Back to Light
by Wenda Reed
We’re standing next to a small waterfall, watching two ducks swim around the pond at its base. We’ve descended into a ravine of sorts and the gurgle of water replaces the rumble of traffic. The stream flows in a meandering path between 3rd and 5th Avenues NE, south of Northgate Mall, held back by naturalized weirs to form shallow ponds that collect sediments and pollutants. Banked by apartments and condominiums and a seven-story senior housing project, the Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel is a unique hybrid of pedestrian-accessible green space and working stormwater treatment facility.
As they point out the growing vegetation in the creek bed, the healthy water flow and the surrounding “green walls” of newly planted ferns, community activist Janet Way and landscape architect Peggy Gaynor keep applying the word “miracle” to the 2.7-acre project. Finishing each other’s sentences — after almost a decade of working together to help make the channel a reality — they speak of moving from “conflict to cooperation,” of trying to meet the needs of so many different groups, of the grand opening in June 2009 being a “reunion and a forgiveness” for all of the involved parties.
The finished project is a testament to the vision, determination, stubbornness, ingenuity and resourcefulness of dozens of women and quite a few men. Let’s start with the vision.
Ten years ago, anyone looking at the 12-acre site saw a sea of asphalt used for parking. The owner of the mall and lot, Simon Property Group, conceived of a multiplex theater, stores, housing and an underground parking garage. Way, Gaynor and others envisioned a restored, daylighted Thornton Creek running through a development of homes and businesses.
“The city said, ‘What creek?’” Way remembers. Water from small streams and runoff from surrounding acres were collected in a 60-inch pipe under the asphalt, and the Simon Property Group wanted it to stay there, permanently buried under a two-level parking garage. In approving Simon’s development plans in 1999, the City of Seattle hearing examiner agreed with Simon’s attorneys that the creek didn’t exist. It had not been free-flowing for decades.
Gaynor, standing at the southwest corner of the water channel site, at 3rd Avenue NE and NE 100th Street, vehemently disagrees. She waves her arms northward and westward. “If you go along the highway (Interstate 5) there’s bits of creeks and wetlands all the way north.” She explains that three pipes under I-5 carry the headwaters of the south fork of Thornton Creek from ponds and wetlands at North Seattle Community College and near Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery. (The north fork begins in Shoreline, and both forks meet east of Northgate Mall and flow into Lake Washington at Matthews Beach.)
In the late 1800s, the native people built weirs (little dams) on the creek to keep the fish from moving upstream. In the 1870s, settlers, including the Thornton family, began to farm, log and build in the watershed. Japanese farmers cultivated the boggy area south of the mall until they were displaced by World War II internment in the 1940s. Development came in the next 40 years, including Northgate Mall, North Seattle Community College, Interstate 5 and local roads.
“This little creek was just in the way,” Way says of the development. “So they put it in a 60-inch pipe.” As more and more land was paved, runoff collected oil, pollutants and sediments that were dumped, untreated, into the pipe and then into free-flowing Thornton Creek north of 5th Avenue NE. During storms, the high flow of water from the pipe eroded the banks of the creek.
DIGGING IN FOR A FIGHT
Way, a nature lover, bird-watcher, photographer and former Shoreline City Council member, lives on a tributary of the north fork of Thornton Creek and has been actively involved in restoring creeks and wetlands in Shoreline since the late 1980s. She was a founding member of the Thornton Creek Alliance, which works to restore water quality and habitat in the entire 12-square-mile Thornton Creek watershed, the largest watershed in Seattle and Shoreline.
She asked her friend, activist and environmentalist Bob Vreeland, to help her with the Shoreline project, but he said he was too busy with “this Northgate thing,” Way remembers. She agreed to help him with efforts to daylight Thornton Creek in any new development. “I thought, how hard can it be?”
“I knew how to play that game,” she recounts, her eyes shining. “It’s like a chess game.”
In 1999, she cofounded and served as the president of the Thornton Creek Legal Defense Fund (TCLDF). The group marshaled an attorney, a media specialist, scores of community activists, politicians, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists in support of daylighting the creek. “We were under incredible competition to get the right word out,” she says, waving one of the bright yellow “Daylight Thornton Creek” bumper stickers distributed around the Northwest.
TCLDF appealed the City’s approval of Simon’s plans under the Endangered Species Act, claiming that keeping the creek confined in a pipe interfered with the movement of salmon. They won a victory when a King County Superior Court judge agreed that a creek does indeed exist under the parking lot, and the mall expansion plans violated the Critical Areas Ordinance. While that decision went through the appeal process, TCLDF and another group brought a federal lawsuit against Simon Properties, claiming that the mall’s runoff threatened salmon.
