Gas Works Park has drawn Seattleites and curious tourists to its unconventional site since it became an official city park in 1975. Photo by Sarah Radmer
Gas Works Park has drawn Seattleites and curious tourists to its unconventional site since it became an official city park in 1975. Photo by Sarah Radmer
For newcomers to Seattle, it’s unlike any place they’ve ever seen. For Seattleites, it’s another quirky dot on the map that is our city. But it’s known worldwide for its ingenuity and its uniqueness.

Gas Works Park is perhaps Seattle’s most iconic and once-controversial city park. Its history is unique, and so is its place in the heart of many Seattleites who jog through or celebrate independence on its grassy expanse.

It’s a piece of land surrounded by the waters of Lake Union, with unbeatable views atop its grassy knoll. It’s towers: the pièce de résistance for some; piles of rusty junk to others. 

Setting the precedent

Initially, it was the site of a Native fishing village. Then it was where Seattle burned its garbage. Eventually, it became a plant that manufactured gas. In 1956, the plant shut down, and by 1963, the city was working to purchase the site.

Seattle landscape architect Richard Haag arrived in Seattle in 1958 to establish the University of Washington’s (UW) Department of Landscape Architecture. He was one of the finalists for another landscape project: the redevelopment of Fort Lawton at Discovery Park. He lost that project but, as a consolation prize, was awarded another coveted area: Gas Works.

Around that time, some of his architecture students took him in a rowboat and slid through the waters of Lake Union until they came across the “ghostly buildings” of the abandoned Gas Works plant. The plant had been abandoned in ‘56 and sat cold and empty.

Wallingford residents considered Gas Works a blight on the neighborhood, with the winds carrying smoke, soot and fumes to remind them of their dark, industrial neighbor, chugging away at all hours of the day and night. But, Haag said, Gas Works did provide some benefit, as it employed blue-collar workers from the neighborhood to keep it running.

Haag adheres to the design principle “genius loci.” To find Gas Works’ spirit, he spent a lot of time alone on the site, sometimes even sleeping there in a sleeping bag. He decided the towers were the manifestation of that spirit.

“I soon decided it’s the big tower — I’m going to save that big tower,” he said. “Then you start thinking about, wait a minute, there’s the big tower, there’s another smaller tower — that’s the husband and a wife. Then there are four other towers — who would split up a family?”

When Haag announced he wanted to keep some of the buildings, he was met with immediate backlash from politicians and residents alike. Despite the resistance, Haag had some luck. He was hired in ’69, and the city wouldn’t even own the site until ‘73, giving him an unheard of amount of time to work on his design and public opinion.

“That gave me time to, as I say, give the community new eyes for old — open up their imagination,” he said.

“At one point, it became a real, controversial, political football, and the parks department just threw up their hands [as if to say], ‘It’s too political for us,’” Haag said.

The controversy followed Haag to the City Council, where he presented concepts. “I did not have a plan: As soon as you have a plan, people can attack it,” he said.

So Haag played to “the theater of the mind,” showing photos from Europe, juxtaposed with photos of Gas Works’ remaining skeletons. The key was to prove that there was something for everyone, he said. His abstract approach worked, with the council voting unanimously in his favor.

Gas Works changed the way we do parks, said UW assistant landscape architecture professor Thaisa Way. She is writing a book on Haag’s work, titled “The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag, from Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design.” UW Press will publish it next March.

Way wrote the book because Haag is known for creating landscape architecture that is “responsible to the public and beautiful and artistic and poetic,” she said.

Haag is responsible for an entire area of landscape architecture on post-industrial toxic sites, Way said. When Haag designed Gas Works, the idea of keeping the industrial buildings at a park was totally unheard of: This was a new kind of historic preservation, that acknowledged those sides of our collective history that might not be as pretty, but were just as valuable, she said.

Normally, any square inch of empty land is overtaken by invasive species like blackberries, but Haag noticed the land at Gas Works was barren. He soon discovered contaminants from the industrial days. Instead of carting the contaminated soil off premises, which was the standard at the time, Haag and the others decided to deal with it on site, using natural microbes and sewage.

“We used to say, ‘Everyone in Seattle contributed to the success of the park,’” he joked.

