Gateway Park North: Georgetown’s little park with big views and bigger purpose
By Emi Okikawa
On those rare Seattle snow days, Andrew Schiffer goes to Gateway Park North to look out at the Duwamish River and watch the snow fall.
“I love the park,” he says, reminiscent. “I think that for the community that’s lived here for a long time, the park is a place where we all go to look at the river. You can see Mount Rainier from there. We don’t have a lot of green space, so it’s one of the few and main parks that I think a lot of the community uses.”
Schiffer is a board member of the Georgetown Community Council and the Georgetown Open Space Committee and has lived in the neighborhood since 2014. In 2016, he volunteered to take up the baton of leading the restoration of Gateway Park North, which has been an ongoing community effort for the past 40 years.
Gateway Park North sits on less than an acre of land, but it has a long history: It houses an historic pump station building that was connected to the Georgetown Steam Plant. It is also the site of the former 8th Avenue pedestrian and trolley bridge that linked the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods until 1937. But today, it stands in disrepair. The site is currently owned by three different agencies—the Port of Seattle, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Parks and Recreation—which makes accountability difficult and progress slow for the site’s restoration.
Gateway Park North provides the only access to the Duwamish River for Georgetown. Yet, it’s inaccessible to many community members because of the lack of sidewalks and parking, pooling water, and heavy industrial activity.
“I had gone there a few times in my younger years,” says Ian Bright, who is part of the Georgetown Youth Council, “[but] my mom didn’t always want me going there ‘cause she didn’t find it very safe. So, even though I didn’t know about all the stuff that’s going on, I definitely felt the effects because I never really got to enjoy living on the water or had any access to that.”
Although the community has been working on this project for over 40 years, the latest push for restoration was in 2016, when the Georgetown Community prioritized this street end in the Georgetown Open Space Vision Framework, a 6-month public process that reached over 300 residents. Knowing this was a priority, Seattle Parks Foundation applied for a WaterWorks grant with input from the community and city agencies. The grant funded community outreach and community-led restoration work on the site, such as the construction of a bioswale.
This grant also provided the foundation for a second WaterWorks grant to the Georgetown Open Space Committee to continue the design process and community outreach, as well as facilitate stakeholder conversations. These conversations span to present day, as the Georgetown Open Space Committee and Georgetown Youth Council continue to work closely with the city agencies involved, and adjacent businesses to design workable solutions to challenges in developing the site.
The current design includes anti-erosion native plants, demonstration rain gardens, benches or tables next to an educational kiosk near the entrance, riverbank stabilization, and historical information about a renovated pump station. Without the necessary funding or political will, however, the site faces major challenges.
Georgetown Youth Council
Ian Bright and Jake Bookwalter are both juniors in high school, and lifelong residents of Georgetown with deep ties in the community. In the summer of 2020, along with their friend Avery Brown, they interned with the Friends of Georgetown History. This internship was funded through the Port of Seattle and was fiscally sponsored by Seattle Parks Foundation to support youth most affected by the pandemic and introduce them to green jobs. Through this internship, they learned about past and present issues that have affected the community. As Bookwalter recalls:
“We decided that we wanted to do something about those issues, and have youth input, and basically give ourselves and other kids in the neighborhood a voice. [That’s] how we decided to found the Georgetown Youth Council.”
The goal of the Georgetown Youth Council is to provide opportunities for members to find paid work that gives back to the community. One of their biggest projects right now is Gateway Park North, where the Council has been hosting monthly community cleanups for the past year.
“I think that [this work is] important because Georgetown is an industrial area with residents,” says Bookwalter, “and that causes a lot of issues that most other neighborhoods don’t have to deal with, like health disparities, safety, lack of services. And Georgetown’s also a low-income area. So, I think that that makes the work to create a more safe and healthy community for everyone way more important here.”
In 2013, the Duwamish River Community Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and Just Health Action published a report that examined a range of environmental and health issues that disproportionately affect people in the Duwamish Valley—from air pollution and contaminated soil to stress and lack of health insurance. The report found that the Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and South Park neighborhoods had the most disproportionate health impacts and environmental injustices of all Seattle areas and the second-highest poverty rates. Residents in these areas had a life expectance of 73.3 years, which was eight years shorter than the Seattle and King County average.
According to the report:
The neighborhoods around the Duwamish River are generally low-income, with large minority and immigrant communities. The Duwamish Valley is also home to Seattle’s largest industrial and maritime trade centers, is bisected by three highways and the Duwamish River Superfund Site, all of which can be major sources of pollution exposures. Together, these factors can make a community highly vulnerable to health impacts.
For Schiffer, working to restore Gateway Park North opened his eyes to the history of the neighborhood, the Duwamish River, and the communities that reside on its shores.
“If you don’t know the river, you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know about the Superfund site, you don’t know about all the industry that’s polluting the river and us,” he says thoughtfully. “Working on Gateway Park North helped me understand the context of the neighborhood, see the importance of the river, and recognize how connected I am to it all because I live here and it affects me too.”
The Georgetown Youth Council is planning a community art installation to reactivate and restore the park and will continue to host neighborhood cleanups through the spring. Their advertisements invite community members to show up, get involved, and meet their neighbors through community service and free lunches. They plan to join more stakeholder meetings to advocate for the park and push progress along. The group faces daunting circumstances, so they are grateful for any involvement—big or small—to make this project a reality.
“The biggest thing for me,” Bookwalter says, “is just showing up and showing these agencies that you care about the park and that you want river access in your community. Showing up doesn’t always mean attending the rainy cold cleanup on a Saturday morning. It can mean a whole variety of things, but I think we just really have to show all of these agencies that have a stake in the park that the community wants river access and that the community’s gotta fight for access!”
When asked what he envisions when the park is restored and open to the public, Bright pauses for a second before speaking. “Well, personally, what I hope for it to be is a place for families to be able to gather, maybe have [a] picnic, and just enjoy the space. Maybe just looking on the water…. I think there are, you know, other bigger things. But to me personally, that’s probably the most important—that there are families out there that can enjoy the park like I couldn’t when I was younger.”