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Submerged Parcels Park (To-Be)

Modern Vista looking from floating sidewalk to Aurora Bridge.

Project Goal

Adding the Submerged Parcels Park (SPP) – a surplused historical oddity and the Nelson Place Waterway (#8) at the southeast corner of Lake Union – to the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop.

Submerged Parcels Park exists already – except in name and secure ownership. The site, extending into Lake Union adjacent to the old Steam Plant, includes three parcels and measures approximately 4.5 acres, of which more than 3 acres are immediately accessible and usable park space. No property appraisals are currently available. The area is almost all water and requires minimal post-purchase improvement or on-going maintenance.

Sunken Parcels?

The “Lake Union Shore Lands” were created in 1907 as a funding mechanism for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (S.B. #101). Water extending from shore approximately one block (roughly 400 feet) was platted as buildable land, then sold. These parcels didn’t sink, they started sunk. And they were considered valuable.

Speculation was in the air about a canal that would link Lake Union to the oceans – a logical application for surplus equipment and expertise from the Panama Canal (constructed 1904-14).

The submerged land was sold and the A-Y-P Exhibition was successful in every regard. Subsequently, some submerged parcels were filled with dirt and debris, helping shrink the lake from its original 900 acres to 600.

The Seattle Water Department became the inaugural owner of one of these submerged parcels (Lake Union Shore Lands, Block 67, Lot #3) to protect the outfall from the Volunteer Park Reservoir. In 1910, the Water Department transferred Lot 3 along with its upland parcel to the newly created Lighting Department. Outflow into the lake was secure and the Lighting Department had plans to use the excess drinking water’s “400 foot head” (hydro-electric dam jargon). Excess drinking water from the Volunteer Park reservoir flowed downhill through a buried 40-inch pipe into an electricity-generating dynamo in the basement of the Hydro House from 1912 to 1931. The 1st floor of the Hydro House was the lunchroom for Steam Plant workers next door. The 1st floor of the Hydro House continues to serve meals to ZymoGenetics workers today. And surplus Volunteer Park reservoir drinking water still passes through the basement of the Hydro House and out into the submerged lots nearly 100 times a year.

Public Ownership

1960s aerial photo.

The remainder of what we call the Submerged Parcels (Block 67, Lots 1 and 2) was purchased by City Light in 1928. (Parcel #2 was purchased in 1925.) These acquisitions, in combination with Waterway #8, enabled fuel barge moorage and access to the Lake Union Steam Plant (built 1914-21). The fuel barge was replaced by an upland oil tank in 1947, and City Light leased Submerged Parcel #2 to Lake Union Dry Dock. This lease arrangement continues today.

On March 14, 1984, Seattle City Light discovered cancer-causing contaminants in the oil tank. The Steam Plant boilers never fired again. After eight years of public hearings, environmental clean-ups and property swaps, ZymoGenetics took ownership of the Steam Plant and Hydro House. Submerged Parcels #1 & #2 were surplused, not sold.

So Submerged Parcel #1 (67,000 sq ft) is owned by Seattle City Light and lies fallow. Waterway #8 (100,000 sq ft) is owned by Washington State and is managed by the Department of Natural Resources. As mentioned earlier, Submerged Parcel #2 (42,000 sq ft) is owned by City Light and leased by Lake Union Dry Dock.

Floating Sidewalk

In the 1990s, ZymoGenetics built and still maintains a public access floating sidewalk and small boat dock within the Fairview Avenue right-of-way. Above, a bikeway thrives on the waterside of the Fairview Trestle. For many years now, Seattle pedestrians, runners, bicyclists, canoeists, kayakers and motorists have enjoyed a postcard-quality vista across Lake Union to the Aurora Bridge through Submerged Parcels Park.

