Sunday, February 28, 2010

A road end in the raw: what will we make of it?

At 9:15 on the morning of August 31, 1950, the ferry Leschi pulled out of the Madison Street ferry dock for its final run to Kirkland. For 35 years there had been scheduled ferry service between Madison Park and Kirkland, but the opening of the Lake Washington floating bridge in 1940 had made the ferry route redundant. Now, after ten years of competition with the bridge, the run had finally succumbed to economic reality. When the Leschi tied up at the Kirkland ferry dock after her final twenty-minute crossing, it was the end of an era. Neither she nor any other car ferry would ever call again at Madison Park.

In the months following the last sailing of the Leschi, the Madison Street ferry dock was demolished; and what had once been a trans-Lake connection point was transformed into simply a dead end. And not a very attractive one at that.

In spite of its prime waterfront location, its historic significance, and the fact that the land is owned by the City of Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation and the State’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Madison Street road end has been preserved for sixty years as nothing much more than a concrete-paved parking lot and holding area for apartment-building garbage containers.

But perhaps that’s an advantage. A lot of things could have been done with the road end over the years that weren’t. As longtime Madison Park resident Dan Clancy puts it, perhaps we’re lucky that previous generations never got around to “developing” this jewel in the rough. Just imagine, he asks, what they might have decided to do with it in the fifties or sixties. Instead, the opportunity that the road end represents has been preserved for our generation to exploit. “We now have a chance,” he says, “to do the right thing.”

This may, in fact, be the decade in which our underachieving road end is finally transformed into a Madison Park amenity. That’s certainly the goal, at least, of those involved in LOLA (“Love our Lake Access”). Named in honor of Madison Park Hardware owner Lola McKee, LOLA is a special project of the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC). As we reported last summer, the community, the City, and the DNR all seem to be on board to having the road end dedicated to some higher purpose than parking and trash collection. The question, however, is this: what do we want to make of this prime waterfront location?

According to Kathleen Stearns, who heads up the LOLA committee, the idea of “Lake access” is only part of the equation. The opportunity exists to create something other than just extending the existing park north into the road end, she says. In fact, it now seems clear that what’s wanted by most of the people involved in the project is something that’s distinct from both the city park and the beach.

The objective of LOLA is to create a community focal point, a place where many things might happen. Among the different (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) ideas floated at a recent focus-group meeting were these: 1) an outlook with seating for viewing the Lake and Mount Rainier, 2) a civic gathering area for small group meetings (at least in good weather), 3) a garden spot or natural sanctuary, 4) a promenade, and 5) an artist exhibition area with opportunities for permanent or temporary installations (or both), and perhaps even artists working or performing (musicians or dancers, for example).

Whatever the details of the final plan, it’s evident that both green space and art will be essential elements. Last month the MPCC hired a local landscape architectural firm, Murase Associates, to assist in the development of a design concept for the project. The firm has a lot of experience in creating interesting urban parks. Among their most successful efforts in designing an “urban oasis” is Counterbalance Park on Queen Anne (shown below):

Another Murase project that has drawn a lot of positive notice is Vera Katz Park in Portland, where a relatively small sidewalk area was transformed with natural elements (stone, water, and grass) into an “inviting urban outdoor space” which has since become the site of performance art:
The stair climb at the Benaroya Hall was also designed by Murase Associates:
Murase’s Liz Wreford Taylor cautions that the Madison Park project may look significantly different from any of these examples. The design will be developed from the input of the community and will also depend on what is possible on the site.

The process of obtaining community input has begun in earnest, with a series of six focus groups so far this year, one on each of these topics: history, gardens, and art; and one for each of these special interests: the business community, the immediate neighbors (of the park site) and service providers (such as police, fire, utilities, transportation, and parks). According to Stearns, most of the focus groups were well attended. “We are continuing to contact people who have expressed interest in giving us input and advice regarding the park development,” she says. “This is exciting for us because it is feeling more and more like a collaborative effort with many people in the Madison Park community.”

In addition to the focus groups, community meetings are being planned for March 18, April 15 and May 26 so that a wider range of the public opinion can be solicited. Everyone involved agrees it will be a long process from conceptual design to realization. But as was noted in one of the focus group meetings, it’s taken us 60 years to get to this point, so the community can certainly afford to spend some time to do this right.
[Top photo: the Madison Street ferry dock 1939, courtesy of MOHI. Bottom photo: the Medicinal Garden (Seattle), designed by Murase Associates. All other pictures, except for current picture of the dead end, are courtesy of Murase Associates.]


  1. The Murase design at Benaroya Hall is not the stairclimb but the entire Washington State Garden of Remembrance, of which the stairs are one part, as are several water features. The Garden of Remembrance honors Washington's sons and daughters who died in service to the nation since 1941. Each Memorial Day for the past several years, the names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been added to the memorial walls. It's a beautiful, thoughtful place in the middle of our city.

  2. Well said Mike. The photo of the old ferry dock is fascinating. It appears that the beach and the bathhouse fill the same footprint as today but it looks like there may have been a ferry terminal just north of Madison Street and a ramp that runs from 43rd Ave. E. up to the passenger deck of the ferry. Also the Triangle Building on Howe Street hasn't been built yet. I wonder whose home that is in that block? Maybe there is an old Madison Parker around who can tell us. Great photo Bryan. We know it was too early for it to have been taken from Parkshore so it must have been an airplane. Keep that Park history coming!


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