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Originally published Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Plant Life

Seattle's Magnuson Park makeover attracts all kinds of creatures

At Seattle's Magnuson Park, the final phase of a massive renovation has created a web of wetlands, playfields and trails that invite all kinds of creatures, from frogs and hawks to soccer players and kayakers. The renovation involved digging up acres of concrete left from the old naval base at the site and a creating an intricate system of ponds, berms and channels to integrate the playfields and the wetlands into a seamless whole along the shore of Lake Washington.

MORE THAN 10 acres of paving were removed during the latest Magnuson Park renovation. That's 10 acres of concrete. Hard surfaces were replaced with ballfields and a vast web of wetlands, and this is only one phase of the park's master plan. There's still an entire lagoon to come.

It's no small task to transform the old naval airfield into an eco-friendly park. Magnuson's 350 acres, stretching a mile along the shore of Lake Washington, make it Seattle's second-largest city park (only Discovery Park in Magnolia, another old military base, is larger).

Magnuson Park offers easy access and wide-open views of mountains and water. But it's always felt ragged and confusing, a maze of parking lots, old military buildings, roads and runways. The place is as baffling as you might expect from a site meant for one purpose and converted to quite another.

Landscape architect Guy Michaelsen of the Berger Partnership has been at work on 125 of the park's acres since 2001 as part of the last-to-be-completed Pro Parks projects. "There was lots of angst around it," he says. "The idea was to keep the park natural, but it wasn't natural . . . It was an old runway."

Wetland advocates had different priorities than the people pushing public ballfields. "It turned out we were able to tie the wetlands and the playing fields together pretty seamlessly," says Michaelsen. The huge lights and tall fences of the ballfields clustered at the west end are balanced by the 14-acre network of created and rehabilitated wetlands to the east side of the site. Runoff from the parking lots and fields is treated, then directed into the wetlands.

"We wanted to mesh the natural and the cultural aspects of the site," explains Michaelsen. "We wove organic fingers of natural wetlands into the fields and took the geometry of the fields into the wetlands." The team, which included an ecologist, excavated ponds and piled soil up into impressive berms laced with miles of trails. Finally, the flat site has hills high enough to offer vantage-point views out over the park.

Close to the ballfields, the ponds are square-edged and contained in concrete to emphasize their man-made qualities. As the wetlands stretch toward the lake and future lagoon, they become more naturalistic and wild-looking. Michaelsen may have focused on human requirements, but from a bird's point of view he's created an avian paradise. Ducks and frogs have settled in; dragonflies hover and skim over the surface of the ponds. "Dragonflies are like canaries in coal mines for wetlands health," says Michaelsen. "We're thrilled to see so many here already."

Were they tempted to stock the ponds with fish?

Not a single creature was imported, despite the vibrant pulse of life going on all around. It's a clear case of build it and they will come.

But you have to build it right. Wetlands ranging from shallow marshes to deep, promontory ponds encourage a wide variety of species to take up residence. Thousands of native plants, from ground covers to conifers, will grow up to create habitat. It'll take awhile for the evergreen trees to mature, but Sitka and Hooker's willows, red osier dogwoods and western crabapples are beginning to fill in along the paths and between the ponds.

Michaelsen's team even sought out hunks of woody debris blown down at the zoo and other parks around town, and hauled them back to Magnuson. They placed the craggy pieces like sculpture. Now snag trees stick up out of the ponds like broken teeth, serving as perches for eagles and hawks, and homes for colonies of insects.

Who, besides birds, insects, fish and amphibians, is expected to take advantage of these new parkland acres? "We hope people will come for sports and enjoy the surprise of the wetlands," says Michaelsen. Birders will have a field day. Swimmers and boaters can choose to navigate miles of looping trails along the way to the beaches.

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Michaelsen looks out at the acres of shimmering water and native habitat and says, "We hope to make naturalists out of people who had no clue they were interested in nature."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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