South Lake Union is home to an upgraded oasis after $2 million opens up public spaces and improves lighting among the soaring trees in Denny Park, which had been a little down on its luck in recent years.

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Seattle’s oldest park has a new look and a new lease on life with a more than $2 million renovation.

From new pathways and paved areas to enhanced access for everyone, including people in wheelchairs and those pushing strollers; to new cafe seating and fixtures to double the brightness; to fresh planting beds and preservation of the big old trees, Denny Park has kept the best of the old, while getting a welcome makeover, said Tim Gaydos of Friends of Denny Park. The neighborhood group helped guide the renovation by Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Just opened to the public May 6, the park’s better, more open sight lines from the street, bigger gathering spots and all new lighting, at last make it a desirable destination in the transformed South Lake Union neighborhood, Gaydos said, where Denny Park will remain the last, best island of green — likely forever.

Amy Louisa Johnson of Pullman, great-great-granddaughter of David Thomas and Louisa Denny, who gave the land to the city for the park, is delighted.

“Denny Park in its heyday was a wonderful park and used heavily, but it saw some decline over the years,” Johnson said. The park had been attracting an increasing number of blue-tarped camps for homeless people on its benches by the time the renovation began last September.

“We are really happy with what is happening, it could have kept going in a not great direction,” Johnson said.

The renovation was paid for with city-levy funds and other sources, including private donors such as Clise Properties and Vulcan Real Estate to help pay for the new lighting.

Much of the redo isn’t visible — such as a new automatic irrigation system and new storm-drainage and sanitary-sewer piping for the parks-department office building. The renovation also paid to repave the building’s parking lot and driveway.

Splendor in the trees

The defeat of the Commons plan for a grand public green space in South Lake Union literally paved the way for some of the most dense development in Seattle, with a lot more to come. As reported in Crosscut, the city lost the opportunity for a big, central metropolitan park such as in Vancouver, B.C., or San Francisco or New York, when voters not once but twice voted down the Commons in 1995 and 1996.

The relentless development that followed makes the public’s last 4.6- acre scrap of green in Denny Park the forevermore exception to the concrete rule.

“It is the Manhattanization of the Denny Triangle,” Gaydos said. “This park is more important than ever.”

David Denny gave the land to the city as a cemetery in 1861. It became a park in 1884. By 1904 the area had become residential and the park was improved with formally designed planting beds, swings, a sandlot and playfield, according to the city.

People walk along a path at Denny Park in 1903. In the 1920s, the second Denny Regrade flattened the terrain. (Seattle Municipal Archives/Item. no. 28960)
People walk along a path at Denny Park in 1903. In the 1920s, the second Denny Regrade flattened the terrain. (Seattle Municipal Archives/Item. no. 28960)

In his history of the park, Donald Sherwood reported most of the 221 bodies were reinterred in private cemeteries, and others in the Washelli Cemetery at what is now Volunteer Park. Moved in 1887 for that park, those bodies were once again laid to rest at Lake View Cemetery, north of Volunteer Park in 1872, where they remain today.

Denny Park has been reworked multiple times, with a formal garden and playfield added in 1903.

Today, the park is an arboretum in miniature, with more than 140 mature trees from all over the world, some nearly 5 feet in diameter at breast height. London plane. Black pine. Dogwood, walnut, Japanese snowbell, weeping beech. American elm. Sawara cypress, yellow poplar, canoe birch, magnolia, honey locust, Chinese lacquer tree and so many more. Along with familiar favorites of the native trees, from big leaf maple to Western red cedar.

Once way out in the woods, reached only by wagon road from Seattle, today Denny Park is the only place left in the neighborhood where the public can enjoy such an intact canopy of big trees embowering open ground.

From giant sequoias deserving of the name, to sprawling oaks in their glorious, open-grown form, not for nothing is the park nicknamed The Poor Man’s Rainier Club.

Denny Park’s dense tree canopy is the only one of size in the South Lake Union neighborhood.  (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Denny Park’s dense tree canopy is the only one of size in the South Lake Union neighborhood. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Park designers recognized the special splendor of the park’s tree canopy, and took pains to protect it during the renovation, said project manager Tim Mueller of Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Even in the new lighting, designers incorporated lamp stands with outlets at the top, so that lights may be strung from the light poles into the biggest trees.

Plans are in the works to also pump up the fun factor in the park, with a growing list of amenities from food trucks to buskers and a schedule of events that includes concerts, movie nights, water games and a visit by Mariners baseball players.

While Johnson said her late relatives would not recognize the Seattle of today, even back in Seattle’s more bucolic times they understood the importance of open space for the public to enjoy. “I don’t think they could have imagined what the area would be like now,” Johnson said.

“But even then, they knew people needed park spaces, and that is ever more true now, and they are not making any more park space. I am just glad the Denny family had the foresight.”