By Erica C. Barnett
The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.
Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).
More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.
"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."
This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.
Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.
"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."
"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square
While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.
Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."
The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't."
Both Scholes and Howard pointed out that the problems at City Hall Park didn't emerge from a vacuum, nor did they suddenly vanish when the fencing went up. "This conversation we're having is a symptom of a bigger problem, which is the city and county’s inability to respond to the behaviors that took hold in that park over many, many months, and that’s what we should be focused on," Scholes said.
"We're trying to build an urban environment in that portion of the neighborhood that’s balanced and accessible to everyone and where people feel safe when they’re visiting or entering the county facilities, and it’s going to be very hard to get there if we don’t have any conversation" about real, long-term solutions, Howard said.
McDermott, a history buff and former Underground Tour guide, points out another reason he believes the county shouldn't take over the park: It barely has enough money to maintain the buildings it has, much less reorient the entire county courthouse to the south or take on the job of maintaining and securing a park in Seattle's densest neighborhood. "My bigger concerns are that we are not responsible for parks in an incorporated city and that we shouldn’t be spending money in a land swap or on an ongoing basis to maintain and operate an activated park in downtown Seattle," McDermott added.
Durkan, whose term ends in January, won't be in office to see the land transfer happen; a spokesman for mayor-elect Bruce Harrell said the new administration would defer to the deal Durkan made with the county. The city council represents the last remaining roadblock. Council parks committee chair Debora Juarez, whose committee will take up the land transfer bill next year, declined to comment about the details of the proposed land swap.