The Promise of the Duwamish River

At the end of the forum in South Park two nights ago, I left with a tremendous feeling of excitement and opportunity for the community—especially about the Duwamish River.

TDuwamish_River1.jpghe river cuts through the heart of Seattle’s history and remains an active, working industrial corridor today. The price of that utility, of course, was extreme damage to the ecosystem of the entire watershed, with ongoing health effects along the riverfront and well into surrounding neighborhoods. Yet with such an impressive coalition of supporters working to restore and reclaim the river, I can’t help but feel a growing sense of opportunity. The Duwamish can and should be one of the most prized natural resources in Seattle—a park and economic generator that powers the South Park community and unites the city around a shared attraction. I think it’s a realistic and relatively near-term vision, and I can’t wait to see what a fully restored river could mean for all of us.  

What first got me thinking about the river’s potential was running on the Duwamish Trail a few months ago. The trail heads south from the West Seattle Bridge and then zigzags its way through some industrial buildings into the north end of South Park. It isn’t always the most scenic route, and if you only walked a few blocks you’d be excused for not feeling terribly inspired. But with the pathway’s proximity to the river and connections to other areas of West Seattle and beyond, the Duwamish Trail—and the riverside community it serves—could help infuse all sorts of energy, jobs and investment into the area.      

When I worked for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy a few years ago, one of my greatest joys was traveling to explore trails around the country and meeting some of the advocates—from grassroots supporters to city planners and parks personnel—who had worked to build and promote the trail. Among the most memorable trips was when I got to experience the Astoria River Trail in Astoria, Ore. In the early 1990s, the city’s riverfront was totally cut off by wildly overgrown brambles and abandoned industrial buildings and old canneries. Astoria had acquired some fame as a setting for a few films, including The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop, but most locals couldn’t even find a way to access one of the town’s signature features: several miles of spectacular waterfront along the mouth of the Columbia River.

The city then began a concerted effort to reclaim the riverfront, starting with a new trail as the spine of the transformation. They partnered with residents and local businesses and opened segment by segment of the pathway, and today the Astoria River Trail runs more than five miles from the east end of town all the way out to the westernmost point at the Port of Astoria. A group of local residents also used seed money from the city to purchase and refurbish an old trolley car, and they now operate the trolley up and down the main trunk of the trail. It costs only a dollar, and you can ride as long as you want, all the while enjoying a history lesson from the conductor—and fantastic views of the river.

The trail, in short, has helped opened up the entire riverfront to new throngs of people and businesses, and both are thriving. Breweries and restaurants, and even a distillery, have popped up and flourished (another brewery, Fort George, is only a couple blocks up the hill). Several new hotels have also opened right along the route, and the city requires these developments to share in maintaining—and in many cases, adding creative touches—to their piece of the pathway. You’ll pass folks out for a ride or run, or strolling up and down the path at all hours of the day. You can sit on a bench to watch container ships cruising into the river, head out to watch the sea lions on the pier, swing into some shops or visit the maritime museum, or hop on the trolley for a leisurely ride.

Duwamish_River2.jpgWhat struck me most was how quickly the transformation occurred. In the span of 10 to 15 years, Astoria completely redesigned and reinvigorated its riverfront. The Duwamish River is a different story, no question, and I know its history of pollution presents a far more complex challenge. But the potential for transformative change is there—change that can turn our recovering waterway into a neighborhood treasure for the people of South Park and visitors from across the city and region.

The best part is that South Park already has the commitment and community will to make that happen. They also have a number of dedicated partners with the Duwamish River Clean-up Coalition, Duwamish Alive, the South Park Neighborhood Association and scores of other residents and volunteers who have a stake in the health and future of the Duwamish River.

So I’m excited to learn more about what the Duwamish means to folks in South Park, and ideas they have for the river. I’d love to help any way I can, and I’d be especially thrilled to be in a position on the Seattle City Council to bring their vision to life!

Photos © Karl Wirsing for District 1.  

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