Submerged Parcels Park has been nominated for acquisition to the 1989 Opportunity Fund, the 1992 Shoreline Park Improvement Fund, the 1996 Open Space bond issue, the 2000 and 2002 Pro-Parks levies, and the 2006 Capital Improvements Plan. It was studied as a University of Washington Landscape Architecture design project in 1997. It is included in the Eastlake Neighborhood Plan of 1998 and has been consistently rated high as an Eastlake neighborhood open space priority. The de-facto park is already semi-protected by City Council Resolution #28202 (7/9/1990):

PARA #6: “That the Council shall not consider disposition of the Lake Union Steam Plant submerged parcels without a process which provides significant opportunity for public participation.”

PARA #7: “That the mayor is directed to consider how both Submerged Parcels of the Lake Union Steam Plant property be maintained as open space.”

So we wait. We wait until someone well-versed in the intricacies of surplused government property threatens the open space of Parcels #1 and #2. With a flourish of saviors, we’ll hopefully then leap to defend and preserve this de-facto park. Perhaps we could act with quiet prudence now, but who wants to prioritize the public purchase of public land that isn’t actively threatened? So we wait for a desperate rescue likely needed later.

The Trouble with Waterways

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources is mandated to administer commercial utilization of the public’s natural resources, not just maintain those resources for recreational purposes. Waterways, by state regulation (RCW 91.08.630), are primarily for vessels – moored, mothballed, loading, anything transportation-related (streetcar storage?). Already the bows and barges of vessels renting moorage from Lake Union Dry Dock significantly encroach into Waterway #8.

The sale of Parcel #2 to Lake Union Dry Dock prior to securing Waterway #8 for exclusive Parks use would most certainly lead to a re-configuring of docks, causing significant encroachment of long-term moorage into the publicly-owned waterway. Lake Union Dry Dock has leased Parcel #2 for nearly six decades. Parcel #2 is important for the profitability of Lake Union Dry Dock. The company provides career-quality jobs for hundreds of workers and has quietly been an active contributor to the lake’s community.  Evidence the Virginia V steaming across our lake. So, evicting LUDD from Parcel #2 for an aquatic park seems far worse than LUDD encroaching into Waterway #8. A somewhere-in-between balance needs to be struck.

No swimming? No lifeguards? Sediment pollution down deep? The final trouble with Waterway #8 is sediment pollution some 25 feet below the surface. This location has some of the highest toxic readings in Lake Union. In the old days, mine slag was barged in as a ship hull sandblasting abrasive. Some of this metals-heavy paint and slag now pollutes the sediments below. Before the properties change ownership, an expensive underwater environmental clean up must occur. The Department of Ecology does allow a loophole: an approved “consent decree”. A couple of them have been used for other Lake Union Submerged Parcel transactions. But the Consent Decree is a technical and time-consuming process.

Walk On By

The Seattle Parks Department should purchase Parcels #1 and #2 from Seattle City Light, continue the LUDD lease for Parcel #2 and negotiate either a property transfer of Waterway #8 from the Department of Natural Resources or secure a long-term lease. But others may know of more appropriate public open space stewards. “Submerged Parcels Park?” That is just a placeholder name. We can name this park – once it officially becomes a park – whatever we wish. So walk on by and conjure one up: Cormorant Cove? Floating Vista? R.H. Thompson Outfall Park? (He designed Seattle’s water system.)

How can you best defend the Submerged Parcels as open space? Walk on by. Or paddle on in.  Stop your bike along the Fairview Trestle bike path rail to watch a cormorant dry its wings perched on a piling. Pull your car into the public parking available at the west end and stroll across the floating sidewalk. Launch your kayak from the dock. Enjoy the wind-protected cove when canoeing between Southlake Park and the Lynn Street Pocket Park. Admire the setting sun across Lake Union through the girders of the Aurora Bridge. Open water. Open space. A vista. Cormorants. Canoes. Kayaks. Bicycles. Fishing. Strolling. Jogging. What we want is what exists. We defend this park simply with our use. So make the personal pledge to visit here – by foot, bike or paddle. And come to a full stop... at least once a season.

Jules James
January 31, 2010

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