Sunday, November 15, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part three)

In its more than 100 years as an upscale Madison Park neighborhood, Washington Park has gradually but inexorably grown from a relatively small enclave at the top of the hill to its present-day expansive form, covering most (or, depending on your view, all) of Madison Park south of E. Madison Street. The residential community of Washington Park, as noted earlier in our series, was so-named because of its proximity to the City park of the same name and, presumably, as a way to distinguish the area from the rest of Madison Park, which was considered much less exclusive.

From its inception, Washington Park was known for its large and stately homes. A good example of early homebuilding in the neighborhood is the Walker-Ames Mansion (808 36th Avenue E.), built in 1906, which has served as the home of University of Washington presidents since it was bequeathed to the UW in the early part of the last century. That’s the house pictured above, and here’s how it looks today:

Historically, Washington Park was confined to just a few blocks east of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and directly south of E. Madison Street. Even by mid-century, the area considered to be Washington Park was much less extensive than it is today. Longtime Madison Park resident Lola McKee (Madison Park Hardware) reports that back then everybody knew that Washington Park extended to 39th Avenue E. and went no further. All of the blocks to the east were just plain old Madison Park, she says.

This distinction made a lot of sense geographically, since Madison Park (the City park, that is) was to the east and Washington Park (the City park) was to the west. So how does it happen that today the neighborhood of Washington Park extends all the way to the shores of Lake Washington and perhaps (depending on where you draw the line) even touches Madison Park, the City park that gives our community its name? Isn’t that just a bit perverse?

As it happens, the redefinition of Washington Park is almost certainly an extreme case of neighborhood creep, which over the years was encouraged and abetted by home builders, homeowners, and real estate agents anxious to capture the cachet of a Washington Park address when selling residences located further and further from that neighborhood’s original starting point.

Let me explain neighborhood creep by pointing to what may well be a present-day example of the phenomenon: a successful attempt to market a new residential project, Madison Lofts, as being in Madison Park when the properties in question clearly sit outside of what has traditionally been considered our community. The Madison Lofts is that new brick condo building in Madison Valley located in the 2900 block on the north side of E. Madison Street. Even the City of Seattle (which, as we’ve noted, is somewhat confused about our southern border) recognizes that on the west side Madison Park begins at E. Lake Washington Boulevard. That, at least, is where they erected the “Madison Park/Washington Park Welcome You” sign.

Undoubtedly because Madison Park is considered to be a more exclusive neighborhood than Madison Valley, the developer and its real estate agent decided to market the condos as though they are located in Madison Park, which after all is only two blocks away. The Northwest Multiple Listing Service accepted this designation and listed the property as a Madison Park address. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if Madison Lofts had been built on a site with a previously existing Madison Valley residence on it, but the site was undeveloped. So for this new residential address, realtors bought into the developer’s concept that Madison Lofts is in Madison Park. And as a result, anyone buying a condo there presumably believes he or she lives in Madison Park. If other new residential buildings were to be built in the area between 29th and E. Lake Washington Boulevard, presumably they could and would be marketed in the same manner. And if that happened, there would be an additional block or two of people who believe they live in Madison Park, effectively extending Madison Park into Madison Valley.

Neighborhood creep is clearly a gradual process, and it probably only works successfully when there’s an affinity between the type of construction in the new area and that of the original neighborhood. In other words, as the area to the east of Washington Park became gentrified, it was perhaps logical and appropriate to consider it part of Washington Park. But the extension of Washington Park eastward probably wouldn’t have been successful if the area had continued to be dominated by bungalows, cottages, and beach houses, as the area “down the hill” from 39th Avenue E. was during much of the 20th Century.

While it’s pretty evident that most people in the community accept the idea that Washington Park now extends all the way to the Lake, a question still remains: Does Washington Park encompass all of Madison Park south of E. Madison Street?

When I moved to Madison Park I accepted the view of a friend who already lived here that to be south of Madison is to be in Washington Park. But I gradually became aware of the fact that not everyone subscribes to this notion. In researching this story I asked local realtors what they thought. Here’s the answer from one well-informed professional: “Washington Park begins at the Reed Estate. I can’t remember what street that is, but I can tell you one thing for sure—Washington Park Tower is not located in Washington Park.”

