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Originally published October 3, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified October 4, 2012 at 6:05 AM

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Old Denny Park gets new life with growth of South Lake Union

New life for an old park: Seattle's Denny Park has found a new appreciation as South Lake Union booms and improvements to the park push out drug dealers and prostitutes and attract neighborhood residents, school kids, office workers and dog walkers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle's Denny Park is enjoying new life, as the boom in South Lake Union and improvements to the city's oldest park bring a renaissance of appreciation.

The park was dedicated in 1884. It's a last stand of big trees amid the city's grit and gray, a soft, leafy glade that invites visitors to a slower step, and a deeper breath.

Once shunned as a place plagued by prostitution and drug dealing, a concerted effort by the city parks department over the past six years to spruce up the park and add new attractions, combined with development in South Lake Union, have yielded an inviting park unique in the downtown core.

The park fills one long block between Dexter Avenue North, Denny Way, John Street and Ninth Avenue North. The parks department kept the best of the old, in the park's grand trees, and added a suite of attractions, including new lighting, freshened grounds and a play zone. An off-leash dog area paid for by Vulcan and Amazon was added just this year, complete with free tennis balls and a shiny red fire hydrant provided by two other companies.

During the recent stretch of fine fall weather, the park has been alive in the afternoons.

"It's just a really nice atmosphere; I love coming here," said Jeff Ranish, a biotech researcher enjoying a burrito on a sun-dappled bench. "I come here at lunch just to get out of the office and get some fresh air. It's quiet and peaceful, and there are lots of benches."

Nearby, Alejandra Lieberman played with her miniature husky Kira in the dog area.

Just moved here from San Jose in May for her husband's job as a software engineer at Amazon, the couple moved into a nearby condo and meet most days for lunch. Then Lieberman takes Kira to Denny Park for a romp.

"It's nice because there is nearly always someone else here, and the dogs can tire each other out," she said.

It's a far cry from the scene here not long ago, notes Dewey Potter, spokeswoman for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Sure, you will still see people reposing on the grass here and there for what looks to be more than an occasional nap on a stolen afternoon.

But there are no encampments here, no sense anymore of the takeover of this public space by drug dealing and prostitution so brazen that park staff used to observe the goings on through the windows of the administration building.

"The police were here all the time, there was a lot of illegal activity in the park and it wasn't a place where people came just to be," Potter said. "The park didn't get a lot of use, which is too bad because it is one of the most beautiful parks we have."

Denny Park's new popularity is just one more transition. It started out as a cemetery (the graves were moved in the 1880s); was scalped during the Denny Regrade, and then completely replanted in the 1930s.

The towering trees that grace the park today date to that era. The nearly 100 percent tree canopy and variety of truly big trees allowed to grow to tip-back-your-head size is special.

"There isn't anything in the urban core like this, it's pretty unique," said Mark Mead, senior urban forester for Seattle Parks and Recreation. "It's such a concentrated mass of trees, right in the heart of the city."

With 148 trees of 38 species packed into less than five acres, the park offers a library of arboreal delights. There are gigantic specimens here of native species such as big leaf maple and cedar, and a wide range of exotics, including a towering giant sequoia and the graceful, European flavor of London plane trees.

No slackers, these big trees are still healthy, and growing vigorously.

The sequoia in the southeast corner of the park put on fresh new growth this year that shows in the vivid bright green and softer texture of its top. Really still a vigorous adolescent in sequoia terms, the tree put on about three to four feet of new growth just this year, Mead estimated. It's hard to tell, exactly, how tall it is.

On a recent afternoon, the gentle motion of boughs moving in the wind and crisp onset of fall offered the pleasure of crunching leaves underfoot. Velvety green grass and the leafy softness of the embracing tree canopy were a reprieve from the hard angles and workaday racket just beyond the park's boundaries.

Jenn Cooley was out for a jog with her dog, Bear, when she stopped by the park.

"It's nice when they clean a place up like this," she said. "Otherwise it's an area that really doesn't draw people. And you need a break living in the city. It's nice having trees."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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