive—a substantial loss for any visitor eager to see Freeway at its best. Bounds explained that maintenance of the park’s fountains is difficult, further complicated by debris from shrubs and trees that tends to collect in the fountain. “You don’t often see fountains surrounded by trees,” he pointed out. “There are reasons for that.” Without the white noise of the fountains, the roar of the highway was far more audible.

Another criticism is that the heavy tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating the park—a charge that was impossible to evaluate on this sunny winter day, when the deciduous trees were bare. PPS and Fred Kent advocate thinning the trees, but the landscape architects in the group were uncomfortable at the thought of bringing down healthy specimens. Hinshaw suggested that the trees were never meant to grow so large and did so as a result of fertilizer added to the irrigation system, but Bounds could not substantiate that fact. The implication of Hinshaw’s statement is that a thinner tree canopy may not be at odds with the design intent.

As the group approached the heart of Halprin’s design—the jagged path that takes visitors through the space—the modifications to this signature element became obvious and disturbing. Benches that originally edged the path at intervals had been removed to discourage loitering, and large rectangles of paler concrete had been inserted in their place. “God forbid anyone would want to sit down,” Haag noted wryly. In a rare moment of consensus between the two, Kent agreed: “Sitting down and smelling the flowers” are among the active and passive uses of park space that PPS advocates.

In other areas, added concrete pads broaden the path and break the rhythm of its zigzag edge, and the color contrast between the older and newer concrete is jarring. Jewell pointed out that the original experience evoked a garden path, narrow and meandering, a feeling almost completely missing in some sections now because of the current configuration. “It’s a loss of the original geometry itself,” she noted sadly. When Kent pointed out that widening the walkway allows users to more easily navigate the space while conversing, Haag objected. “The point of this path is to slow you down, to make you aware of your surroundings, of nature,” he argued.

Designed by Danajieva, the plaza adjacent to the convention center was built in the 1980s to integrate the new building with Freeway. Convention Center Plaza was a nearly empty space at 10:30 on a beautiful Sunday morning. True, the conventioneers who swarmed the nearby streets the day before might have been sleeping in, but the isolated feel wasn’t lost on anyone, least of all Bounds, who admitted that all of the nearby entrances to the plaza are poorly marked—a situation the parks department is determined to correct. “Many people don’t have a clue about the park,” he said. “You really have to know your wayfinding.”

However, there is little about the plaza, except its proximity to the convention center, to attract the large crowds the space was obviously designed to accommodate. There is no “here here,” everyone agreed. When Kent described the plaza as “a natural performance center” and elaborated on PPS’s menu of activities—music, temporary art installations, and a café—hopes were raised. The consensus was that Convention Center Plaza is an appropriate site for additional programming and amenities and, if improved, could encourage more users into the park’s interior.

Although the glass atrium that connects the building to the plaza references elements of Freeway’s walls and fountains, the building “turns its back on the landscape,” Birnbaum said. What he called “suburban, lollipop foundation planting” between the glass walls of the atrium and the plaza obscures that these two areas share a single grade and could seamlessly merge indoors and outdoors. Again, the group agreed with PPS’s suggestion that the plaza include an indoor/outdoor café centered on the convention center. An obvious amenity for the center and the park, a restaurant or coffee bar here would attract visitors, many of whom are now oblivious to the famous landscape that lies a few yards from their meeting space.

That change, like much of the PPS vision for this plaza, lies solely in the hands of convention center management. Given the park’s lackluster reputation for safety, the management of the space seems to discourage people from connecting with Freeway. Access is purposefully limited; several doors are restricted to emergency use. In fact, when Birnbaum stepped inside the building to explore the interior of Kent’s proposed atrium café, he was stopped by a convention center guard, who lectured him on security.

