Dirt Series: The Denny Park Ungrade

Seven years ago, architect Jerry Garcia suggested restoring Denny Park to its original hilltop glory
Courtesy of the Engineering Department Photographic Negatives, Seattle Municipal Archives

In the early 1990s, architect Jerry Garcia walked along Denny from his Capitol Hill home to his office on the waterfront, passing a little park between Ninth Avenue N and Dexter. He was intrigued that this dark, unwelcoming patch was Seattle’s first park. “It was truly baffling to me; I didn’t understand why it would be like this,” he remembers. “It’s such an introverted experience.”

So he dug into the history of Denny Park and discovered it had once been a very different place—light-filled and genteel, on a hill with views of the water, mountains and the city below. It fell in 1931, the last of the many massive earth-moving projects that flattened the steep slopes in and around downtown for rail and cars. Garcia combed through archives, discovering forgotten surveys and renderings, until he was inspired by the idea of restoring Denny Park to its rightful place, about 60 feet above its current location.

His 2006 proposal, titled “Make Believe,” would reinstate the earthen hill (helped along by the possibility of dirt leftover from a waterfront tunnel) with a near duplicate of the original park—a large, open lawn and paths, a natural amphitheater and a pavilion with a permanent exhibit about Denny Regrade history—re-created on top.

The view from the sidewalk would be of tall rammed-earth walls, and the park itself would be accessible via elevator. Revisiting that plan in a conference room at

Olson Kundig Architects, where he is now a senior project manager, Garcia speaks quickly, drawing connections between Le Corbusier’s Mount Olympus sketches and the Space Needle scene from The Parallax View (wherein the park has a cameo). “On the one hand, it’s kind of a silly idea,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s not, and that’s what I kind of like about it.”

The proposal sparked excitement and a front-page nod from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Garcia took meetings with Seattle Parks and Rec and other stakeholders. But “at some point it became obvious that if it was really going to be able to happen, it was going to have to be my life,” he says. “And I just didn’t want to be the ‘raised-park guy.’”

Still even without his prodding, the idea persists. “It’s funny how it persists, and it occurs to me that it makes no less sense now than it did then,” Garcia says. “In fact, it kind of makes more sense.”

He’s right. South Lake Union has grown up tall on the park’s periphery, dwarfing it further and creating a greater need for a sunny, open space for the growing numbers of apartment dwellers and employees in the area. Before long, the new 3 million-square-foot Amazon office complex will be only a few blocks away.

And this neighborhood population boom creates a need addressed by a second feature of Garcia’s design. Why settle for a mere mound of landscaped dirt? “Why not let this extrusion become a resource bunker for the neighborhood?” Garcia asks. He imagines a community center with a pool, basketball courts and meeting rooms housed in the rammed-earth structure. Since he first proposed restoring the park, the technology for building with dirt has only become more sophisticated.

Oh, and the other big thing that’s changed in seven years? The dirt. The tunnel is no longer a mere idea; we are about to have more than enough building material.

“Given the nature of the civil projects we’ve taken on—we’ve moved more earth than most cities, except maybe Boston—it’s not such an outrageous idea,” Garcia says. “The dirt is going to go somewhere.”