It may have won design awards and cost a million bucks, but a park near the King Street Metro station envisioned as a gateway to Old Town Alexandria isn't getting raves from many passersby.

"It's ugly," said Bryant Malcolm, 64, a tourist from New Jersey.

"There are so many nooks and crannies, it would be real easy for a pervert to be holed up back there," said Alison Jackson, 45, a local graphic artist.

"It looks like a swamp," said Steve Ganan, 26, a financial adviser who works across the street.

The Seattle artists who designed the two-year-old park and its 30-foot-tall trellis work say such opinions reflect the suburban wasteland, where unusual art is misunderstood.

But many city officials say they, too, are worried about this piece of their legacy.

"It's not quite as pleasing to the eye as I would have hoped," said state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria), who as mayor oversaw the project's approval.

Ten years ago, Alexandria residents and planners saw development displacing green space, especially around Metro stations. One remedy was to buy a triangle of land near the King Street Metro and turn it into a park. And not just any park. Artists and architects from across the country were invited to offer a design.

Guidelines were clear: The design was to embrace the city's rich colonial history, be "memorable" and have national significance.

Today, a framework of towering painted steel sits largely barren, waiting for vines of grape, ivy, wisteria and Virginia creeper to find their way to the top. The 30-foot climb will take five years, planners say. The framework is to resemble George Washington's tricorn hat, a ship's prow or a plow, all historic symbols of the 250-year-old city.

But three stories above the art, none of Ed Bernier's root-canal patients recognize what they look down on.

"They ask what it is," the endodontist said. "They're not good remarks. I wish something else were there instead."

At street level, Maria Velegris, a Crestar Bank employee, uses the odd neighbor as a landmark when giving directions to customers.

"We tell them, 'Look for the black structure,' " she said. "I won't call it a park."

The attitude is lamentable, say visual artist Buster Simpson and landscape architect Mark Spitzer, of Seattle, two members of the four-person design team.

"There's poetry and mystery and sophistication to it," Simpson said, referring to little-known aspects of the project, such as the intentional marsh replica, meant to evoke a creek that runs in a culvert below the street.

Designing a park, Simpson said, means being a visionary, imagining the landscape years from now. As looming office buildings and a major hotel arrive just yards away, the greenery must also be a Goliath or else be lost. Furthermore, he insisted, the suburban yen for a nice lawn with petunias is the equivalent of a smiley face.

"There was a desire at one point to have us plant only evergreen vines," Spitzer said. "We were much more interested in the cycle of nature that's been taken out of our urban environment."

Nonsense, said Susan Feller, an Alexandria landscape designer.

"This is not just supposed to be an intellectual exercise," she said. "This is supposed to be something that's lovely to look at. It's the biggest design mistake Alexandria's ever made."

Not everyone is a detractor. A few locals routinely lunch there, applauding the overgrown forest in the midst of traffic.

Mark Spisak, whose name appears on one of the park's fund-raising bricks, called the triangle an "oasis. . . . I like the canopy effect of all the vines growing up."

But the city's planning director, Sheldon Lynn, calls the park "weeds with trash." City Manager Vola Lawson said the city takes seriously its maintenance responsibilities, but she privately trades a threat with Lynn: If you get hit by a truck, I'll see to it that the park is named after you.

City Council members, some of whom never liked the idea, dare to dream about a developer who would pay to have the black steel razed.

"If that park is the result of a national competitive selection," said council member David G. Speck (D), "I wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking what the second-place finisher must have looked like."

CAPTION: The park, near the King Street Metro station, is supposed to resemble George Washington's tricorn hat, a ship's prow or a plow. One passerby said it resembles "a swamp."