The Harrison Ridge Greenbelt

A History of Community Activism

Cathy Nunnelly


Part One

Some of our newer neighbors may view the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt as only an undeveloped hillside above 32nd Avenue. However, the preservation of this community green space developed over a period of 70 years. Many of our neighbors have worked tirelessly to preserve the only green space in Madison Valley.

During the 1930’s, the city of Seattle was still in the process of paving the streets in the Madison Valley neighborhood. One specific street project involved paving a pathway directly through the heart of the woods from E Denny Way to E Harrison along what is now 33rd Avenue E. However, during the construction, the hillside gave way in a landslide bringing the work to an abrupt halt. The project was abandoned and the hillside remained intact. This is the reason that 33rd Avenue E is not a throughway.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, developers approached the neighborhood with a design for a “Model Cities” low-income housing project. The developers’ goal was to construct 25 unit apartment buildings on the site. Among other radical changes, this plan called for significant excavation of the woods for a parking lot to accommodate the large numbers of prospective tenants. However, the builders underestimated the negative reaction and cohesiveness of the Madison Valley community. The first group to protest the development of this neighborhood land was the Harrison School PTA (later renamed ML KingJr. School). The protesting group called itself the Harrison-Denny Community Council whose boundaries encompassed the woods. The Council found much support among the valley residents. With so much support, the organization was able to send a large delegation of residents to the Seattle City Council hearing regarding the federal Model Cities proposal.

During the meeting, there were accusations from the developers that the protestors were motivated by a desire to restrict low-income people from living within their neighborhood. However, angry African-American representatives countered that assumption with disheartening tales of living within such projects in other cities. They did not want to see another “warehouse” approach as solution for low-income people. Appreciating the presentation of the community, and recognizing other problems with the proposed plan, the Seattle City Council ultimately refused to permit the apartment buildings.

Their recorded decision was based upon probable geological instability of the hillside. Once again, the wooded hillside was saved from development. There was one house on the hillside, which was built in the 1920’s. The community relaxed, and over the next few years, lacking a burning issue to rally around, the Community Council was dissolved. However, in early 1990’s another threat arose which initiated a new alarm regarding the woods. 



In the first chapter of the Greenbelt history, we presented the story of the initial attempt to develop the hillside along 32nd Avenue E between E Denny and E John. During the late '60s and early '70s the community rallied together to block the building of a low- income housing project. Then, after twenty years of quiet, another threat to the woods brought the community together.   This rallying cry was the genesis for the current community council, which at that time was named Harrison-Denny Community Council.

In the early 1990's, a neighbor across the street from the Greenbelt contacted community activists reporting that a sign had been posted. The sign stated a lot owner's intent to begin building a house. The owner was contacted and after hearing the community's wish to preserve the site, agreed to sell his lot to the City. At that time, the City of Seattle had funds to acquire undeveloped land to preserve green spaces in the neighborhoods. Communities were becoming aware of a development boom and were concerned that their beautiful green city would someday be lost to construction. In those days, $6,000 was the cost of an average lot. This acquisition effort of the City has resulted in the many green spaces you see throughout Seattle neighborhoods today.

Well-known community activists and leaders, Peggy and Jerry Sussman organized a small band of like-minded neighbors and decided to reinstate a community council.  The Council would enable the group to create an organized forum to present the community’s concerns to Seattle City Council.  The newly minted Harrison-Denny Community Council became an instantly popular magnet and attracted up to 100 residents and business owners at each meeting.  The annual spaghetti dinner was always sold out and the treasury was filled with proceeds from the tremendously successful rummage sale.

Of course, the first order of business for the new Council was the protection of the neighborhood’s only wild green-space, the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt.  The few other lot owners in the Greenbelt readily agreed to sell their properties to the City.  They enjoyed a generous compensation.  One parcel, owned by King County, was gifted to the community.

 However, one lot owner was not moved by the community's spirit and refused to cooperate. Again, the appearance of a sign along the street alerted neighbors of an intent to develop the site. The owner had applied for his property to be re-platted from 3 into 2 lots and intended to build 2 large houses. When he realized that the community was moving against his plans, he brought in bulldozers and began clearing the property. The Council immediately contacted the City and a stop work order was issued. Subsequent hearings with the Seattle City Council resulted in a judgment against the owner.

