Results of Westwood neighbors’ efforts evident, as new park-that’s-not-really-a-park opens on ex-Denny site

January 13, 2012 at 9:53 am | In Denny-Sealth, West Seattle news, West Seattle schools | 14 Comments

westwoodvisionsmall.jpg

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

If you harbor that festering suspicion that citizen involvement can’t make a difference – here’s the latest case in which it did: The new park-that’s-not-technically-a-park on Denny International Middle School‘s former site.

Three-plus years ago, when the district invited neighbors to help shape the site plan – as long as a few requirements (especially tennis courts and softball field to replace the ones lost on the new Sealth/Denny site to the northeast) were met – Westwood community leaders didn’t just show up for meetings, they roughed out their own vision (above) and fought for it in the process:

(WSB photo from January 12, 2009)
Now, except for a finishing touch here and there, the site work is complete, and you’re welcome to use the area. Though the final layout of what ultimately became a $6 million project is different (here’s what was presented in February 2009), several elements on which they insisted have become reality – particularly pathways through the site:

If you’re just catching up on this, the old Denny school was demolished last summer/fall, just before its replacement opened on the Chief Sealth International High School campus a short distance northeast, a project authorized by the BEX III levy almost five years ago. The not-a-park is the third and final phase of the project – though it may well see future work, if the “open field” is chosen to house a new school funded by the forthcoming BEX IV.

As a result of the new work, multiple walking paths stretch and wind through and around the site, leading all the way from SW Thistle Street on the north side to the Southwest Athletic Complex on the south side.

That’s a relief, too, for Westwood neighbors, who had particularly chafed at locked gates that blocked walkthroughs once the Southwest Athletic Complex was built to the east (technically, this new park-but-not-a-park is part of it), and brought that up often during the design process.

For this new site, you can enter from ungated points on all sides – also including the former Southwest Community Center/still Southwest Pool building, along with, 30th SW, SW Cloverdale. There’s even a new paved spot for service vehicles between the pool building’s west wall and the site’s east edge:

One of the community activists intensively involved during the planning process, Mary Quackenbush, tells WSB she just visited the site for the first time Wednesday night: “I’m really glad we all came together – sometimes on snowy nights after work – to design a space that is so very much more community-friendly than what we would have if we hadn’t persevered.”

Quackenbush says there’s more pavement than she expected, although the project team says the old school-site ratio has been reversed – it used to be 75 percent paved, 25 percent not, and now it’s the other way around. There’s also some “grasscrete” along the path south of there, so that it looks like grass and shows some grass, but won’t get completely mashed if a vehicle comes through, because of almost-invisible reinforcement:

The fence you see now, around its hydroseeded open field where the main school building once stood, is temporary – aside from that area, the Seattle Public Schools-owned site is open to the public. The play equipment on its southwest corner even got a tryout during our recent tour of the site with the project team, taking a closer look at how it all turned out:

The playground-testers were from a home day care nearby; their caregivers told us they had come to visit the site many times during the demolition and subsequent park-not-a-park construction. Our tour guides, by the way, are here:

From left, River Steenson with the general contractor BNBuilders, Dana Amore from Bassetti Architects, and Mike Skutack, capital-projects supervisor with Seattle Public Schools. We toured the site with an eye toward not just the basic features, but also some behind-the-scenes insight into how the construction project unfolded (and some underground features of the site).

They pointed out some features that might not be obvious, till you stop to ponder: For example, the work to preserve some of the pre-existing trees on the site, which takes the edge off some of the newness, in a good way. That was something else Westwood neighbors fought for. For example, this bank of trees was actually between two old-Denny courtyards as the school buildings stairstepped eastward down a slope:

They had more than a few challenging slopes to deal with. Which resulted in some touches devised almost on the fly – railings over short retention walls in a few spots on the sloping east side:

To help with drainage on the site, there are multiple rain gardens:

And there’s a hidden retention area under a bank on the south side of the still-fenced-off open field. Adjacent to both that field and the formal softball field, you will find more of the features neighbors asked for – seating walls, for example:

Four picnic tables are on the south side of the open field, one with ADA access:

We walked onto the softball field for a view you’ll only get if you happen to be the pitcher:

There’s a small parking area by the field, by the way:

And on the southeast side of the site, there’s parking set aside for disabled drivers/passengers to be close to site access that doesn’t require stair usage:

And it too has paths alongside:

One thing you’ll notice – the tennis courts have a temporary black surface. They’ll get their permanent surface in warm weather; the project squeezed nine months of work into six, as one project team member put it, with only a few finishing touches left, like this.

Back over to the playground: It’s designed for kids 5-12, and has room for expansion (remember that possible future elementary school?) as well as little touches like “the spinner”:

It complements a toddler playground at the ex-SW Community Center next door, which is home to the private EuropaKids International Preschool, source of another informal visit during our tour.

They’re a bit young for the playground, but won’t be for long. And they’ll get to watch other growth – two young madronas, close to an older one that was saved.

