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Originally published October 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 30, 2007 at 8:40 AM

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New Fremont park is an eye-popper

An obscure peak of land in Fremont with dramatic views will open as a city park next week, thanks to seven years of efforts by hard-working neighbors and other volunteers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fremont Peak Park

Urban oasis: A secluded half-acre in Fremont where three old houses and an overgrown elm tree once stood has been transformed into a city park that opens Nov. 10.

Address: 4357 Palatine Ave. N.

Dedication: Nov. 10 at 12:30 p.m.

View: The view sweeps from Mount Rainier to the Olympics and includes the Ship Canal, Fishermen's Terminal, Queen Anne Hill, Magnolia, Fremont and Ballard.

Design: Landscape architect Marieke Lacasse from Seattle firm GGLO designed the park, and artist Laura Haddad created the art elements, including a spool-like sculpture and constellation patterns that allude to the mythical story of the Minotaur.

Funding: Made possible by grants from Seattle's Pro Parks Levy, King County Conservation Futures tax, Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Fund, King County's Wild Places in City Spaces fund and more than $150,000 in private contributions.

To volunteer: The Friends of Fremont Peak Park group has taken on stewardship of the park. For details, go to www.fremontpeakpark.org.

Source: Seattle Parks and Recreation

Compiled by Sanjay Bhatt

On a quiet residential bluff in Fremont, a secluded half-acre with a million-dollar view will soon become a city park — its vista sweeping from Mount Rainier to the Olympics, from the Ship Canal to Puget Sound.

The creation of Fremont Peak Park is a story about timing and tenacious individuals who worked for nearly seven years to make it happen — including a starring role by Suzie Burke, the area's largest private landholder and, to many, the "Queen of Fremont." The contemplative park opens Nov. 10, featuring starry lunar-art elements that pay tribute to a solstice-happy neighborhood that calls itself "The Center of the Universe."

"People don't expect to see that view off the side of Fremont," Burke said. "They expect to see that in Magnolia."

A private mansion, and not a park, might have claimed this obscure peak of land had there not been a fortuitous alignment of people stepping in to help at crucial moments. It's a feat not likely to be repeated anytime soon, but don't tell that to the indefatigable Jack Tomkinson.

Tomkinson, a 50-year-old Fremont resident, is credited with being the vision behind the park. In the process of fulfilling his vision, strangers became friends and a new how-to community group, Urban Sparks, was born to give residents in other neighborhoods the help they need to bring their ideas to fruition.

"Jack Tomkinson convinced us," said Donald Harris, who has managed land buys for Seattle Parks and Recreation since 1990. Unlike a Discovery Park or a Seward Park, this new park is unique because, Harris said, its hidden vantage point offers an intimate setting.

To visitors seeing it for the first time, "it's going to be an 'ah-haaa' experience," Harris said.

View was obstructed

For decades, three old houses, overgrown shrubbery and a cluster of trees obstructed the western view from passers-by on Palatine Avenue North.

The property's former owner, the late Tony Murphy, was a childless, reclusive recording musician and businessman who planted Douglas firs and Western red cedar over the four decades he owned the land.

Five blocks south of Woodland Park Zoo, the property is actually three adjacent lots: The largest, which Murphy lived on, starts at the curb of First Avenue Northwest, rises some 50 feet and faces west. The two adjoining parcels on Palatine Avenue North face east and featured rental houses.

By the time he turned 60, Murphy was globe-trotting and decided to downsize.

Tomkinson, a semiretired engineer with bright eyes and a quick grin, lives a few blocks down the bluff. He remembers when Murphy's property hit the market because the for-sale signs went up on his birthday — Jan. 26, 2001. The asking price for all three parcels: about $1.5 million.

The view was "like the Eiffel Tower, the cliffs of Monaco," Tomkinson said. He didn't want to see it fall into private hands.

He called the parks department. Harris, whose office had been trying to buy property for a park in that part of Fremont since the 1970s, came out for a look and gasped. If Tomkinson could get the property off the open market, Harris told him, they had a shot at raising public and private funds to buy it for a park.

Within days, Tomkinson made a plea to the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, on which sat Suzie Burke, a flamboyant businesswoman known for her generosity to the community.

The group hustled over to check out the view, and Burke made a snap decision.

She asked Fremont First National Bank (now Frontier Bank), which she had been instrumental in starting, to loan her the money to buy the property with the intent of selling it to the city in a year. The bank quickly approved the loan.

"I must admit my signature is worth some money," Burke said.

There was a higher competing offer, but Murphy decided to go with the lower bid — not out of altruism but because he wanted a bulletproof deal. According to Tomkinson, Murphy had said: "I checked with my business contacts and they said Suzie is good and that's how I made the decision."

So Murphy sold two parcels — including the one with the view — to Burke for just over $1 million and moved into the rental on the third parcel, intending to sell that land to the city in two years for about $400,000.

With the view property off the market, Tomkinson, Harris and the newly created Friends of Fremont Peak Park set out to raise $1.5 million through grants, donations at the Fremont Fair and fundraisers at the Red Door Ale House, Hale's Brewery — and at Murphy's view house. The checks came in one by one, most for $50 or $100.

Volunteers met regularly in Tomkinson's living room.

Among them was Seattle newcomer Brian Ivaldi of Boston, who found new friends in the park-building effort, and Karen Moe, a University of Washington scientist who guided the grant-writing.

With the city's approval by the fall of 2002, Harris could buy the two parcels from Burke. The property appraised for about $150,000 less than what she'd paid for it, and Burke acknowledges that she "took it in the shorts" but decided the loss was her donation to the park.

The jubilant volunteers held a party, sure it wouldn't be long before they bought Murphy's last parcel. Murphy, too, was tickled by the vision.

Fundraising continued

Then in 2003, Murphy suddenly died.

Friends sat in a circle on his front lawn, with Tomkinson, Burke and others sharing stories about him. They held a moment of silence.

Then they got back to fundraising. By the fall of 2004, Murphy's estate had settled his debts and sold the third parcel to the city. An overgrown elm tree that obstructed much of the view was cut down. The houses were bulldozed, though parts of the foundations were preserved and integrated into an art feature evoking a mythical labyrinth on the island of Crete.

A statue resembling a silver-threaded spool marks the entrance to the labyrinth and tells the story of the Minotaur. Visitors will follow the thread down a grassy path and through a stand of conifers before discovering a terrace — and the view. The terrace features marked lines that point to where the sun sets during the summer and winter solstices.

More than 100 volunteers replaced invasive English ivy and blackberry bushes with 3,000 drought-tolerant plants and planted a stand of Garry oak. There's no irrigation system, so neighbors have pledged to water the plants until they can survive on their own.

Meanwhile, Tomkinson's Urban Sparks is helping people in other neighborhoods bring their visions — be they parks, P-patches or traffic circles — to fruition.

He looks forward to recharging himself at Fremont Peak Park.

"It's just a place you can step off and let the world spin for a while," he said. "You can listen to the wind, the birds, and you don't have to be one of those busy people down below."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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