By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After what was publicized as an hourlong meeting was well into overtime, a relentless round of questioning finally dug into the heart of the matter:
Is there really any choice about what’s going to be done about Lowman Beach Park‘s failing north seawall?
While Seattle Parks‘ David Graves (top photo) and his consulting engineers showed three possibilities – including one keeping the tennis court and restoring the seawall – Graves acknowledged it was unlikely he would be able to get grant money for a new wall.
And that concerned many of the ~40 people at the meeting, mostly waterfront residents north and south of the park, some of whom think the city’s removal of a south seawall section in the ’90s has adversely affected their property, and are worried the city doesn’t have enough information about effects of another removal.
Here’s how it all unfolded:
“The seawall at Lowman Beach is failing – it’s kind of falling out into the water,” is how Graves began. Before long, he made way for the consulting engineers. But first, he clarified an important point: There’s no money in the Parks budget right now for doing anything about this. Even the cost of the studies presented at the meeting had been borne by grants (we asked about that after the meeting – Graves said he had obtained $250,000 in grants for this phase, and still had more than $100,000 of that left over).
Environmental Science Associates was hired to do the feasibility work. ESA engineer Joel Darnell briefed those in attendance on what they had found. He stressed that they were not charged with a plan for the entire park – just the seawall and vicinity. They had been out May 3rd digging three test holes almost 10′ deep, he mentioned, investigating the soils and whether there’s any sign of historical/cultural artifacts. “Digging in the dirt is super-fun,” he said, saying they had great weather while digging.
The area, of course, already has undergone a lot of change – with King County working on its underground pump station in the south half of the park while the combined-sewer-overflow-control facility was built to the east.
Darnell went into the site’s history, going back almost a century and a half, showing the 1876 path of Pelly Creek.
By 1939, 48th SW and Lincoln Park Drive had been developed, meeting Beach Drive just northeast of the park. The original seawall went in a few years earlier.
A 1977 view included the south seawall, since removed, with the shore restored. The site’s ecology was studied as part of the consultants’ work, and they looked for the kind of habitat that forage fish use – not recently, but “there might be potential to restore some of that function,” Darnell said, by “making changes to the wall.”
They did find a killdeer nest, he said, and signs of herons and other birds using the shore.
Removing the wall would require state and federal involvement since it would be above certain high-water marks.
Going into details of their soil investigation, he said they had found the clay layer that is common to much of West Seattle, along with “some rubble, mostly rock and sidewalk pieces,” plus “two to five feet of fill.”
A 1936 photo from Seattle Municipal Archives showed an old seawall at the site, a restroom building that’s no longer there, and a house that’s also gone, to its north.
One attendee said it burned down. The current seawall was put into place in the ’50s. Darnell showed photos comparing conditions over the past 25 years at Lowman Beach – gravel and driftwood building up.
Some attendees – including nearby residents – interjected with background about some shoreline changes by their homes to the north and south of the park. Darnell said they welcomed that information: “Part of why we are here tonight is to hear from you.” One person from the 7100 block of Beach Drive SW mentioned other history of the shore. In the 2006/2016 comparison photos, Darnell noted that there’s no longer a natural supply of sediment for the shore at Lowman.
Images of the “coastal wave model” were then shown – a “large-scale look” as Darnell described it – what the waves are doing both out to sea and close to shore.
The beach is affected by Lincoln Park to the south, he added. The drift of beach material is toward the north, but not by much. Waterfront residents offered their own observations about how things had been changing on the shore by their homes, as well as what they see when passing ships lead to waves rolling in to shore.
Darnell handed off to another consulting engineer, Jon Padvorac from Reid Middleton. He explained that the current seawall has been undermined over time by settling as some material in front of it got washed away. Some pieces of it are held together by rebar, some by nothing at all; the wall rotated toward a nearby outfall, and water went into the wall around it instead of into the outfall.
Parts of the existing wall can’t be reused because they’re “susceptible to similar failure,” the consultants said.
What was the seawall’s original purpose? one attendee asked. Darnell replied, “To allow the park to be filled behind it … a fairly common practice,” similar to what was done so homes could be built on the shore.