Site landscaping was yet another focus of neighborhood advocacy. Adds Mary Quackenbush: “A big shout-out to Susan McLain and Sandra Melo for being at every meeting; to Steve Fischer and the leadership of the Westwood Neighborhood Council for holding the school district’s feet to the fire over their previous broken promises to the community; to all the other community members who added their voices and ideas to the design process; and to the school district for listening. We all got what we wanted – tennis courts, a baseball field, reserve space for a future school, open space for unstructured play, play space for small children, some native plants, and a community-friendly site we can all enjoy. ”

P.S. In case you are wondering – the project team tells us there is no “grand opening” celebration planned for the site at present. Our tour guides said they might consider having a community open-house type event at some point, so we’ll let you know if and when one is scheduled.

P.P.S. Though this is not a Seattle Parks-owned site, they are handling scheduling for booking the softball field and other facilities (which are open to the public if not booked). Call the department at 206-684-4082.

14 Comments

  1. I live very near the play toy (which I call the death toy – due to the size) and I’m not very happy with what they picked as the play structure. If this is going to be an Elementary School then the play toy is not built for that age group. The thing is way too high for smaller kids. Also there are no swings for kids.

    Comment by Scott — 11:03 am January 13, 2012 #

  2. Having just moved into the neighborhood, I’m excited and heartened by the work that went into this. Thanks new neighbors! I look forward to enjoying the fruits of your labor (and will be looking into joining the Neighborhood Council myself.)

    Comment by The Velvet Bulldog — 11:10 am January 13, 2012 #

  3. Who paid for this? I may have missed it in story.

    Comment by a — 11:13 am January 13, 2012 #

  4. It’s in there, but in short: It is part of the Denny/Sealth project funded by BEX III levy in 2007.

    Comment by WSB — 11:14 am January 13, 2012 #

  5. This is pretty awesome. Nice to see neighborhood folks talking initiative and seeing their input in the final result! Kudos to all those involved.

    Comment by Justin — 11:58 am January 13, 2012 #

  6. Unfortunately, Scott – you won’t see swings at any new playgrounds that are built. Too much liability for potential accidents. Older playgrounds that are upgraded may grandfather in their swings (and those dastardly merry-go-rounds), but they would not be a part of any new build.

    I am quite happy with the project, though. Nice work folks!

    Comment by sw — 12:16 pm January 13, 2012 #

  7. I think it’s safe to say Sealth has the best athletic facilities in Seattle now.

    Comment by Nick — 3:40 pm January 13, 2012 #

  8. I see a notation on that map for a ‘dog park’, but in walking by the new not-a-park I didn’t see any designated area for dogs. Is this one of the “final touches” that still need to be completed?

    Comment by Hoss — 5:09 pm January 13, 2012 #

  9. My house is within view of the old Denny site, and my son and I walked around the site most days. I commend the community for their vision, and want to thank BNB builders for their friendliness towards my son and me. My son will miss the diggers and tracking the daily progress, but he is happy with the new play equipment.

    Comment by dcn — 5:14 pm January 13, 2012 #

  10. Mucho kudos, especially to Mary, Susan, Steve, and also to others who stuck it out, advocating for the neighborhood on this one. They knew all-too-well some of the history of previous projects, with community input discounted and/or ignored. The upside of this project is what happens when individuals persevere, taking time away from their families, jobs, dinners, hobbies, televisions and other things they would rather be doing to advocate for the needs of their neighbors and the community. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Comment by a Westwood neighbor — 5:21 pm January 13, 2012 #

  11. I second the shout out to Susan and Sandra. Nice work all!

    My kids are 7 & 11 and they’re loving the structure. I like the height, and that the structure encourages kids to climb on the outside instead of assuming that they won’t. It seems like a good balance of danger/safety as proposed by the NY Times article “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?”.

    My only criticism of the park design is that most of the tables don’t have a view of the playground, and that the main table area is unlit and so might have late night hangout potential. I imagine that would be easy to fix if it ever turns out to be the case.

    Comment by WestwoodPops — 5:23 pm January 13, 2012 #

  12. Big Bummer- the baseball diamond is now padlocked. It was too good to be true. The sweetest turf field for kids to get their baseball going early is inaccessible without a ladder. Perhaps if enough families complain, Seattle Schools would consider leaving it open.

    Comment by Losarayas — 7:32 pm January 14, 2012 #

  13. @Scott (& Others): The Playground structure was not built to serve the potential, future Elementry School. It is a general use playground with age appropriate stickers posted. If you’re looking for a playground for a younger audience, maybe try the one adjacent to the SWCC in the lower parking lot? I’m not sure the age limits on that, but I believe I’ve seen younger kids on it.

    @Hoss: No, the large grass field that is temporarily protected while it establishes itself is not designed to be a dog park. The note on the original community input drawing actually refers to a grass area that is beyond the outfield of the lower baseball field area. This project did not address any design changes to that lower existing SWCC area, except for the replacement of the existing synthetic turf slide paths on both ball fields which was completed.

    @dcn: Thanks for the kind words. We certainly tried to act as good stewards to the surrounding neighbors during this project. I hope we were able to minimize, as best we could, our impact to you all during construction.

    Thanks,
    River Steenson
    BNBuilders, Inc.

    Comment by River Steenson — 2:30 pm January 16, 2012 #

  14. The school district did a fabulous job and the result is a real amenity to the neighborhood. Tracy–thanks for the shout out to the neighbors involved. You also deserve credit for covering this story from beginning to end. It would have been much harder for the neighbors to influence the project without your excellent coverage.

    Comment by Chris Arkills — 9:53 am January 18, 2012 #

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