After a cursory look at the nearly invisible 9th Avenue entrance, the group turned south and reentered the park proper. Again, the landscape architects noted changes to the walkway’s geometric edge as well as the enclosure of several garden rooms with shiny, chain-link fencing—an effort to keep the homeless from making themselves at home. Haag decried this change not just for aesthetic reasons. “It’s an example of the way the parks department vandalizes its own parks to promote social cleansing,” he asserted repeatedly.

Hinshaw wondered why the destitute are generally believed to be the park’s predominant user group. Despite the urban feel generated by extensive use of gritty concrete, Freeway Park “rejects the city,” he said. “It seems to speak of a time when vibrant urban life was less appreciated and a park was perceived as a refuge from the city.” The sun would soon be directly overhead, yet the park remained fairly empty on a beautiful weekend day. Perhaps young Seattleites prefer the city’s busy streets to Freeway’s calm repose.

Freeway’s most iconic space is Park Place Plaza, with its Canyon and Cascade Fountains. How can a plaza organized around spectacular water features succeed without them? Even without the roar, gleam, and motion of water, however, the structure of the fountains is dramatic. Stairs wend their way through Canyon Fountain, providing a view into empty basins with surprisingly little trash. Even without the water, it’s easy to imagine children racing up and down these stairs—although the parents of more adventurous kids might fear an accidental fall into the concrete below. Instead of rails, a built-in fear factor is intended to keep people from falling into the water or onto the concrete.

Far more controversial for forum participants was PPS’s suggested removal of some of the concrete planting structure and the proposed replacement of Cascade Fountain with a flat-surface water feature for children. PPS feels that the space needs to be opened up. With Cascade Fountain gone, part of the Canyon Fountain wall removed, and the rest of the fountain lit, the remaining water feature could serve as an attraction and a dramatic backdrop for a café and the programmed activities PPS’s vision statement calls for.

Although nearly empty during this visit, the plaza flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hinshaw and Haag recalled times when the space was crowded with people drawn to the water and attracted to musical events held there. Hinshaw remembered that the city was a very different place then, lacking in the events and spaces it enjoys today. PPS programming, not surprisingly, calls for more attractions in the plaza as well as additional retail space at the edges.

However, Birnbaum took exception to the notion that adding more “stuff” is the answer. Reminding the group of the “bricks, banners, balloons, Bradfords, and benches” Hideo Sasaki once decried, Birnbaum warned against “formulaic plunking down of destination facilities.” The result would not be a carefully designed space, he explained, but rather “a pu-pu platter for the add generation.”

Every participant was all too aware that programming offers promise but is limited in its reach by unreliable funding and staff availability. Leaving Freeway Park, Bounds summed up both the appeal of programming and its drawbacks. “There is no silver bullet, just lots of bullets,” he admitted.

Walking Through Occidental Square

Unlike Freeway Park, where danger is rumored to lurk under every shrub and behind every turn in the concrete walls, Occidental Square is an open square in the European tradition. When it was first built, the square’s beauty lay in the austere simplicity of its central space. The square relied on colorful people, rather than an elaborate plan or plantings, for dynamism. In the 1970s, the café that borders one side was more active, and mimes, musicians, and artists frequented the place as customers and performers.

As at Freeway, the trees here, which grow from wells in the pavement, are believed by some to make the space dark and foreboding. Homeless people find refuge, and drug dealers find a market in the square. Some trees will likely be removed, but on the winter afternoon that our group visited Occidental, it was difficult to evaluate the merits of this proposed change. The London planes were leafless, and the square was filled with sun.

Kent sees very little worth saving in Occidental Square. In fact, he would prefer to completely rework the space. In addition to tree removal, he has suggested stripping the vines from the historic brick buildings around the square and painting the facades in bright colors, replacing Jones & Jones’s glass structure with a coffee vending spot, and installing Astroturf over the uneven cobbles. Even an ice-skating rink has been proposed. Decried by the public, the Astroturf and the painting plan are unlikely to be tried. On the other hand, two temporary bocce courts have already been installed, and throughout the visit, forum participants watched a couple play.