If the seawall had been unbroken, would the same sediment-movement pattern happen? an attendee asked. Another one said the base of his home’s bulkhead “is being undermined,” and suggested “mitigation” might be needed because of what Seattle Parks did before, adding that there’s concern that further seawall removal would harm his property and others.
Graves interjected at that point, “In many ways, you all know this (area) better than we ever will,” and reiterated that they want to hear from residents, especially considering this project isn’t even funded for construction.
“We’re concerned how this project is going to affect our homes … we need some reassurance that we have something going on besides losing our homes,” another attendee said at that point.
“We haven’t designed the project yet,” Darnell noted.
But they have three options – and revealed them at that point. (ADDED: Here’s the city PDF with all three.)
Option #1 would keep the tennis court; part of the existing seawall would be removed and replaced, with a “seat wall” the result and stairs down to where you could sit. A path would come down to the beach:
In option #2, the tennis court would be removed, and beach would be created along where the court and most of the seawall are now. They would have to get a permit to place material creating the beach:
Option #3 would retain part of the existing seawall and rebuild and replace the existing seawall:
One attendee then mentioned that Lowman Beach was given to the city to be a park, and said he has two reasons to be concerned: “I don’t want to lose that last feature … they had a robust play area that’s been vastly downgraded,” and a softball field had been lost too. “We’re now in danger of losing the tennis court … that is hard to believe that that’s the right way to proceed. So I beg you to keep the tennis court.” Applause ensued.
Another attendee said many had fought to keep “the sewer facility” out of the park and to keep the tennis court. He’s been living there 44 years, he said, and has seen “five or six feet of material” on his shore since “the old bulkhead broke down.” Another neighbor to the south is also seeing “accretion” of material on his property, he added, suggesting this is “accelerating” and moving southward.
Can the modeling done so far predict what might happen when changes are made? another attendee asked. She was followed up by someone who said the studies seemed to be too narrow and that studies should look at nearby properties and “try to extend your analysis a little bit more … and come back to us in a while with a broader understanding of the area several blocks to the north and to the south … and then I think we’ll have a more informed sense of the alternatives.”
Another voice: “Puget Sound is known not only for its high tides but also for its currents, and I haven’t heard (anything about that).”
Next: “The tennis court is an asset to our community … we all thought it would be fixed rather than (allowed to) deteriorate. Saving the tennis court is important.”
Graves said Parks is well aware that people want to keep the tennis court.
“I’d like to add a bathroom,” said a woman, saying she’s tired of seeing people “squat” to relieve themselves in the park.
That would cost money, people were reminded, and Graves said again that they don’t have money yet to build whatever is decided on for the shoreline, let alone extras.
An attendee suggested that first, more money should be found to study the factors residents had mentioned. “Yes, the seawall is having problems, but there have been problems then for a long time,” another person added.
Deb Barker, president of the Morgan Community Association, wondered if there was a public process when the south part of the seawall was removed in the ’90s. Graves said it certainly would have gone through reviews as it had “a full suite of permits.”
Cindi Barker, also from the MoCA board, suggested the city go back and refer to some of that, as well as getting more history from residents. She also explained that MoCA tried to get a bathroom included during the process of planning the CSO project across Beach Drive from the park. Deb Barker then challenged attendees to dig up as much as they could bring to the city – photos, observations, etc. Graves said he would welcome having that material sent to him.
A 25-year resident said he doesn’t have records but “I could tell you a lot about what’s happened.” The suggestion in response: “Write it down.” He continued by describing what has changed since he bought ‘second lot north of the park” in the early ’00s. “And it’s still going down.”
Darnell acknowledged that they don’t have data on what’s happened on private properties. But he reiterated that they “don’t want to make it worse.”
Next speaker said he wanted to underscore the importance of saving the tennis court. He brought up Rich Passage between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, where waves from ferries were undermining seawalls, and he wondered if waves from nearby ferries, newer types, were causing problems. “Whatever plan you have … just leave the tennis court there. That’s what people want.”
The tennis court is falling into disrepair, another attendee pointed out. “Is there any plan to fix it while all this is going on?” Graves had no information on that. Another worried aloud that it would be allowed to deteriorate to the point where it would just have to be removed anyway.
