By Erica C. Barnett
A new linear park on Seattle’s downtown waterfront won’t be fully open until 2025, but the plan to enforce rules and maintain security in the park is already causing consternation at City Hall.
Last week, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned the city’s public safety plan for the new park, which will—unlike the 430 parks that fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department—be managed by Seattle Center. That agreement, along with funding for the equivalent of 11.5 security staff, will be on the council’s agenda later this month.
Since 2012, as we’ve reported, the Parks Department has voluntarily agreed not to kick people out of parks for more than a day except for serious law or rule violations, even though they have the authority to issue “parks exclusions” for up to a year. When Seattle Center does not have a similar agreement, and has excluded dozens of people from its campus for periods ranging from 7 to 365 days in the past year.
“The Parks Department voluntarily constraining itself evolved over time… because of the research that was done on the use of parks exclusions,” Herbold said. The parks exclusion ordinance, one of many “civility” laws passed in the late 1990s under former city attorney Mark Sidran, essentially gave police and parks rangers carte blanche to prohibit people from using public spaces without any due process. The policy led to cruel and sometimes absurd results.
“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record.”—Seattle Center director Robert Nellams
In a conversation with PubliCola, retiring Seattle Center director Robert Nellams and incoming interim director Marshall Foster, who previously led the city’s Office of the Waterfront, said Seattle Center has been judicious about enforcing its rules against bad behavior. Before issuing an exclusion, Nellams said, “We to work with people, we try to get them to comply. And even if they only comply a little bit … we don’t go down that path” toward kicking people out.
“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record,” Nellams said.
If a person is trespassed from Seattle Center, though, it’s always for at least seven days, Nellams added. “If everybody understands and knows that that most that they can be excluded for is for one day, then that usually leads to some behavioral issues.”
According to the operations plan Foster and Office of the Waterfront Tiffany Melake presented to the city council’s public assets committee last Wednesday, the Friends of the Waterfront—a nonprofit that works with the city on waterfront planning, funding, and programming—will be responsible for social services along the waterfront through a contract with the outreach nonprofit REACH, and will employ “park ambassadors” to respond to minor issues.
Foster said the city has already tested out the public safety model it plans to use in the waterfront park on Pier 62, which reopened in 2020. What they found is that while “the vast majority of folks using it are following the code of conduct and everybody’s having a great time… you do need some rules which [allow you to] remove people from the space for a period of time. … If we’re not willing to enforce those things that have consequences [for other park users], it’s very hard for us to help people follow the right behavior in the park.”
Other nearby parks, such as Victor Steinbrueck Park just to the east of the waterfront, will still be subject to the Parks Department’s exclusion policy, meaning that someone could be excluded from the waterfront park for a rule violation that would not get them kicked out of a park next door.
Because the waterfront is directly adjacent to downtown—an area with a large number of unsheltered people and nonprofits that serve them—I asked Nellams how his department planned to deal with encampments in the area. (The Parks Department is chiefly responsible for responding to and removing encampments in other parks). Nellams said it was too soon to say, but noted that there are no tents at Seattle Center. “At Seattle Center, camping is not allowed,” Nellams said, “so we respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”