Transients have clearly claimed Occidental—a fact more obvious in the open space of the square than in Freeway’s nooks and crannies. Though still extant, the outdoor café isn’t open, and its chairs and tables are cordoned off, so no Sunday coffee drinkers were relaxing in the sun. Instead, people were sleeping on Ilze Jones’s signature benches and taking shelter under the iron-and-glass structure that is the focal point of the square. Aghast at Kent’s suggestion that the pavilion is purposeless, Haag countered, “It shelters people.” He reminded the group that middle-class families and affluent young people are not the only groups parks should serve. He stressed the history of the space, noting that Native Americans met here long before Europeans arrived and that they continue to do so today.

Jewell focused on Occidental’s site furnishings and details. She called Ilze Jones “one of the best detailers our profession has ever known.” The benches have survived the years well; their iron armrests arch in the exaggerated curve Jones designed over 30 years ago. A few wooden slats have been replaced, and some benches have been marred by the addition of wooden dividers, a clumsy attempt to keep people from reclining. Enhanced by a lovely patina, the spout-shaped bronze fountain, which Ilze Jones cleverly designed to serve both decorative and drinking functions, is beautifully preserved. Everything was designed specifically for this park—a marked contrast “to the catalog culture of today,” noted Birnbaum.

Jewell remembered a time when “people who cared about design” made pilgrimages to Occidental. Hinshaw agreed that this was true at one time. “On the other hand,” he said, “in the mid-1980s, I took my young son to Occidental to try to convey to him the importance of this space. As we sat in a little café at the Grand Central Bakery and I told him what was important about this place to me, one of the people using that square came over and smashed a bottle right in front of us. I never took him back again.”

Occidental is undeniably shabby, adding to the perception of danger. The paving, a combination of brick and cobblestone, is uneven and difficult to traverse. Kent told the group that the Astroturf idea was a temporary quick fix, aimed at showing the public how much nicer and more usable the space would be if it were simply level. PPS recommends installing a new flat surface in the long term. However, a half-acre plus of new pavement is expensive, and some people are very attached to the cobblestone. Jewell admitted that even in their current condition she likes the cobblestones.

Over the years, bronze statues of five life-sized firemen in action were added to the square. With their backs to the park and their hose pointed at South Main Street—and oncoming foot traffic—the figures aren’t beckoning to pedestrians as much as urging them to retreat. Anxious to create an active edge to the park, PPS advocates removing the firemen. None of the discussants objected to this proposal.

When a saxophonist played from his seat on a nearby bench, Hinshaw recalled a period in the late 1970s when musicians and jugglers were common here and galleries began moving to the area. That was Occidental’s heyday, he said—“when the place really started to sing.”

PPS thinks it can reprogram the space in a way that surpasses even the halcyon days some remembered. Based on PPS’s recommendations, plans for chess, outdoor movies, and Friday-night bingo are already under way. Will these changes bring “respectable” Seattleites back to Occidental Square or merely add a programmatic gloss to a park that deserves to be appreciated on its own terms?

With questions like these unresolved, the forum participants said good-bye to Ken Bounds and returned to Horizon House and an in-depth discussion of Freeway Park and Occidental Square.


Iconic Landscapes: Preservation or Adaptation? Significance of Freeway Park and Occidental Square

The forum began with a discussion of what makes Freeway Park and Occidental Square landscapes iconic and why altering or adapting these spaces is controversial.  

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA: I want to put these parks in the context of their historical significance. It’s not fair to group the two landscapes together. Occidental is a landscape of national significance in terms of its historic role. The square is located in the first designated historic district in Seattle and was the first example of a landscape architect’s response to designing within a historic setting. It is of National Register import.

In the case of Freeway Park, I would say that it is iconic because it has been exhaustively published internationally. Both Freeway and Occidental are progenitors of landscape types with high degrees of design integrity. That makes them potential National Historic Landmark candidates.

Fred Kent: I think that Occidental Square is less precious than Freeway.