Meanwhile, longtime activist and attorney Jan Brucker founded Citizens for a Livable Northgate in 1999, and served as its president. The group held neighborhood meetings and found that people were “outraged” by the traffic impacts and size of the proposed development on the south parking lots, Brucker says. They wanted a “do-over.” At a neighborhood symposium, Brucker met some of the Thornton Creek advocates. “They said, ‘There’s a creek under that parking lot,’” she remembers. “I’d never known.” She and many in her group became supporters of restoring the creek bed, as did members of a half dozen nearby neighborhood groups.
In 2000, TCLDF hired Gaynor to see if the creek could be daylighted and if a system could be incorporated to treat stormwater, as the City of Seattle Public Utilities wanted. Citizens for a Livable Northgate and other groups also helped support and pay for the study.
Gaynor is a landscape architect who started her own company in 1983, combining science, art and knowledge of plants to design ecosystems, public works and public art projects around the Northwest. She is a classical musician, and says music and landscape architecture share many design principles, such as “rhythm, flow, theme/variation and repetition.” Since the mid-1980s, she’s been involved in daylighting and enhancing streams all over the Seattle area, including Ravenna Creek, Meadowbrook Pond and Madrona Woods.
She created a feasibility study and conceptual design for Thornton Creek, which inspired activists to believe they could indeed see their dream realized. “We made a 3.5- by 4-foot physical model of the creek with new channeling and natural contours on it,” Brucker says. She remembers cutting out the cardboard on her kitchen table and her 7-year-old daughter crafting little trees. They bought accessories at a model railroad store and carried the model to city council members and even a convention of shopping mall developers meeting in Seattle.
In the fall of 2000, faced with lawsuits and continued delays, Simon shelved its plans and put the property up for sale. While continuing their legal appeals, Way, Brucker, Vreeland and many others worked tirelessly to build political support and looked for a developer who would be open to their vision. “The community said, ‘We’re going to have a creek there,’” Brucker summarizes. “You can’t ignore what people in the neighborhood want and need.”
Security Properties bought the land and worked for nearly two years with TCLDF and other groups to find a development solution. In 2002, they withdrew, believing they could not get enough buildings on the land if they included a creek channel. At the same time, TCLDF was on the losing side of the City’s appeal to the Washington State Court of Appeals on the issue of the piped water being a true creek (deciding it wasn’t), and the Washington State Supreme Court declined to hear the case. But the political climate had shifted, and the logjam blocking development was about to break.
In 2004, local developer Bruce Lorig bought the land and agreed to work with the community on designs for the south-of-Northgate parking lot. “We thought our task was to say there was no way to do the creek,” Lorig says. “We were wrong.” Gaynor presented three ideas for the water channel: simply daylighting the creek; building a watercourse with some rocks at street level, while keeping most of the drainage in the pipes; and a hybrid, combining the creek with naturalized stormwater treatment. She enthusiastically advocated her hybrid design. “Peggy Gaynor’s ideas brought it together (in my mind),” Lorig says. “She’d thought it through very well.”
Momentum built as the City Council created a Northgate Stakeholders Group made up of 22 community, environmental and business interests. In June 2004, the group unanimously approved Gaynor’s hybrid plan, Mayor Greg Nickels and the majority of the City Council endorsed it and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) planned to build the Thornton Creek channel on 2.7 acres of land cutting through the property.
On the day of the groundbreaking for the south parking lot redevelopment, Lorig painted a wide blue line over the asphalt where the creek would run. The vision was about to become a reality.
“We knew we were right,” Way says several times during our conversation at the finished water channel.
DIGGING DOWN TO MAKE IT WORK
Peg Staeheli, landscape architect and cofounder and principal of SvR Design in Seattle, was involved with plans to treat stormwater in the area south of the mall before community activists began pushing to daylight Thornton Creek. Her company combines civil engineering, landscape architecture and environmental restoration and planning. Its many local projects include designing a natural drainage system and pervious sidewalks and streets in the newly developed High Point neighborhood in West Seattle.
In the mid-1990s, SvR was a prime consultant to an engineering firm evaluating the feasibility of a water quality facility with some interpretive open space. “It was more a facility, not really a pond, and definitely not a creek,” Staeheli says of the early concepts. “The city property space was narrow and long and the depth of the peat (the present creek bottom) was very deep, so the site presented unique challenges,” she adds.
