Some Lake City History and a Paper on Developing Vibrancy

Cassandra Brown, a UW Graduate Student in the Department of Urban Planning, did her master’s thesis on Lake City in 2020. It is called “A Visioning Document for Vibrancy in Lake City”. She studied the history of Lake City’s development, analyzed its current state, and made suggestions for how it could be made more vibrant. As she explains, “Urban vibrancy is the outcome of successful urban places –places that aspire to be seen, remembered and delighted in. They support community gathering, social exchange and often become places of cultural relevance. They incentivize people to walk to their destinations and to linger – improving personal health and creating safer streets.”

As she says, vibrancy is the end-goal of Lake City. We’d all like it to be a welcoming, thriving place with lots of things to do. Below is a map of the Lake City neighborhoods and the city center. The left boundary is 15th Ave NE; we can ignore the fact that Pinehurst is not labeled on the map!

Below, I’m copying verbatim mostly the history of Lake City, but you can read the entire paper here. It’s very interesting. Sorry for the formatting.


Though we often think of human development on a

spectrum of preserved lands where the natural

environment is reasonably untouched to urban; cities exist

within the natural context of the land and environment, not

independent from it. Michael Hough explores this concept

in Cities and Natural Processes: a Basis for Sustainability:

“Elements of the self-perpetuating biosphere that sustain

life on earth and which give rise to the physical landscape.

They are the central determinants that must shape all

human activities on the land,”

The landscape of the Pacific Northwest has been shaped by

glacial activity and at least four major geological events

over 2.4 million years. The Salish Sea, as we recognize it

today, was created by the most recent extension of the

Cordilleran Ice Sheet – the Puget Lobe, that advanced and

retreated over 5,000 years. This movement carved the

topography that has both challenged and protected people

here since time immemorial. Nested between the Olympic

and Cascade Mountains with steep grades and a deep port,

the Salish Sea region has been historically water-rich,

supporting travel and abundant food supply.

Today the Salish is regarded as a large watershed stretching

from Vancouver to the lower Puget Sound. It encompasses

the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia, 470 kilometers of

coastline, 419 islands, and supports over 4,000 unique

animal species. The diversity of life and temperate climate

has supported bands of indigenous Salish peoples since

time immemorial. Before colonization, the people that

occupied this place had extensive trade routes reaching as

far south as Peru, complex social and cultural traditions

and an advanced knowledge of the land and sustainable



On February 15, 1852, settlers Denny, Bell, and Boren set

out to find a port deep and calm enough to support

commerce. After making their land claims, a year later on

May 23, 1853, the three families filed to’ establish the

town of Seattle, where modern day Pioneer Square and

Downtown are now. The city of Seattle was built in the

pursuit of wealth and capitalism, though this vision was

not realized overnight. The historical city of Seattle was

surrounded by many competing municipalities, which

would become predominant neighborhoods.

The founders of Seattle envisioned a prosperous city and

went to work shaping the landscape to attract business.

The infrastructure that Seattle’s founding families

invested in includes: topographical alterations to

straighten the Duwamish river, straightening the Cedar

River to prevent floods south of Lake Washington, filling

tide flats to extend Seattle’s port, erecting hundreds of

pilings into muddy marsh lands to make the extension of

the railroad possible, and regrading Denny Hill – – all

unbeknownst to the founders, positioned Seattle to

benefit from the Klondike Goldrush of 1897-1898.

During this brief period, Seattle became a gateway city

providing stampeders with supplies and recreation.

“Seattle boomed; between July 1897 and March 1898 – in

the peak months of the gold rush – it is estimated that

Seattle merchants sold as much as $25 million in goods,

up from an estimated $325,000 in sales in all of 1896.

Seattle was on its way to becoming the leading city of the

Pacific Northwest, tripling its population from the time of

the gold rush to 240,000 by 1910.” Most annexations to

Seattle occurred during 1883-1910 because of this boom

in population, wealth and development.