In an unprecedented move, the City condemned the property under the right of eminent domain. This Washington State constitutional law allowed the government to acquire and preserve pieces of undeveloped property as parks or green spaces. The City was required to pay a fair market value for such land and negotiated a price with the property owner. A reduced price was paid due to the destruction of the land.

 The entire community was ecstatic as the realization of many months of perseverance resulted in a new park.  The 6.2 acres of the wooded hillside became officially known as the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt.

Now that the community had realized its goal of preserving the green space, the next step was to care for this property. That part of the Greenbelt history will be presented in the next chapter.



Part Three

Previously, in the first two chapters, I presented an overview of our neighborhood’s successful effort to save the wooded hillside along 32ndAvenue East from development. First, in the 1960s, the community rallied together to prevent an ill-advised low-income housing project from being built. Then, twenty years later, the neighbors again banned together to block the construction of houses in the green space. The financially stable City of Seattle was able to purchase the property in question under the law of eminent domain. It was the first time that eminent domain had been utilized to acquire property for the specific purpose of maintaining green space in the city. Now that the community had its wooded hillside, it was up to the residents to maintain the site.

In 1993, a committee was formed within the newly resurrected Harrison-Denny Community Council (the prior name of the present MVCC) to apply for grant money and carry out a reforestation project.. The group, lead by Jerry and Peggy Sussman, received a Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund Grant for $13,000. With the money, they began a project that spanned two years.

To begin, the committee hired landscape designer Blair Constantine. Blaire surveyed the area and drew up the plans to restore the 6 1/2 acres of land. The woods had been used a dumpsite for generations. In the summer of 1994, students were recruited from the area’s schools as paid workers to clean up. Volunteers from the community pitched in too. Huge amounts of debris such as old tires, car parts, and abandoned appliances were pulled from the land. Truckloads of invasive ivy and clematis as well as other vegetative waste were cleared. The Parks Department provided trucks and hauled away all the debris. The volume of detritus was astonishing!

In the summer of 1995, after the previous year’s cleanup, five hundred conifers, native plants and shrubs were purchased and planted within the newly cleared woods. Arborist Paul West from the Parks Department oversaw the planting and worked among the volunteers. These plantings occurred after two years of very arduous work. The next several years brought new volunteer work parties to the greenbelt to maintain the baby plants. As the trees and shrubs began to thrive, the community rejoiced.

In late 1995, the Council applied for and received another grant concerning the Greenbelt. This Small and Simple Grant outlined a two part effort to educate the community about the Greenbelt. The first part concerned the publication of the spiral booklet, “City Woods”. “City Woods” was a locally set story of native trees and plants with a brief history of how the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt was saved. It included illustrations of different plants as well as drawings of historical images. Volunteers from the neighborhood did all the art and writing; only the printing costs were paid from the grant money. One thousand copies of the first edition were printed. A second printing, including some new illustrations, followed soon. The booklets were sold for $5 each in local bookstores and at community events.

The second part of the grant concerned the development of a curriculum to teach about local history to the students of Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School. For eight weeks, volunteers came to the classrooms of grades K-5 and taught about the woodland history of the region and the identification of plant life. Three hundred copies of the “City Woods” booklet were gifted to the school.

The next chapter will describe our current efforts to continue reforestation and about local student involvement in learning about urban forestry.

 This is the Greenbelt during the first few years of restoration 2011.  Cruise on by now along 32nd Ave E and see our progress!

This is the Greenbelt during the first few years of restoration 2011.  Cruise on by now along 32nd Ave E and see our progress!


Part Four

“Hey! What are you doing tearing out the blackberries!?” Trina and I turn smiling to look upon a young woman walking her dog. I gesture to the sign describing the park as a reforestation site. “We’re yourneighbors and the volunteer forest stewards for our Greenbelt. It’s important to remove the invasive plants so that the park will survive.”

“But I like blackberries!”, she insists. It’s getting harder to find them in the city. How will I have my blackberry pies? Why can’t the park just be natural?”

This type of encounter is common for forest stewards throughout the city. It’s music to our ears to hear that folks are having a harder time finding blackberry patches. Blackberry is among the most invasive species killing our parks. Without restoration, it’s estimated that in 50 years all the trees will be gone and by the end of the century, Seattle’s urban forests will be completely destroyed. All that will remain will be ivy deserts and impenetrable blackberry thickets. It’s a desirable habitat for rats but not for many other creatures, including humans.