Linda Jewell, FASLA: I have admired Occidental’s design for 25 years. I think we all acknowledge [the significance of] Freeway Park. But there seem to be some questions about Occidental. I think it is a beautiful work of art. It is beautifully composed and exquisitely detailed; it has very determined intentions. And I think we should try to be respectful and careful about that.

I realize that Occidental is not of the international significance of Freeway. But it is of national significance because the square was recognized and influential, particularly to people of my age group. We had had so many projects that were nothing but railroad ties, asphalt, and functional diagrams, where you put your pathways around uses. And this was something beyond that. It composed a special experience in an urban area, and I think it was a model to my generation of designers.

Which Comes First: Research or Redesign?

Several forum discussants were concerned that, before asking for community input, PPS failed to investigate the history of Freeway Park and Occidental Square.

Kent: You have to understand that our purpose with these projects is to develop a set of uses and activities and to present that [to the public] as part of bringing Freeway back and making it a great gathering space.

Jewell: To make it work without any spatial change should be your charge because when you start taking out trees or removing the pavilion [in Occidental Square] you are making spatial changes. In a landmark landscape—not in just any landscape—changes to the physical landscape should be the last resort. Changing the surface of the very bumpy cobbles is something I can understand, given concerns about accessibility. To me that doesn’t necessarily change the space so much. But removing trees and removing the pavilion are material changes that really alter what it is that makes [this park] an icon.

The first line of attack with a landmark landscape should be to see how it could be programmatically activated over a period of years. At the five-year point, or whenever it becomes apparent that a landscape’s just not going to make it, then we’ve got to do something. It should go through that process before [anyone] barrels in to make changes to an existing landscape.  

Birnbaum: When there’s an incident, like at Freeway Park, where someone is killed, there’s pressure for improvement. The challenge is this balancing act of managing change. When are enough incremental changes made that you have compromised the integrity of the landscape?

We saw today that parts of the existing scheme have a very high level of integrity. In the edges, though, a lot of areas came later and are more adaptable. I don’t think either of these are black or white situations, but when people are really charged up, they want to see results. The question is how you incorporate research in the program early on.

Jewell: Part of that should be creating an awareness of the historic significance of the designer’s intent. And I’m not convinced that discussion has been a part of this process.

Kent: You are asking how little you can do to get it back on track. It’s in that area that I think we disagree.

Freeway is a disaster. It’s a liability for Seattle, and if it could be brought back, it would be a great pleasure. We have got to make these spaces work. If we resist, they are just going to take them out and will destroy whatever heritage was there.

Jewell: To make an analogy to designing a space for a national park site, the first thing any responsible designer should do is go in and study that physical entity and its attributes. If Freeway were a national park site, you wouldn’t let the parking lot wipe out a rock formation. These parks are unique in the same way rock formations in a national park are unique.

Mark Hinshaw: Relatively few people in Seattle place any value on these places, aside from the design features, and I think few would go to the mat for either place.

Birnbaum: Fred, I’m going to say something bold now. The PPS vision is irresponsible because it immediately puts preservationists and landscape architects on the defensive by creating an adversarial relationship between those who care about the history and uniqueness of a space and those who advocate change. I really don’t think we are on a different page here. We could have tried to accommodate some of these programmatic things, but now the situation is antagonistic.

Kent: We like the historic aspect, and after looking at the uses and activities, we thought the actual layout of [Occidental] is fine and very good. Actually, a lot of the design elements are very good, but some just get in the way. The [Ilze Jones-designed] pavilion is probably the best example of that. The pavilion looks good—if only it had actual uses. But we have got to make these spaces work; if we resist that, they are just going destroy the heritage that is there.

Program It and They Will Come?

PPS envisions Occidental as a “square for all seasons” and advocates scheduling performances, games, and a market as well as building a café and play space for children. In Freeway Park, PPS suggests performances, arts-and-crafts shows, cafés, games, and a dog run.

