Down on the waterfront
Seattle’s last remaining waterfront property still had a chance for renewal. The 6-acre former oil transfer site had remained abandoned for 10 years and was becoming the target for developments that would add to the city’s already abundant skyline. However, the site’s owner, Union Oil of California, a subsidiary of San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron Corp., still hoped to create much-needed greenspace. Meanwhile, officials at the Seattle Art Museum were eager to create a place for public art. Working with the city, local benefactors and Washington-based The Trust for Public Land, the museum created a park that honors art and the urban environment, while preserving Seattle’s natural resources. The result: Olympic Sculpture Park.
Since its early days, when the city’s natural hills were flattened to accommodate development, Seattle — nicknamed the Emerald City for its surrounding green landscape — has struggled to balance its thriving urban character with its natural setting on Puget Sound. Olympic Sculpture Park was designed to add more open space to the steadily growing city. “With the growth of the city and people moving downtown, and condos going up at a rapid pace, [there] was definitely a need for the city to have some greenspace,” says Cara Egan, Seattle Art Museum’s manager of communications.
In 1999, the museum raised $17 million to purchase the waterfront site, which was ideal for a park, offering stunning views in close proximity to the city’s high-rise office buildings, restaurants and entertainment venues. However, the challenge remained to create a site that spanned a major roadway and railroad tracks. In 2000, the museum hired New York-based landscape architects Weiss/Manfredi, who designed an innovative Z-shaped park to connect three parcels of land with a land bridge over the roadway and railroad tracks while creating a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, Mount Rainier and the city. “Not only does [the design] make the park seem larger than it really is, it just captures the views perfectly,” Egan says. “They’ve created all these different settings for art and really integrate the city and the park. It’s hard to tell where the city begins and where the park ends.”
Sloping bridges were built over the road and tracks, nearly hiding them from view. Visitors, however, can watch the passing vehicles below at the park’s edges.
A 2,500-foot path toward the waterfront winds past 21 sculptures by renowned artists. Among the sculptures — which include a red abstract eagle and an eye-shaped bench — are different “precincts” of native grasses and flowers. The museum also restored the shoreline, returning vegetation and aquatic life, such as salmon, to the area. A bicycle path, a pavilion and an amphitheater complete the site. In the coming months, the museum will host a variety of events including walking tours, speakers and film viewings.
While funding for the $85 million park mostly came from private donations, the city contributed to the park’s waterfront restoration and the land bridges. A $20 million endowment has been set aside for park maintenance, allowing visitors to enter the site free of charge.
On Jan. 20, 2007, Olympic Sculpture Park opened, welcoming 40,000 visitors during the weekend and 100,000 in its first two weeks, a testament to the desire for a natural setting in the growing metropolis. “[Olympic Sculpture Park] combines the environment and arts, and it really fits with the city’s identity of being an environmental city, being very recreation-based, and artistic and creative,” Egan says. “It’s really a park that embodies what Seattle’s all about.”