A park transformed

The fences are down. It's finally here.

The chain-link fences that had been placed along the periphery of Cal Anderson Park more than two years ago were removed earlier this week, and the meaning is clear: after years of planning, years of physical work, years of volunteer efforts, the park is now open for business.

It's not remotely the same place. As a result of the lidding of the Lincoln Reservoir, the park's area, not including the playfield, was nearly doubled. A quick walk through the park reveals that in place of the reservoir are wide expanses of green grass, curved walkways, a long and elegant water feature. A large play structure invites youthful participation (and a wading pool was open in the summer). There are several outdoor chessboards. More than 60 kinds of trees can be found throughout the park.

The park's dramatic transformation took place over many years. A master plan was developed in 1999, and several capital projects were involved to raise the necessary money. The project was greatly aided by voter passage of the Pro Parks levy in 2000, which contributed roughly $5 million of the $7.87 million it cost to implement the park design.

The first new element was building the park's Shelterhouse. That project consisted of creating a community building complete with a small kitchen, a plaza area and public restrooms. Opened in spring 2003, the Shelterhouse is used for community meetings and events.

But the most dramatic change has to do with the park's scale. Covering the reservoir provided a unique opportunity to create much needed open space for Capitol Hill. In all, four additional acres of park was added to the most densely populated neighborhood in the city.

The park's opening brings particular joy to Kay Rood. Rood, whose house is a across the street from Cal Anderson Park. Rood, and Groundswell off Broadway, the park advocacy group she chairs, has been instrumental making sure the project has moved forward. As a grassroots community activist, Rood's goal of bringing a spectacular park to Capitol Hill covers three mayoral administrations. Groundswell formed in 1993 and has had up to 500 people on its mailing list, though Rood, Jerry Arbes and Anne Knight have formed the core group.

"The park had become neglected and it certainly wasn't used. Groundswell began because we needed to make the park a better place," she said. "I think I ended up representing a lot of people who wanted and needed this park,.

Rood figures that Groundswell raised more than $1 million for the park, including in-kind donations.

The grand opening comes just as the Bobby Morris Playfield work is complete. Over the summer, the sod playfield was replaced with artificial turf. Beyond cheaper and easier maintenance, the fields will now accommodate more than three times the previous number of hours of use.

In total, the park, including the Bobby Morris Playfield, covers just over 11 acres.

As the park reopens there is legitimate community concern about its future safety. More than two years ago, park neighbors and residents reached a boiling point when it came to the drug and transient problems that had been plaguing the park for years. Many regard the reopening as a clean slate. Others are concerned that after the novelty of the new, larger park wears off it will revert to a state where few residents feel comfortable using it.

Rood shares such concerns. But she's optimistic legitimate social use will trump negative uses. Members of Groundswell and the Friends of Cal Anderson Park promise great vigilance in keeping track of problems that may take place in the new park.

But the kind of park that was created, plus the city's apparent commitment to protect a large investment should work in its favor.

"The park's design makes it safer. There are many open spaces, many entrances and many different ways people can use the park. I think the city is committed here. They have told us they will never let it revert to its former state of disarray. The city also said to hold it accountable - and we will," she said.

Karen Galt, the Parks Department's project manager who has overseen the project since May, said that a wide variety of park uses are expected. This in turn should lead to greater community participation and will help keep the park safer. The department will work on increasing the programming for the new park, efforts that should become more apparent next spring when the better weather returns.

"The design should also help minimize future problems," she said. "There's an open feel, with great visibility. The trees are wonderful, but they don't create great hiding places. We think the number of people using this space will create a lot of positive activity."

Olmsted legacy

The design is also intended to make connections with the park's origins as one of the parks designed by the famous Olmsted Brothers firm 100 years ago. The firm had designed New York's Central Park.

Then called Lincoln Park, Cal Anderson Park was the first park John Olmsted visited upon coming to Seattle in 1903. The park included the reservoir, built after the Great Seattle Fire in 1889 it was felt like the park was at the edge of the city. A 1945 Seattle Times article refers to it as "Seattle's Central Park."

Rood said that the new park began a slow decline about 40 years ago. It had become neglected by the city and was used less often by the neighborhood as safety problems increased. In recent years many people specifically avoided the park altogether.

Her reaction, and the motivation behind her 12 years of community activism on behalf of the park, was that the park needed to be saved. The idea predated the prospect of adding so much new park space. But Groundswell was in a good position to react when such a large physical change became a possibility.

"This was such a great idea," she said. "We just wanted the park to be a better place. Fixing the park felt like something that had to be done, and this was before the idea of covering the reservoir came up. If this hadn't happened it would have been a tragedy."

Rood likes that the park has an open feel, suitable for leisurely strolling and taking a break.

"This park is amazing," said Rood. "It really is a special place."

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A community celebration to recognize the grand-reopening of Cal Anderson Park takes place on Saturday, Sept. 24, from noon a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.

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