Gas Works is considered a precedent-setting project, and Haag’s design concept has been pushed even further overseas. Last year, Way went to South Africa to talk about Haag’s design at Gas Works and bio-remediation work. Haag is known worldwide for Gas Works and is the only architect to win two President’s Award for Design Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Gas Works opened to the public in 1975. It’s one of the most heavily used parks in the entire Seattle Parks and Recreation system, according to Parks senior planner David Graves.

To protect the park and its original vision, the Friends of Gas Works Park (FoGWP) formed nearly 20 years ago. One of its main goals was to get the park, towers and original design landmarked. Just last year, it was designated as a national landmark.

Haag serves as the “institutional memory” and technical consultant to FoGWP, a nonprofit that was recently recognized as a having legal standing for the park. This came after long litigation between the group and the city, when the city tried to host a for-pay concert at the site.

“We got really disturbed and said, ‘This is privatization of a public resource,’” Haag said. “We said, ‘This is not a commodity; this is a treasure.’” 

More access planned

Despite being decades old, work continues at Gas Works. Parks recently closed Kite Hill for remediation work. Low levels of toxic contaminant were discovered on the surface. The rest of the park has had this kind of soil-covering work already, Graves said.

Over the winter, the city will scrape the top 3 to 6 inches of soil off the hill and then put 18 inches of soil back. This will help stop contaminants from running off the hill and into the lake, where it’s more difficult to fix, Graves said. The project is expected to be completed by Memorial Day 2015.

Haag thought the Kite Hill renovation would be a good opportunity to make ADA-compliant pathways up the hill, so people of all abilities could see the sundial at the top. Haag’s plan wasn’t adapted by Parks, which will reinstall the paths as they were.

ADA rules don’t necessarily apply to outdoor areas like Kite Hill, Graves said, especially when people can access similar city views from elsewhere in the park. Graves understands Haag wants people to see the sundial, so the city is looking at adding another sundial down on the cement by the water.

In 2008, a voter-approved parks levy allocated $1.4 million to remodel the play area at Gas Works. The play barn often becomes home for homeless encampments, so the plan is to make the area more open and “less desirable for those more-negative uses,” Graves said.

Parks plans to renovate the play area from September 2015 to the start of 2016, incorporating much more traditional playground equipment than the colorful, old machinery that’s there now.

FoGWP hopes to be involved with the renovation of the play barn. The group would like to see things like spider rope climbs, a camera obscura installed in one of the towers and a history of Gas Works painted on another.

Homeless people have been known to camp at Gas Works. Haag designed the park, in a way, to accommodate the homeless population, with fire pits and public restrooms, Way said.

There is a perception that parts of the park aren’t safe at night, Graves said. Just this July, Seattle Police fatally shot a man there who threatened them with a broken bottle.

It’s a challenge to make the park feel open and inviting while preventing “hiding places and sleeping places,” Graves said, but “there isn’t a magic wand” for solutions.

Parks also plans to cleanup the toxic sediment in the water near the park in 2017. Puget Sound Energy will lead the study and cleanup. Graves expects they’ll decide to cap the sediments, by using 6 to 8 inches of sand and activated charcoal to lock the contaminants in. Swimming and launching boats off Gas Works Park is currently forbidden, but once this work is done, people will be able access the water from the park.

“All of that stuff — given Lake Union is right there — will really complete the park,” Graves said.

Haag and FoGWP’s main remaining complaint is the fence that still encloses the main towers. Taking down the fence around the towers hasn’t been an option for Parks. The soil around the towers is contaminated, as are the towers themselves, Graves said. The towers would also need a lot of work, including earthquake preparation and walkway removal.

People do still manage to climb the towers, as the graffiti proves, but two years ago, two people climbed the fence and the towers and then fell, claiming one life — this is the exact scenario that pushes Parks to keep it closed.

“It would take a lot of time and money,” Graves said. “Given that resource dollars for parks are scarce, [that’s not] where we want to put our dollars.”

Parks’ long-term plan is to sustain the park and continue to make it better, Graves said.

“It’s a great park,” he said. “The public loves it, and we respect it for that and [Haag’s] original design.”

Haag intentionally left Gas Works wide open for lots of spontaneous play. And he has seen plenty of that at his time in the park — from parkour to drumming to being the final destination of an Oregon Trail re-enactment and the scene of medieval games pageantry.

“It just tears me up,” Haag said of the park’s meaning to him. “It’s my opus magnum.” But there’s “a lot of dreams yet to be fulfilled.”

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