Kent: We look at a place in terms of how it functions to support human activities and to create a sense of play for the pleasure of people. That’s our job. How do we make these places thrive in the environments that they are in today and look to the future? Eighty to 90 percent of the success of a public space is the management of it. We know we can’t make these places work without good management. And that’s just not maintenance; it’s also having activities—almost a concierge service for the park.

Richard Haag, FASLA: History would help you if you think that programming is going to enliven these spaces. Ilze designed that park with stanchions and holdfasts and hold-downs and with storage spaces for tents and lots of seats. Do you think the parks department ever followed through on that? Hell, no. What makes you think they are going to follow through this time? This whole idea of programming is wonderful, but our parks department isn’t into that.

Jewell: That place once was lively with the existing configuration. It was lively not that long ago.

Hinshaw: Haven’t other cities had nonprofit agencies bring their staffing and funding—whatever is necessary—so that programming doesn’t rely on public agencies?

Kent: We would like to put a café in there. You cannot have something [in Occidental] with nothing going on. In an aggressive way of building back and creating a center of activity, you have to change a bit.

Hinshaw: You used the word “aggressive.” Does it always require that retail be inserted in the space?

Kent: Yes.

Hinshaw: Wow. So green is never good enough?

Birnbaum: It is green. It’s just a different kind of green!


Kent: Well, we did Bryant Park, and I think that Bryant Park has commercialized too much and that it’s closed to the public too often. We’ve put it on the PPS Hall of Shame.

Hinshaw: Well, once you open it up for commercial use, do people start viewing it that way? How do you keep it from going too far?

Kent: The best model I’ve ever seen is Luxembourg Gardens. There must be 20 concessions there, but none of them is overwhelming. If you put those kinds of concessions in Occidental, like pony rides going up and down the street on Saturday, it would be quite pleasant.

Jewell: When I first walked through Freeway today, I thought maybe something needed to be done. But programmatic activities have to be looked at very carefully. Fred has talked about revitalizing these places so that they’re active. But there is also a need in our lives for more serene places. Rather than talking about reactivating, I like to think in terms of making a place safer. People don’t feel safe there. However, I worry about compromising the serenity and refreshing quality of the ambling landscape.

Whose Park Is It, Anyway?

Both Freeway and Occidental attract significant populations of transients, adding to the perception that these spaces are unsafe.

Birnbaum: As [PPS] looks at these places and programs, what role does the social fabric of a place play, and how does that inform your process? What are the numbers of homeless in Occidental Park? 

Haag: There are 10,000 homeless people in Seattle. 

Kent: Any single user group that dominates a major public space is a liability, whether it’s senior citizens or homeless people. The great park is a democratic community center where all kinds of things go on, all kinds of people feel comfortable, and no one is repelled. Getting that balance is a really tough job. That’s why you have to be aggressive. Occidental Park is not in balance. It is one of the worst parks in the United States.

Haag: It is not! You have a different constituency. I think if you had a different clientele, you would see that the park is heavily used and serves a vital function for people who most need access to the outdoors and security. 

Kent: Many of the people who are there might be considered homeless but are not. They live in the buildings around there. They are very fine people. If you talk to them, they will tell you that a lot of people in that park are a problem and should be in institutions or jail because of their drug dealing. You cannot tolerate that in a park. It doesn’t work.  

Haag: The homeless are down there because their services are there.... You know what this [PPS redesign] smacks of? It smacks of social cleansing, which when you carry that another degree or two...

Kent: That’s crap! That is so outrageous! 

Haag: I want you to be outraged. 

Kent:PPS transformed Bryant Park [in New York City]. There are 10 or 15 people who are undesirable in Bryant Park every day, and they fit in because they are part of that environment. They are enriched because they are part of that environment. Three thousand people come there on a good day and enjoy it. Great squares of the world are ones that bring in all kinds of people and enrich everyone. And you are saying to me that I’m cleansing?

Haag: It’s very important for the [homeless] that they have a place to go, isn’t it?

