By Erica C. Barnett
King County and the city of Seattle are moving forward with a plan, negotiated under former mayor Jenny Durkan, for the city to trade City Hall Park in Pioneer Square for 12 smaller pieces of county-owned property around the city.
The park, which has been closed and fenced off since last year, was the site of a large encampment through much of 2021, prompting calls to remove the park from city control by King County officials and some superior court justices who work in the adjacent King County Courthouse. Although the park was neglected during the pandemic, pre-COVID efforts to “activate” the space had been largely successful, and the city had planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars expanding those programs before the pandemic began.
On Wednesday, the city council’s public assets and homelessness committee had its first discussion about the proposed land swap, which will also require the city to vacate (give or sell to the county) a short stretch of road that passes through the park.
Although the trade currently feels like a fait accompli—a spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said Harrell supports the trade as long as it includes a covenant that ensures the park remains a park “in perpetuity”—parks and Pioneer Square neighborhood advocates questioned whether trading the land to the county would actually accomplish the dual goal of improved public safety and open space for the neighborhood.
Rebecca Bear, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, called City Hall Park a “complex” location with “a lot of issues,” but told council members that “closing off the park and even transferring the park to another jurisdiction is not going to solve that problem.” For hundreds of low-income people living in the area, the park serves as an important green space in a highly urban area—or did, before it was fenced off last year. “The park does need love now while this process is going on, and so I’d encourage you all to you know, work with the [county] to see if there’s a way we can get the park open and activated before any land transfers happen,” Bear said.
Legislation adopted by the King County Council last year says the deed for the land swap will include a covenant guaranteeing that the land “shall continue to be used for public open space, a park, a recreation and community facility, the expansion of existing County facilities, or other public benefit purpose, provided that any such purpose shall be for use by the general public and primarily noncommercial in nature.”
King County external relations director Calli Knight told the council that placing covenant on the land would “make it clear that it is going to be substantially used in perpetuity for open space, with the nuance that we really would like to look at opening the historic south entrance of the park”—the historic front entrance of the courthouse, which was reoriented to face Third Avenue in the 1960s.
Representatives from the county noted that the city and county previously agreed to a land swap based on acreage, rather than land value, since the fair-market value of City Hall Park would be in the tens of millions if it could be developed as high-rise housing or office space. “We settled upon a an area negotiation because … the location of the park, if it was unrestricted property, would render that completely outside the scale, which is one of the reasons we also have about three times as much property being conveyed in terms of area,” King County Facilities Management Division Tony Wright told the council.
Initiative 42, passed in 1997, says that if the city wants to trade away park land, it must “receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”
Collectively, the 12 parcels represent more square footage (1.33 acres) than City Hall Park, which is just over half an acre, but many are tiny triangles or squares contiguous to or across the street from city-owned property. But some council members wondered if the city is getting a fair deal out of the proposed land swap. “Many of these [parcels] are really small—you know, there’s a couple that are less than 300 square feet,” Councilmember Tammy Morales noted Wednesday. “I’m not sure what the city’s gain would be in terms of being able to use these parcels.”
In addition to the park, the county is asking the city to vacate a public street, allowing the county to use that space for another purpose, for free—a departure from previous policy. For example, when the city vacated streets on First Hill to allow expansion of the Harborview Medical Center, the county paid for the land, Lewis said.
The land transfer can’t move forward without city council approval and analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act, from which the Durkan administration argued the land swap was exempt. Committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he and other council members have a number of outstanding questions about the land swap, including the street vacation, which amounts to as much city-owned property as the park itself.
“I don’t think any of us particularly feel bound by whatever secretive process the Durkan administration engaged in” with the county, Lewis said, “because it was not one the council was privy to. The council started our process yesterday, and I don’t, frankly, feel bound by any concession the Durkan Administration made. We’re going to look at this from top to bottom.”