Restoring madrona trees and native plantings along Magnolia Bluff will be a major part of Seattle Parks and Recreation's plans for improving Magnolia Boulevard.
Restoring madrona trees and native plantings along Magnolia Bluff will be a major part of Seattle Parks and Recreation's plans for improving Magnolia Boulevard.

Seattle Parks and Recreation is prioritizing Queen Anne and Magnolia’s historic boulevards for improvements following a 2018 Olmsted Parks Study. SPR is in the process of hiring a consultant to implement these projects and at three other prioritized boulevards and parks, with work expected to occur in 2019 and 2021.

The summer study was prepared for SPR by HistoryLink.org and Berger Partnership, and was funded by the Seattle Park District.

SPR prioritized five out of 10 Olmsted parks and boulevards based on community feedback received in early spring, which included 1,300 online survey participants.

Queen Anne improvements

SPR proposes initially focusing on the 1100 block of Bigelow Avenue North within Queen Anne Boulevard, adding a viewpoint and providing tree restoration with $546,508 in current funding.

“The missing trees on the 1100 block should be replaced with scarlet oaks, the species identified by the tree replacement plan,” according to the study report.

Sidewalks will also be installed along Bigelow, wrapping around the corner and continuing on East Prospect at widths of six and five feet, respectively. A new viewpoint will be created at the high point of Bigelow, with curved benches, ornamental plantings and a semi-circular space.

“The Betty Bowen Viewpoint, not far to the west of the 1100 block, presents a good precedent for a small-scale, outlook landscape,” the report states.

Native plantings will also replace invasive vegetation slated for removal.

“The old Spanish chestnut trees that are suckering should be ground down and low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, low plantings should be installed,” the report states. “Irrigation should be considered to help establish new plantings and turf along the boulevard consistent with other restoration areas.”

Queen Anne Boulevard history

Queen Anne Boulevard has a complicated history, and was never fully realized the way the Olmsted Brothers had intended in their 1903 plan, having to be scaled back before it was published due to comprehensive plan budget concerns.

The 2018 Olmsted Parks Study details how residents wanted to create a “Queen Anne Driveway” along a different route, which had been contemplated since 1899. They were even willing to fund it through a local improvement district.

“As late as 1908, Park Commissioner J.M. Frink is quoted in The Seattle Times disavowing that a Queen Anne boulevard is part of the Olmsted Plan,” according to the report. “That is puzzling, unless he meant that the route laid out by the residents was not included in the plan. Despite his position and little comment from Olmsted, it appears that a Queen Anne Boulevard was incorporated into the Olmsted system.”

The John Olmsted returned to Seattle in 1908 to incorporate the newly annexed areas of Seattle into the park system. Queen Anne Boulevard was constructed between 1911 and 1916.

“The boulevard that was built incorporates several aspects of the original Olmsted Plan. It circumnavigates the hill, moving through the neighborhood in a circular route. It provides access to a number of viewpoints looking out over the city and surrounding bodies of water and mountains,” according to the report. “To a lesser degree than Olmsted would have preferred, the boulevard follows the topography of the land, particularly on the east and north sides of the hill, moving into the head of each ravine and out and around spurs in the hillside. Finally, the boulevard ends near the park surrounding the old water tower, which is the highest point on the hill.”

The boulevard was landmarked in 1979, but does not have a controls and incentives agreement that governs property management due to SPR and the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board being unable to reach terms.

A tree replacement plan was reached in a separate document and adopted in 1981, with support from the Queen Anne Community Council, landmarks board, SPR and the parks board.

“There has been considerable neighborhood resistance to replanting trees on the

1100 block of Bigelow Avenue N,” according to the report, “partially because there is some disagreement about what street trees existed and when in the recent history of the boulevard.”

Neighbors blocked attempts to replace trees there, which included Spanish chestnuts and eight “severely pruned” hawthorns. SPR decided in 1988 that “the importance of a high tree canopy for the visual integrity of the boulevard outweighed private view considerations,” according to the report, but funding was delayed until 1995, at which point more conflict between the parks department and residents arose. The landmarks board “advised a policy of ‘progressive gradualism,’” according to the study, and now SPR is working with residents to restore the integrity of the boulevard.

“Projects have been carried out along the length of Queen Anne Boulevard, but none have successfully addressed the issues on the 1100 block with street trees,” according to the report.

Magnolia Boulevard improvements

A large focus for SPR will be restoring madrona trees along Magnolia Boulevard, as many are now “withering and devoid of foliage,” according to the report.

“The priority for rehabilitating Magnolia Boulevard is to nudge the landscape towards the madrona-studded bluff that Olmsted admired,” the report states. “The strategy of planting seedlings in north-south swaths by the road should be monitored and recalibrated as necessary to promote the health of these trees.”

The total cost for the Magnolia Boulevard rehab project is $151,838, according to SPR.

“The madrona trees hold an undeniable significance to the boulevard and we recommend reviving their presence as part of rehabilitating this cultural landscape,” the report states. “Reasons include Olmsted’s clear favor for madronas on this site, and the fact that these trees have been lobbied for over decades, despite contention around expanding views for private residences east of the boulevard.”

Magnolia Boulevard history

The boulevard wraps around Magnolia Bluff, all the way to an entrance to Discovery Park (formerly Fort Lawton), with multiple scenic views of Elliott Bay, and was part of Olmsted’s 1903 park system plan.

“In a number of ways, the vision for Magnolia Boulevard is similar to the descriptions we have for Lake Washington Boulevard,” the report states. “Like that street’s lakeshore sections, Magnolia Boulevard should be considered a parkway. It skirts along the edge of the sea and provides access to expansive views of the water and distant forests and mountains. The inland buffer of native vegetation was not retained, however.”

Plans had been to acquire the Wolf Creek ravine at one point in the early 1900s, but owner James Clise donated nine acres at the top of the bluff as a compromise to condemning his ravine property.

A portion of the boulevard was completed in 1913, and the entire length was finished by 1916. The street was widened and paved in 1953.

The madrona trees were misidentified by United States Coast and Geodetic Survey geographer George Davidson as magnolias in 1856.

Neighborhood infighting over the trees erupted in 1930, when residents along the bluff wanted a number of them removed to improve their views of the Puget Sound. Vandals girdled 41 trees in 1931, resulting in their dying off.

Shoring up the hillside started in the 1930s to address erosion, and in the 1970s and ‘80s the madrona trees were plagued by viruses.

“The combination of tree removal, changes to vegetation management, vegetation losses to landslides, and viruses led to a degraded boulevard character,” the report states. “By the 1970s, it was noticeable that the madrona trees were declining, but some in the neighborhood still wanted more trees removed, while others continued to be dedicated to their protection and restoration.”

A vegetation management plan for Magnolia Boulevard was adopted in 1998, with a preference for madronas and related species, slope stabilization, maintenance of viewpoints that use madronas for framing and 12 vegetation projects, among other requirements. A new plan was drafted in 2016.