Kent: For people doing legitimate activities, yes. But the illegitimate activities should not be going on in parks. When your job is to correct that and create a great civic gathering place, you have to go pretty far, and that’s not an easy thing.

Birnbaum: I don’t think this is a case of either/or.

Kent: You have to allow really aggressive management to bring a park back. There has to be flexibility to end up with a park that works and has integrity of design. But it may mean more radical change than some people would like to accept. [At Occidental], for example, I think the vines should come off and those buildings should be painted. And our staff recommended temporary Astroturf.

Hinshaw: That got people going!

Kent: It did. It was a great idea. For the long term, no, but why not a series of experiments over a period of three years to get the square back to [acting as] a performing space, and then look at the design again?

Hinshaw: Despite the beauty of the space, it is no longer an open area. A very select group of people use it, and that’s a shame. So the dilemma is how much change we can bring to the space without damaging its original intent.

Protecting the Design Intent

While the original design intents for Freeway and Occidental were important to the designers in the forum, they proved less compelling for Kent, who argued that PPS needs to focus primarily on placemaking if these parks are to become popular destinations and to survive.

Birnbaum: What’s interesting to me is that these designers [Halprin and Jones & Jones] are alive. Why not pick up the phone and call Halprin? In your position, I would call the guy who did it in the first place and see what he has to say.

Kent: We have discussed doing that and have even discussed going to see him, but I don’t remember what the result was. Remember that this is not a design. All we did was layer [uses]. We needed a free period to get a sense of what needs to be done.  

Jewell: What was the intent of the designers and others when they created it originally? Why not build a constituency for what’s right about Freeway Park?  

Kent: I’m going to say something very controversial. I don’t care what the design intent was originally. I don’t really care. 

Jewell: Why not? 

Kent: Because I want to find out how it will work today, what would make it really successful. PPS is not about design: We are trying to figure out what would make that place work. I don’t think we should put everything in the hands of landscape architects in creating public spaces. There are 10 or 20 skills that are needed to create a good place, and what we need is people who can layer the infrastructure and can be sensitive to shaping a place based on activities. Your profession denigrates human activity as a core philosophy. 

Birnbaum: I don’t think you can generalize about 35,000 landscape architects like that.  

Jewell: Most landscape architects do think humans and human activity are the point of departure. But it’s damn hard. You don’t always get it right. 

Kent: If we had more Halprins today, we would be far more successful. 

Jewell: They will come back. Remember that lot of crappy stuff was done by other people while Halprin was doing this, too.

Loss of Regional Identity

Does implementing the PPS vision for Occidental and Freeway eliminate the design details that make these places unique and meaningful?

Birnbaum: Rather than taking a Mall of America approach to design, how do you begin to incorporate the regional nuances of a place? We just went to two spaces that couldn’t be more different or more nuanced if we wanted them to be. The PPS plan [makes Occidental and Freeway] look like every other place—it’s a formula. How do we move toward a middle ground where we can celebrate regional identity and understand the past? 

Kent: The community came up with these ideas, and we reflected them by looking at some of the best [examples] around the world. 

Jewell: I think Charles is hitting on something that is key. When I was in private practice, we’d have clients who wanted something just like what got built down the street. I think the three of us [Birnbaum, Haag, and Jewell] are reacting to your comments primarily because we are very concerned about standardization of the landscape and generic solutions.

Occidental is a wonderful model for all of us. Jones designed that bench: It wasn’t off the shelf. No community would have told her how to design that bench. No community group would have pushed her in the direction of making that gorgeous fountain. It had to come from the soul of an individual who cared about that area of Seattle, who lived and worked there.

The Fate of Freeway Park’s Plaza: A Case in Point

For several forum discussants, among the most controversial aspects of PPS’s proposed “New Vision for Freeway Park” are proposed changes to Park Place Plaza, especially the long-term suggestion of removing Halprin’s Cascade Fountain to either create more open space or make room for an interactive spray fountain for children. Given that the water features are often shut down, the PPS plan also recommends “maintaining [Canyon Fountain] so it is working every day.”