He’s right, assuming you accept the current view of real estate officialdom, which appears to be consistent with historical usage. The Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) puts the area north of E. Garfield Street (the northern border of the Reed Estate) solidly in Madison Park. The Washington Park neighborhood begins south of Garfield. Just to confirm this position, I checked on the four residences currently listed for sale in the five blocks south of Madison that are supposedly not considered Washington Park. In each case (one of which is a condo unit in the Washington Park Tower) the MLS shows the neighborhood as “Madison Park” and not “Washington Park.” I also talked to a couple of longtime residents of these blocks who agreed that Washington Park starts somewhere to the south, one telling me ‘I grew up right here and didn’t think I lived in Washington Park then--and I certainly don’t think I live in it now.’

So there you have it: the Washington Park Tower (shown in the photo above) does not sit in the Washington Park neighborhood. Here’s how the dividing line looks on an aerial view, courtesy of Bing (click to enlarge):

Now that we’ve disposed of that issue, what’s left define about Madison Park? Well, several things. For one, what do we call that group of houses that sit to the east of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and to the north of E. Madison Street (behind the Shell Station and Arboretum Court)? They are the closest to Washington Park Arboretum of any houses located in Madison Park, so by all rights they ought to be part of the Washington Park neighborhood, shouldn’t they? Not so. By historic convention (and the supreme authority of the MLS), the four-block area squeezed between Broadmoor and the Arboretum is actually a stub section of “Madison Park.” Here’s the aerial view, again courtesy of Bing (click to enlarge):

Interestingly, this area is disputed by the Greater Madison Valley Community Council (GMVCC), which believes it is part of the Valley. In fact, the Council’s expansive view of their community also takes in a section of Washington Park running from 33rd to 36th Avenue E., south of Madison (this is perhaps a bit of a surprise to residents in that area). This map shows the border between the Valley and the Park, according to the “Greater” view:

So Madison Park residents on the four blocks to the north of Madison--as well as those on another six blocks to the south--are in the happy position of being represented by two community councils at the same time; which, according to City planner Steve Sheppard, shouldn’t necessarily be considered a bad thing. Madison Valley or Madison Park? Let the residents decide!

At this point we’re almost done with our overview, but there are still two additional items left to claim our attention: 1) What about Canterbury? And 2) Where, if at all, does Denny-Blaine fit into the picture?

Canterbury, for those not in the know, is an area of Madison Park located next to Broadmoor‘s east side, in the area north of E. Newton Street. It was built as a developed community in the late 1950s and consists of about 100 mostly ranch-style homes popular during that era:

Like the rest of Madison Park, Canterbury has been undergoing a lot of redevelopment in recent years; but even before that, it was considered the tonier area of Madison Park north of Madison Street. The MLS does not consider Canterbury to be a separate neighborhood on a par with Broadmoor or Washington Park, so homes in the area are listed for sale simply as in the “Madison Park” neighborhood. Instead, “Canterbury” is listed as the plat area (or “project”), in the same manner as a house in Washington Park might have “John J. McGilvra Second Addition” as a plat designation on its MLS listing.

Nevertheless, Canterbury is clearly recognized by the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC) in its bylaws as a separate enclave on a par with Washington Park and Broadmoor, so why should we be any less generous in our evaluation? Canterbury is obviously a defined Madison Park neighborhood, another enclave.
And Denny-Blaine?:

Like Canterbury, the MPCC recognizes the neighborhood as being within the Council’s area of representation. But there’s a difference. Yes, it’s true that the Denny-Blaine has no community council; and as we saw in part two of this series, it has been disowned by the Madrona community. Additionally, the City’s Department of Economic Development includes Denny-Blaine in the coverage area for the Madison Park Business District. So Denny-Blaine is part of Madison Park, right?

Not really. The residents there apparently don’t think of themselves as being in either Madison Park or Madrona. And according to current MPCC President Ken Myrabo, the reason Denny-Blaine was added to the MPCC coverage area is not because it is considered part of Madison Park but simply to give its residents representation by a community council. From that perspective, Denny-Blaine might at most be considered part of “Greater Madison Park,” but someone really ought to poll the residents there to see if they agree. The final verdict: Denny-Blaine is not Madison Park.

So that about does it. We’ve now explored the entire geography of Madison Park, and we’ve put to rest the misapprehensions anyone could possibly have on the subject of where Madison Park begins and ends. We now know what enclaves exist within the Park and what the boundaries are of each of these subunits. We’ve completed our definitive review and have emerged from our investigation--5,718 words later--weary but informed. Who could possibly now question our logical and reasoned conclusions?

Well lots of people, probably. Definitions, as we have seen, have been surprisingly dynamic throughout the course of Madison Park history. And, in fact, there’s no real authority on these matters. The City--as we’ve seen--is befuddled, the community councils disagree, and the Park’s residents have their own conflicting opinions. In my months of probing the definition of Madison Park I’ve talked to a lot of people, many of whom had strong opinions. But one well-known realtor was dismissive of the idea that there is any reason for confusion about neighborhood definitions. As she told me (and here I am paraphrasing), ‘It doesn’t make any difference what the City says, the community council says, or even what the homeowner says about what neighborhood their house is in. It’s the real estate professionals who decide these things!”

