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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

In the concrete jungle, Freeway Park will offer respite once again

Have you strolled through Freeway Park lately? Seattleites seem to take this green oasis for granted...

Now in bloom

Vaccinium corymbosum 'Sunshine Blue' is a dwarf blueberry, which may be the ultimate edible ornamental. Ideal for hedging or growing in pots, this dense, rounded plant has pretty little silvery-green leaves and, in spring, masses of pink flowers, followed by an abundant crop.

Have you strolled through Freeway Park lately? Seattleites seem to take this green oasis for granted, forgetting that without a planted lid over those 10 lanes of freeway we'd have a traffic chasm at the heart of our city.

The park was hard-won, with citizen activists demonstrating on behalf of a lidded freeway as far back as the 1950s. Twenty years later, the five-acre Freeway Park was dedicated on the nation's Bicentennial, July 4, 1976; the Pigott corridor link to First Hill was added in 1982.

Landscape architect Iain Robertson has recently designed an update of the park's tired plantings. He was struck with a depressing insight when looking at old photos showing the freeway with few cars on it and the park filled with people. Now the freeway is choked with a noisy rush of traffic and the park is nearly empty.

No wonder. The waterfall designed to mask traffic noise had been left dry and desolate in preparation for refurbishment. And while all the Deodar cedars seemed a good idea 30 years ago, they grew large and dark, the soil underneath so stuffed with roots that nothing thrived.

The original park was designed by the firm of Lawrence Halprin and Associates, with NBBJ partnering on the corridor addition. Local horticulturist Betty Miller consulted on the plantings. "No more unfavorable environment for growing plants can be found in Seattle," wrote Miller in 1979, due to air pollution, wind, glare from cement and glass, and limited root room.

The design team envisioned a naturalistic forest setting as respite from the intensity of the city. The planting list from the '70s shows such a diverse selection of native and ornamental plants that I was disheartened to find little variety among the survivors. Miller was right — this ultra-urban environment has been tough on plants.

David Brewster, founder of Town Hall on First Hill, was an early voice to renew the park. After a series of crimes, including a 2002 murder, the Freeway Park Neighborhood Association was moved to produce a plan advocating better lighting, increased security and the removal of trees to increase visibility and let in more light. The city asked Robertson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, to create a plan for taking the trees out and putting fresh plantings in. "Freeway Park is really a city-sized window box; that's the best way to think of it," says Robertson, referring to the limited space in the confined concrete planting boxes. "We'll have to cycle plants through every five to 10 years to keep the park perpetually fresh."

Robertson is slightly intimidated by following in the famed Halprin's footsteps, a task he describes as "kind of like being asked to retouch the Mona Lisa's smile." Yet his face lights up as he describes his visit to San Francisco to consult with the 92-year-old Halprin. "It was one of the best design discussions I've ever had," Robertson says.

One of these long summer evenings would be a fine time to walk through the park, which sits atop Interstate 5 at Seventh Avenue between Seneca Street and the convention center, to see the results of that inspired design discussion. The waterfall is gushing again. The tree removal and replanting will be done in phases over the next several years, as the towering conifers, Bradford pears and Norway maples are replaced by smaller, less dense trees like vine maples, mountain hemlocks, Japanese maples and amelanchier.

The slim, straight trunks of our native bitter cherries (Prunus emarginata) will beat a vertical rhythm against the horizontal lines of the concrete. Robertson has chosen plants for fragrance and winter interest, such as witch hazel, pernettya, sarcococca and epimedium.

He is determined that Freeway Park's character will remain unaltered from Halprin's original quiet vision. The new plant palette is unassuming, without showy flowers or variegation. "It's about movement and patterns and rest," Robertson says. As Halprin intended, plants will again form a green backdrop to the human drama of Freeway Park.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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