Jewell: My concern is that this is no longer Freeway Park. Freeway was informed by the idea of respite rather than lots of activity—a sort of garden park experience. I think it’s really important. Definitely, the transition to the rest of the city [in Park Place Plaza] is somewhat problematic. However, isn’t there some value in preserving this landscape experience for people, regardless of whether it brings in the public? After all, how many people have to use this space for it to be successful?

Kent: There are only three things we have suggested here: We have put in the restaurant, we have removed the wall to highlight Canyon Fountain, and we have taken out that one pile of concrete [Cascade Fountain]. Maybe it has to be a different park. I don’t like holding on to something that is dysfunctional.

Birnbaum: Again, programmatically, everything you’ve propose for the landscape could be accommodated in Freeway, but why would you put it in the park’s historic core [Park Plaza and Cascade Fountain]? I think the café should be where the convention center is, where you have the largest numbers of people to harness and the largest space to accommodate.

Kent: I thoroughly disagree with that.

Jewell: There is a tendency, and I’m certainly guilty of it, to make assumptions like, oh, a café [will bring people in]. Yet, [landscape architects] understand very little about the commercial nature of what it takes to make that happen.

Kent: We understand the behavior fairly well. Right now, Freeway is about human beings in only one dimension [that is, passive appreciation of the design]. And that’s it. Places to stop and things to do would pull people in and give them a reason to be in Freeway Park.

Birnbaum: We have not talked about the fact that the fountains don’t work. So much of this design is because of the fountains, so in your survey, what did your user group say about repairing the fountains or removing them?

Kent: Our user groups looked at that and said [Cascade Fountain] ought to be removed: It’s not helping make a usable park. There is nothing good about it, and people don’t like it. They like the big one [Canyon Fountain]. But that little mound of concrete [Cascade Fountain] in the middle of the park doesn’t do much for people.

Birnbaum: Those fountains are character defining and central to the design. If you begin to embark on a process where [the fountains] are not a central tenet in that process and are marginalized, then the next thing you know, people are designing their own fountains. What’s going to happen is that there will be all these interim things—whether it’s lights or signage—but unless those fountains are really addressed, what’s the point?

Jewell: This [proposed interactive fountain at grade] is the trendiest thing in the world right now. The really unique thing has gone away. 

Birnbaum: And you will give them what they want.  

Haag: That’s good for your business. 

Kent: It’s not good for my business. I hate going into a place and looking at another design that’s awful for the community it serves. I hate it. 

Haag: Well, come on over to the other side. 

Birnbaum: If this property was listed on the National Historic Landmarks register you couldn’t make these changes.  

Kent: Remember, you all are protecting your profession. I am the only one here who is respecting the community. 

Birnbaum: We are not protecting our profession. We are actually protecting the patrimony of this city. That’s what we are doing. It would be a different park without [Cascade Fountain]. You are speaking for those select people who came to your community meeting—a couple hundred, or however many there were. 

Jewell: People may have thought they wanted a [flat surface] fountain because they saw it at a damn shopping center in L.A. It really scares me to think that the process of community involvement could compromise such a beautiful place. 

Kent: Maybe it has to be a different park. Personally, I would like it not to be a different park, but if it has to be changed to work, then so be it.  

Birnbaum: Fred, what’s interesting is that all programmatic things you said to me in Freeway today weren’t site specific—with the exception of the children’s play fountain—and I had no problem with them. When I look at the PPS vision statement, however, I see a design.

Kent: To us, it’s a vision and nothing more than that. It gets you to the point where you can have a great discussion. [PPS] thinks you’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to be bold, put ideas out there, and work out a solution. That’s the ideal way to do placemaking.

Jewell: That’s fine, and it certainly should happen, but the other piece needs to happen, too. Only by examining all the layers—history, uses, and design intent—can we really keep the magic that we know as Freeway Park.

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