Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part two)

Over the course of several decades the City of Seattle has, apparently through inattention and inertia, helped to perpetuate the myth that Washington Park (or at least the bulk of it) isn’t located in Madison Park, but rather exists as an enclave of a neighborhood called “Harrison Denny-Blaine”:

This myth has been accepted by map makers, news sources, national and local websites, and other unsuspecting seekers of Seattle-neighborhood information. The result of the City government’s imprecision is that Madison Park neighborhood is often shown in a truncated form when our community is discussed in the media. Here, for example, is the map of Madison Park used by the Seattle PI:

The City’s definition of Madison Park, which excludes Washington Park, is also used by news aggregating sites such as outside.in and EveryBlock, by real estate listing sites such as Redfin, Tulia and Zillow, and by internet shopping sites such as CitySearch . In a recent Google search I found no fewer than 20 websites that aggregate Seattle neighborhood information in such as way as to exclude Washington Park from Madison Park. And why? Because the City’s “unofficial” neighborhood map does so.

So how did the City come to believe that Madison Park stops at E. Lee Street and that the non-existent neighborhood of “Harrison Denny-Blaine” is the actual home of the Seattle Tennis Club and of those upscale Washington Park houses pictured above? I decided to find out.

In researching this topic over the past couple of months I discovered that the source of this geographical confusion is something called the Seattle City Clerk's Office Neighborhood Map Atlas. There, shown as one of the “Capitol Hill Neighborhoods” is Madison Park, minus most of Washington Park. And there, shown as one of the “Central District Neighborhoods” is Harrison Denny-Blaine, including most of Washington Park. To be fair, the map does display a disclaimer at the bottom stating that the map “is designed for subject indexing of legislation, photographs, and other documents in the City Clerk's Office and Seattle Municipal Archives. It provides a way to increase consistency in the way geographic names are used and to allow precise retrieval of documents concerning neighborhood districts. It is not designed or intended as an ‘official’ City of Seattle neighborhood map”

So here we have an “unofficial” Seattle neighborhood map that is, none the less, used as the guide for recording and retrieving City information about the neighborhoods, is publicly available on the City’s website as the Seattle neighborhood map, and is purported to be the means by which “consistency” is achieved in defining the geography of the City. Consistency, in this case, means that Madison Park is missing one of its vital components and is constrained to about two thirds of its actual size.

And the map, by the way, is not just used for filing purposes. I have discovered that various City departments, including Seattle Public Utilities, utilize the City Clerk’s map as the official source of neighborhood boundaries. Here, for example is the area map for the Adopt-A-Street program:

The question of why the map is so off base stumped the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods when I raised the issue this summer. The first person I talked to said she had never heard of “Harrison Denny-Blaine” as a neighborhood. But when I told her the location, she was surprised to find it on the neighborhood map displayed in her office. Disclaiming any other knowledge of the subject, she passed me along to a colleague, Ted Divina, District Coordinator for the Central Area, who was also at a loss to explain how Madison Park got so whacked on the City’s map.

He theorized that the concept of ”Harrison Denny-Blaine” may be an historical anomaly of some kind, since there apparently was once a Harrison Community Council in the area, he thought. He suggested that perhaps the Greater Madison Valley Community Council (GMVCC) is the successor to the Harrison council. But even so, what would explain the inclusion of Washington Park in the “Harrison” neighborhood? And whatever the “Harrison” council may have once claimed, the Madison Valley council certainly doesn’t pretend that its coverage area extends into Denny-Blaine or into Washington Park (or, at least not into the part of Washington Park that overlooks Lake Washington). Here’s the official GMVCC map (we’ll be coming back to it later):

So at this point in the investigation it appeared we were at a dead end, the seemingly inexplicable story of the phantom Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood having been permanently lost in the mists of time. After further futile research I was just about to give up on this mystery, but last week I decided to make one last call to Ted Devina in the Department of Neighborhoods to see if he had uncovered anything. He said he hadn’t, but he remembered that there still was someone working in the department who had been there back in the 1970’s and who might know the answer. He directed me to Steve Sheppard, a senior planner in the group; and Sheppard, it turns out, does remember why there’s a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood on the map. It’s a story he describes as “not very convoluted.” But, really, it is.

According to Sheppard, the story actually begins back in the 1960’s, when a federal grant funded a major effort by Seattle city government to rank all of the neighborhoods on the basis of their need for physical improvements. The idea was to use the rankings as a way to determine eligibility for infrastructure funding through bond issues such as Forward Thrust. The starting point for this process, he says, was to ask “what are our Seattle neighborhoods?”

But this presented some difficulties. There wasn’t universal agreement on where neighborhoods began and ended, and the neighborhoods that did exist weren’t necessarily contiguous to each other (in other words, some parts of the city didn’t really fit into a particular neighborhood, leaving gaps on the map of neighborhoods). For every block of the City to be fairly represented in the funding process, the neighborhoods had to abut each other, meaning that the historical boundaries of some neighborhoods needed to be expanded. Additionally, each neighborhood had to have a fair chance to get funding; so the neighborhoods had to be of roughly uniform size. There was also a desire, Sheppard believes, for the neighborhoods to have a good demographic mix (in other words, poorer areas combined with richer ones).