“Who’s the decisionmaker?” was the next question. (Ultimately, Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre.) “Studying and not doing anything is not acceptable. … How do we get action?”
This is the first of two phases. After the consultants finish their work, “additional grant dollars … for design and construction” will be sought, Graves explained. He said they hope to have a decision “later this year” so they can proceed. There’s probably no money to restore the seawall, he acknowledged at that point, but he can probably get grants for “shoreline restoration work.” (In fact, Graves was a speaker on a shipboard seminar we covered last year, looking at nearshore-habitat issues around area shores, including the Lowman dilemma.)
Next discussion/presentation about this will be at MoCA’s July meeting (7 pm July 19th at The Kenney). What else is in the process? asked MoCA’s Cindi Barker.
“We’ll take all the information we got tonight and whatever folks want to send me,” said Graves, “and we need to think about what data’s lacking and what does it look like.” Then, internal discussions with Superintendent Aguirre, and “what does Lowman Beach want to be?” Keeping the tennis court “drives a lot of decisions about what happens.” Keeping the tennis court doesn’t give them much flexibility.
Deb Barker interjected that other decisionmakers include the agencies mentioned earlier – state Department of Ecology, for example, “whose rules apply to the shoreline, whether you like the rules or not.”
“Our intention is to not do anything to impact surrounding property owners,” Graves assured another person. But questions continued focusing on how removal of the south seawall affected nearby properties. “It seems to me that if you look at the 1990s plan when the wall was taken out, that’s about when the locals here noticed this change in the movement of the sediment,” someone said.
“So what do we have to do to get the right thing done?” someone asked.
“Could this qualify for funds from the Metropolitan Park District?”
Graves didn’t rule that out. Then, back to the rest of the process:
ESA has to finish its work. That could happen in July, Darnell said, but he would like to hear more from residents, one of whom said he had walked the beach six months ago with a city engineer who wasn’t at the meeting and provided some information he was assured would be included.
Graves: After the feasibility study, we need to make some decisions.
Resident: How do we help you?
Graves: Contact me, and we’ll set up some time.
“Are you doing an environmental (review) process?” asked Deb Barker.
Once we have a project, said Graves. “There’s a full public process that will go with this project – once there’s a project.” He promised to “take all this information back and put a finer point on process and next steps.”
Then the big question: Is there a mandate of some kind (at the heart of this)? asked someone.
“The preference is for unarmored beaches, to restore the habitat,” Graves said. And yes, that is a mandate. “With a public agency to have an opportunity to restore 130 feet of shoreline in an area that is almost completely armored … if there is no compelling reason to retain the seawall we’ll get a lot of questions about why we are rearmoring the shoreline when we have the opportunity to create a more natural beach.”
Who could residents “appeal to” to challenge that, if they feel it necessary?
Graves said he wasn’t sure.
Cindi Barker said that it would be helpful “to be upfront with us …” about whether some of what was presented even had a chance to get through the process.
“The intention was … to show our work and kind of bookend the concepts – beach, seawall, some combination of the two.” Graves said the intent was to have a conversation. “But you’re asking us to do it uninformed,” said Cindi Barker. “Point taken,” said Graves.
Then a resident said, “If your intent is to defend our properties … thank you.”
Graves said once they have a project (proposal), they’re going to have to explain to residents how their property will be affected.
Engineer Darnell contended that this small change in shoreline was not likely to have a big effect on other properties. He thinks material from Lowman Beach is “tending to stay in (that) area.”
“So what should people to the north be doing” about the sediment changes they are noticing? a resident of that area asked.
No answer for that, but as the meeting broke up, there was support for a suggestion to gather residents and other interested parties for a beach walk at Lowman, to look at everything up close. Another suggestion was to set up a community advisory group, as had been done with the CSO project across the street from Lowman.
If you have comments or questions, Graves is at email@example.com.
P.S. You might recall that the city had an online survey about Lowman Beach as part of the run-up to this; we linked to it here last fall. 83 replies were received; here are the results:
(You can view them in PDF here.)