Today, Seattle’s urban forests are predominately deciduous trees such as big leaf maples and alders nearing or at the end of their lifespans. They are infamous for chucking off limbs in windstorms or falling down completely creating hazardous conditions. Additionally, they are covered with an ivy and clematis canopy hastening their demise. Although green in summer, they are extremely unattractive in winter.

These neglected green spaces are undesirable.

Healthy urban forests are attractive and increase property values. They provide wildlife habitat, reduce storm water runoff and erosion, and improve air quality while reducing global warming. Studies from UW indicate interaction with wild green areas promote both mental and physical health.

So... back to our concerned dog walker and her fellow blackberry aficionados:

“Well,” we say, “We love blackberry pie too! However, we love this park more. Are you happy to have a wild urban forest in the neighborhood?”

She nods and like everyone answers: “Yes”.

In the mid 2000’s, one of our more observant neighbors realized that clematis, ivy, and blackberry had overwhelmed our neglected greenbelt. The trees were covered with the vines and obviously struggling. Led by Libby Sinclair, the group “Save the Trees” was formed. A tiny dedicated band of neighbors worked rather casually and intermittently pulling out the ivy and clematis for a couple of years, but this effort wasn’t enough.

We turned to Forterra, part of the Green Seattle Partnership, for the rescue! Green Seattle Partnership (GSP) was formed in 2004 as a collaborative effort of many entities, among them: Seattle Parks, Dept. of Parks and Recreation, SPU and many, many non-profits. The GSP has 2,500 acres of green space under reforestation and has become the largest and most effective urban forest restoration project in America!

Forterra has many missions in the reforestation effort. One of their amazing contributions is encouragement and management of all the “civilian” volunteers out in the parks. Forterra supplies tools, mulching materials and expertise to assist volunteers care for their green spaces. Ongoing classes and events for forest stewards ensure folks are developing necessary skills. The untiring and dedicated staff led by Andrea Mojzak has truly been a lifesaver.

The final chapter will introduce us to the current reforestation efforts in the greenbelt and our two forest stewards.

 Catherine Nunneley and Trina Wherry

Catherine Nunneley and Trina Wherry



In the first four chapters, we learned of the past 20-year history of our Greenbelt. Now we come to today’s restoration efforts.

Continued work in the Greenbelt has been done by two sets of neighborhood volunteers. First, Evelyn Hall and I worked together for a few years. Then, the past three years have been under my and Trina Wherry’s stewardship.

As restoration efforts expanded the area cleared and planted, maintenance became almost unmanageable for just two stewards. We were so busy maintaining the newly planted area that further restoration was incremental in spite of our best efforts. We were feeling overwhelmed.

Three years ago, however, the Bush Middle School students and their teacher, Ben Wheeler, rescued us. Ben began to teach a class in Urban Forestry as part of Bush’s elective curriculum. About a dozen eager students come to the Greenbelt twice a year and have made a huge contribution. Ben does some classroom teaching and then we provide the fieldwork experience.

 Bush School students

Bush School students


The students use picks and loppers to remove invasive plants such as ivy and blackberries. They create “life rings” around trees to protect them from the invasives. A layer of burlap and wood chips is then put down over the newly bare areas.

Each session has its own rewards. In spring, the students experience the bare branches of shrubs and trees at the beginning of their session and then delight in the leafing out and flowering that occurs over the weeks.

Fall’s reward is the installation of new plants. The Parks Department delivers a treasure trove of native ferns, trees, and shrubs that were ordered by the Greenbelt’s forest stewards. It’s tons of fun to plant the new forest baby plants.

Both classes do ongoing maintenance in the older areas. Seattle Parks Dept with Forterra provide all the gloves and tools in a big, locked job box on site. The students come to the Greenbelt for five weeks and do the work that it would take us several months alone. There are no adequate words to describe our appreciation.

 Getting dirty!

Getting dirty!


Trina and I also meet at the site at least yearly with the Forterra volunteer coordinator, Andrea Mojzak, Seattle Parks gardener, Sara Franks, and our new plant ecologist Will Pablo. We walk the site with them and discuss problems, solutions and future plans. It’s wonderful!

This year the trees and shrubs we planted in 2011 are finally becoming part of the larger forest. It’s quite a beautiful sight and an integral part of the community.

The Harrison Ridge Greenbelt is still a large wild area in need of ongoing restoration and maintenance. Although we are squeaking by with the Bush School help, it would be so much better to have some involvement from the community. We have not been successful requesting volunteers from the neighborhood even with small events. We are trying again to encourage participation with an upcoming work party.