In the case of our area, Madison Park (including Broadmoor) was already large enough and diverse enough, according to Sheppard, to constitute a neighborhood for purposes of the official map. To the south and west of Madison Park, however, there was only the Harrison neighborhood, covering part of what today is Madison Valley. Combining Harrison with Denny-Blaine (which had no community council) did not, apparently, create a big enough neighborhood to compete equally with the others. So apparently most of Washington Park was added to “Harrison Denny-Blaine” simply to get the critical mass necessary for the neighborhood to compete effectively for bond funds. “It was a strange bedfellows situation,” Sheppard says, “but it was necessary for the purpose of getting funding.“

And it worked. As Sheppard remembers it, the City recognized 113 Seattle neighborhoods on its official map, but only the twenty top neighborhoods were to receive Forward Thrust money for their projects. After each of the neighborhood infrastructure improvement proposals had been received, the City chose Harrison Denny-Blaine as the 20th and final neighborhood to be awarded funding. All of the money was used for projects in Madison Valley.

According to Sheppard the intention was to have the people living in the respective neighborhoods make the decisions on how to define their communities. As he recalls, both the Harrison and Madison Park community councils were involved in the decision making on drawing the lines for the City’s neighborhood map. However, the purpose of that map was admittedly a rather limited one related to Forward Thrust funding. Sheppard agrees that “it’s really within the purview of the people living an area to decide the boundaries of their community.” Meaning, presumably, that the City should not be perpetuating a map that is inconsistent with neighborhood definitions adopted by the respective community councils.

In this case, the Harrison Community Council no longer exists; and its successor, the Greater Madison Valley Community Council, as we have seen, does not claim either Denny-Blaine or most of Washington Park as within its “jurisdiction.” The Madison Park Community Council, meanwhile, has apparently always included Washington Park within its coverage area. In fact, the official Madison Park map taken from the MPCC’s by-laws also includes Denny-Blaine. This map has the additional virtue of being consistent with what the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development says are the boundaries for the “Madison Park Business District”:

Just to cover all the bases, I checked with Cynthia Stross, President of the Madrona Community Council, to see what Madrona’s view on the matter might be. Her definitive response: “Denny-Blaine is not part of Madrona.”

So there you have it. All of the communities involved agree that there is no Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood, and no one claims to represent either Denny-Blaine or Washington Park other than the Madison Park Community Council. Yet the City persists in “unofficially” believing there is a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood and that Madison Park exists almost entirely north of E. Madison Street. All because of some bond issue of 40 years ago. Somewhere in the denizens of City Hall someone is probably right now filing a memo about Washington Park in a file labeled “Harrison Denny-Blaine.”

But at least we know the truth.

We’re almost done exploring the definition of Madison Park, but not quite. To this point we have determined that Madison Park definitely includes the enclaves of Broadmoor and Washington Park. And we’ve also defined the boundaries of the Park, hopefully to the satisfaction of most readers. What remains to be investigated is where Washington Park begins and ends. In our third (and final) installment in this series we will therefore ask the question “Do the residents of Washington Park Tower actually live in Washington Park?”
We may even provide an answer.

[The photo shows the Washington Park shoreline looking north from the vantage point of Lakeview Park at the intersection of E. Lake Washington Boulevard and Hillside Drive E., on the border between Washington Park and Denny-Blaine.]


  1. Brilliant. The community and the city owe you a debt for bringing together all of this information in one story. It will be part of a guidebook at some point.

  2. Wow this is like best-selling mystery novel! I can't wait to find out what happens. Do I live in Madison Park or Washington Park? The tension is unbearable! Good job.

  3. This is an amazing story! It may inspire me to retry to have my neighborhood, Haller Lake, correctly identified on the City's incorrect maps, and subsequently on all the many others that are based on incorrect information. This is a task I had given up on after eight years, after concluding that I had a lot of things to do besides continue to push this particular rock up the hill. I'm encouraged to find that dependable Steve Sheppard was helpful to you, he'll be one of my resources.
    Our problem here apparently originated in the early '90s when someone in the Department of Neighborhoods discovered that our neighborhood, which since the '20s had extended from SR-90 (Aurora Avenue N) on the west eastward to 15th Ave NE, spanned the City's (arbitrarily defined) Northwest and the North Districts. This didn't strike them as possible, so they arbitrarily, and without consulting us, decided that they could resolve this "problem" by cutting off the eastern third of our area by assigning I-5, roughly 5th Avenue NE to serve as our eastern boundary. As I was then, as now, working on land use issues for the Haller Lake Community Club, I soon discovered the error and brought it to the attention of both Beth Pflug, our Northwest District Council Coordinator, and to the North District Council. I was assured at the time that this clerical error would be soon corrected and no more incorrect maps would be printed or distributed.
    Of course this was not to be. After years of nagging Beth to get her bosses to make good on the promises hey had made to us it reached the point a few years ago when the usually indefatigable Beth would no longer return my phone calls and I just gave up.
    Until now.
    I've attempted to edit Wikipedia (without the requisite HTML skills) but was able to get a correct map into our Neighborhood Plan, which is a first step.

    Thanks for your work, I'll likely be calling on you for advice.
    Rick Barrett
    Land Use Chair
    Haller Lake Community Club


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