As the idea of daylighting the creek gained traction, SvR was hired by SPU to look into the feasibility and cost of various options. In 2002, Staeheli and her staff concluded that the full excavation/channel approach would be much more costly than other options. “We were balancing dollars, neighborhood interests, water quality and issues about flooding downstream,” she says.
“People in Northgate asked us why we (SPU) couldn’t just daylight the creek,” explains Nancy Ahern, a deputy director at SPU and prime facilitator of the channel project for the City. “We can’t if there’s not a flood prevention benefit or a water quality benefit for the taxpayers.”
After the 2004 decision to go with the hybrid idea, SPU hired Staeheli and her company to design the channel combining flowing surface water with water treatment and public access. It took three years to design and another two years to build.
The challenge was formidable. There was the complexity of digging as deep as 40 feet below street level, while contractors were building up for the condominiums, apartments and senior housing. Staeheli and SvR project manager Greg Giraldo, a civil engineer, had to factor in a road King County was building on the west side of the site, as well as work conducted by Metro and input from the state Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife.
Then there was the need for the water to actually flow. Previous data was off so that the gradient was wrong and had to be redesigned. Part of the solution was to bring in water draining 20 acres to the south of the site over the small waterfall to join up with the main channel, which carried water draining 660 acres. During heavy storms, extra water still flows through the 60-inch pipe below the surface.
The channel needed to mimic the way nature cleans water with weirs and other barriers to hold back flow so that sediments could collect (and be periodically vacuumed out). About a third of the way through the design, Gaynor and neighborhood activists complained that the water course looked too much like a concrete channel. The final design is more meandering, with weirs made out of boulders, driftwood and even bits of recycled street curbing.
The grasses, reeds, rushes and other plants at the creek level had to perform as a “bioswale,” a landscaping element to remove silt and pollution from runoff water. And unlike similar bioswales SPU and local governments have constructed, this one is in a public place and had to look good all year round. Staeheli conferred with staff from the University of Washington to find plants to serve both purposes. The native vegetation on banks on either side of the creek bed had to be hardy, and the steep slopes had to be contoured so that SPU staff could maintain them. Finally, the site had to be accessible to the public with sidewalks, bridges and ramps.
“It was quite stressful, to tell the truth,” Staeheli says. She credits Ahern’s involvement at SPU, as well as the City’s project managers, with helping everyone “keep the vision” throughout design and construction. “She was extremely solid; she was always there to resolve issues,” Staeheli says.
“It was fun and rewarding to be involved in an on-the-ground project that I can take my kids and dad to see,” Ahern says. “It was a learning experience for me; I really enjoyed it.” Her initial role, in the late 1990s through 2004, was to help find a solution that the neighborhood would accept and that would provide water quality benefits. Later she became the “executive sponsor” for the project — the liaison with the mayor’s office, the one who “helped push things along” and the trouble-shooter and coordinator for the developers and contractors.
Everyone seems to be pleased with the final result. Lorig calls it “a wonderful project and a great amenity,” and Brucker terms it the “jewel in the crown” of recent Northgate development. “This is very close to what I’ve had in my head for six years,” Gaynor adds with great satisfaction.
Initial reports from SPU staff have been positive, as the water is sitting in the ponds as long as it should to slow down flow and settle out particulates. The water flow has been good, even when there hasn’t been much rain. Definitive monitoring — to see if water flowing into the main Thornton Creek is really cleaner — will take place after the plants have grown in more, Staeheli and Ahern explain. There is considerable doubt about whether fish will actually find their way through the channel.
While Ahern says SPU has a national reputation for “green drainage” solutions, “the idea of diverting stormwater from an underground pipe and daylighting it is very unique, and probably won’t be duplicated elsewhere in the city,” Ahern adds.
Nevertheless, she calls the Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel a model for public/private collaboration and for naturalized stormwater treatment in an urban setting. SPU has received a grant from the Department of Ecology to share the story of Thornton Creek at conferences around the country. SvR recently won an American Society of Civil Engineering Outstanding Engineering Award for the project, and Giraldo is also giving talks about it around the country.
Staeheli visited the site early in the year, and was pleased to see a family of a couple, a grandmother and two children enjoying the walkway by the water channel and reading the interpretive signs. She is not as effusive as others are in praising the project, preferring to wait a couple of years for definitive data on water quality improvements.
“It’s going to get better as time goes by,” she predicts. “If this pans out, it will be a model for the whole country.”
©Copyright 2010, Caliope Publishing Company