Well, that settles that!

[Historic photo of the Walker-Ames house courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries.]


  1. Thank you for all the detailed work you have done on researching the description for our classic/wonderful neighborhood Madison Park/Washington Park. But you don't really think the argument is over do you?

    I think you've got most of it right but your real estate diva is wrong about how neighborhoods are defined and how they should be named. When agents are listing a home they care less about if the neighborhood description is correct and more about marketing their client's home which is to be sold for the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time. Of course they're going to say Madison Park as opposed to Madison Valley. Why? Because there are native Seattleites who still think there is a dingy tavern on the southeast corner of Madison Street and Empire Way, a seedy mini-market near where Rovers is located and a grungy laundromat with a broken window exactly where Cafe Flora is now. Madison Valley wasn't even in the dictionary when these establishments were in business. While Madison Park, before it started to get "snooty", has always been known as a safe, family oriented, friendly neighborhood, a more "real estate appropriate" name to market a home.

    No Ms. Real Estate Professional you are not the ultimate arbiter in deciding our neighborhood's name, as if some day you might decide Madison Park should be changed to McGilvra Park or Washington Shores because it's got a tonier connotation. I think the people who have lived here most of their lives know what their neighborhood boundaries are. Streets and their names are a big reason for defining a neighborhood but another reason is just plain common sense and more about the "lay of the land" as in land and landmarks.

    I'm sorry to say Reed Estate dwellers but you REALLY DO live in Madison Park. Maybe some of you haven't lived there long enough to know but ask any of your neighbors who have been there for more than twenty years; they know it or at least suspect it. But that's OK just say to your dinner guests: "We live in the Reed Estate, it's near Washington Park". That should get you over the shame of living in Madison Park.

    The eastern border to Madison Park runs south along the lake to the Seattle Tennis Club which has been there for ninety years, an obvious landmark. I don't know if the members consider their club being located in Madison Park or Washington Park but my guess would be the latter. That southern border is the dead end on 41st Ave. E. at E. Prospect Street, the Tennis Club's back gate.

    From The Tennis Club, at E. Prospect St., Madison Park's western border runs north along E. McGilvra Boulevard to E. Madison Street and then up Madison to Broadmoor's western border at 33rd Ave E.. On the other side of Madison Washington Park's border parallels Madison Park's but drops over the hill and ends at 32nd Ave. E. (the lay of the land because of that ridge above 32nd Ave. E. where most of the homeowners access their homes from the alley and not 32nd Ave. E.). This does not take in the triangle block (in the valley below the ridge) where the fire station, Arboretum Courts and Island Video are located. This area is part of Madison Valley along with the Shell Station block and all the other homes behind it butting up to the Arboretum and Broadmoor. This is a nice, quiet, little neighborhood with some terrific recent development but not Madison Park. Let's call it Arboretum View or maybe our real estate professional has a catchy name for it. It can be part of Madison Valley along with the Madison Lofts and, for Real Estate Agent cachet, includes the respected Helen Bush School an historic neighbor for over seventy years.

    The rest of your borders are right-on with Washington Park's southern border running east from 32nd Ave. E. along Lake Washington Boulevard E. to the five-way intersection at McGilvra Boulevard E. and 39th Ave. E..

    There, I'm glad that's all finally settled.

  2. Thanks for clearing that up, Will. I imagine everyone will be falling into line behind you now. By the way, under your analysis, my friend who claimed to live in Washington Park and NOT Madison Park actually lived in Madison Park all along and didn't know it. She's now in The Highlands, however, so it's a bit late for me to correct her.

  3. I got it! The neighborhood next to Wash. Park and the Shell Station on the northeast side of E. Madison St. could be "ShellArboIsle," like those "wonderful" places like "DelMarVa" (on the Delaware-Md.-Va. peninsula) or "SueDanBob Motel" in Ames, Iowa (Susan is married to Dan, and either had a child named Bob, a dog named Bob, or Bob and Dan are having a fling behind Sue's back). You think "ShellArboIsle" sounds tacky? NO! It's mid-century retro, which is so the way to go anymore.

  4. I agree the Realtors will label their houses as being in the neighborhood name that will help them best sell their houses. And the MLS prints whatever the Realtors give them. I live in Mercer Island but I think it's East Seattle maybe . . .


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