The Lake City neighborhood of Seattle is within the Lake

Washington – Cedar River Watershed; and within this 11

square mile watershed, is Thornton Creek – a major

feature of the Lake City neighborhood. Local

archaeological discoveries and recorded oral histories

have led to a nearby cranberry bog harvested annually by

indigenous bands; longhouses that supported potlucks

and housed families through the winter months; remains

of loved ones; and sites of mythological importance. At

the Mouth of Thornton Creek where Matthews Beach is

now, the remains of indigenous sites have been

discovered, but have not been preserved:

The tu-oh-beh-dahbsh, [was] a small group that had

one house at the mouth of Thornton Creek and

possibly another at the mouth of McAleer Creek, the

outlet of Lake Ballinger. Those at Thornton Creek had

access to the large cranberry bog near its head at

what is now Northgate…The burial ground for this

group may have been located between the house sites

at a spot where children digging in the ground recently

found a 100-year old native skull… When the censuses

were carried out in the early 1850s as part of the

treaty-making process, the Sababsh together with

their relatives on Lake Sammamish were counted at

between 80 and 200 individuals.

Development in Lake City, however, occurred at a much

slower pace with agrarian uses persisting well into the

20th century. The area was first settled by loggers and

then Nordic immigrant farmers. Early development was

inhibited by transportation. The primary mode of travel

was on the waters of Lake Washington which contributed

to maintaining the rural character of region until the

arrival of the railroad and later popularization of the

automobile. Historian David Wilma writes that “in 1887,

Daniel Hunt Gilman and other investors built the Seattle,

Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad north along the shore

enroute to the coal mines at Gilman (later Issaquah). A

station was established north of the brick factory at Sand

Point. Someone posted a sign on a shed that read, “Lake.”

The tracks hugged the shoreline, limiting settlement to

one side of the tracks at the mouths of creeks. In the

1890s, an electric trolley line reached Ravenna to the

south, opening that area to residential development, but

the area to the north remained farmland [until] D. H. and

H. Lee purchased [and platted] the land around Lake

station from the Puget Mill Co. In 1906… and called it

Lake City,”

In 1911, not long after the land around Lake Station was

purchased to build residences, Lake City Way underwent

the first of several paving improvements making the

region, for the first time, accessible to surrounding urban

areas. Commercial activity developed along the highway

and during prohibition in Washington State (1916-

1933), flourished as entrepreneurs manufactured and

sold alcohol. Research by David Wilma found that Lake

City was a popular destination for illegal activities through

prohibition and then, after the repeal of prohibition,

maintained an active nightlife.

The sprawling nature of agriculture did not incentivize

economic clustering for any significant downtown, and

when the area did experience development along Lake

City Way, it was auto-centric, meaning that preference

was given to wide streets and ample surface parking

surrounding businesses. The neighborhood remained

unincorporated until 1947 when area residents founded a

sewer district. Lake City was annexed to Seattle in 1954

as part of “North Seattle.”

Following World War II, unincorporated Lake City saw its

most drastic growth with a population increase from

2,898 in 1920 to 17,500 in 1940. The population nearly

tripled over the next decade reaching a population of

43,680 by 1950. In 1990, the population had reached

69,000 and in 2000 it was 75,400. Decades of

disinvestment in city centers resulting from tax incentives

for home ownership, the availability of debt, poor urban

policies and technology innovations that enabled

households to locate further from urban centers

contributed to an increase in land consumption, but

overall decrease in density.

In summary, the evolution of form in Lake City has

occurred in the following steps. It was founded as rural

agricultural lands serving developing areas until the

popularization of the automobile and related

infrastructure enabled travel to the area. With

development then primarily located along the highway to

support a partially informal economy and the prevalence

of conflicting land uses and large tenants, the

unincorporated area was considered urban-fringe. The

uncoordinated and rapid residential development that

followed WWII then made it a suburb. Since its

annexation to Seattle and designation as a regional

growth area, it may be characterized as an ex-burb with

infill development encouraged within the urban-village

hub and along main corridors.

Despite its recent shift in morphology, its unplanned history

has created several challenges to cultivating development

and vibrancy. These challenges include persistent

conflicting land uses, large tenants, concentrated

development along a highway, and a lack of amenities such

as those enjoyed by Seattle residents in other

neighborhoods, most notably the presence of cultural

attractions like performing arts spaces and the prevalence

of third places.

Challenges to vibrancy in Lake City include block size, the

lack of pedestrian-generating cultural attractions, lack of

horizontal density, legibility of form, and the dominance

of Lake City Way – a state-managed highway that serves

as both a main street and thoroughfare. However, the

community also has a rich history, natural nodes that

support civic engagement, and ample surface parking

that can be repurposed to make midblock pedestrian

pathways and meaningful civic spaces in the time of the


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