On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council heard a presentation on swapping land ownership of City Hall Park to the county in exchange for 13 county-owned properties, many of them small pieces of land next to city parks.
Last summer, City Hall Park, once home to an estimated over 70 people experiencing homelessness, became the center of controversy after several incidents of violent crime that parts of the public blamed on the encampment. Following pressure from the local broadcast networks, electeds like King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, and a protest organized by county employees, the city and county contracted JustCare, its homeless outreach and shelter program, to offer services to residents before Seattle Parks closed the park. The park remains closed.
At the time, King County Executive Dow Constantine called on former Mayor Jenny Durkan to restore the park, which the city owns, and make sure that when the park reopened, “not one more person comes back and plunks down their tent there.” But soon, keeping City Hall Park tent-free, as Constantine wants, could be the county’s responsibility.
During the council's first briefing on the deal this week, neighborhood groups like Alliance for Pioneer Square and Chief Seattle Club worried that the land transfer could potentially lose the neighborhood its largest green space. Opposition to the deal also argued it would not be a fair deal for the city or legitimately address the park's safety concerns.
While the city council only just introduced the legislation in committee, the county council had already pushed for this switch for months. In October of last year, the county passed an ordinance to start the process, hoping that Executive Constantine would explore the park’s use as part of the county's larger civic campus while figuring out a way to deal with future encampments. Last November, executives at the city and the county both got on board with the deal.
At Wednesday's city council committee meeting, the panel of county and city officials acted as though the transfer was a done deal, with Chief Equity Officer Adiam Emery from Mayor Harrell's office warning that the process has “gone too far for us to pivot at this point.” When Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Tammy Morales pushed back, insisting that the Mayor still had time to disapprove, Emery said that the Mayor supports the county’s proposed land transfer.
Lewis noted that he expected a “presentation” or a “slide deck" from the county at Wednesday's meeting, or for the county to make a “pitch” to the city, but representatives from the county did not.
According to County Councilmember Joe McDermott, the county doesn’t really have a pitch. (McDermott and County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay voted no on asking the city to trade.) McDermott said in a phone interview that he felt supporters of the swap did not give a clear or consistent reason why the county should snag the park. At first, the county argued it wanted to “clean up” the park and address crime. Later, it said it wanted the land to be part of "a complete" downtown civic campus.
City Hall Park No Longer “City” or “Park”?
This lack of clarity especially concerned McDermott when he proposed an amendment late last year to keep City Hall Park a park in perpetuity. Only County Councilmember Zahilay joined him in voting for that amendment. As it stands, the legislation asks but does not require the county and the city to keep all the parcels as parks.
The county has no official proposal to develop the area, but County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles proposed that the county build affordable housing in that plot last August. Kohl-Welles’s idea did not make the final legislation.
Still, because the county offered the city land mostly zoned for single housing in exchange for prime downtown real estate that can be developed around 12 stories high, the deal's opposition has suggested the county may want to develop the area. During Wednesday's council meeting, that opposition—which included the Low Income Housing Institute, a representative from Real Change, and the Seattle Parks Foundation— warned the county could destroy one of the neighborhood's only greenspaces, used by hundreds of low-income residents, without providing different land in the area for park use.
CEO and President of the Seattle Parks Foundation Rebecca Bear asked the Seattle City Council to keep the land. If they trade it away, she asked that it at least modify the language attached to the ordinance to require the county to keep it as a park, much like McDermott proposed.
What Gets Swapped?
Even though the county offered around 2.5 times as much land, groups opposing the deal expressed concern on Wednesday, arguing that the city would get the short end of the stick. Because City Hall Park is downtown and allows approximately 12 stories of development, central staff noted in its memo to the council that the land may be worth more than the land the city would receive.
City Councilmember Lewis asked for appraisals on the parcels the county is offering, with no luck. According to that memo from central staff, "an appraisal has not been performed on these properties and is not anticipated to be performed." The director of the county's facilities management division, Tony Wright, speaking on behalf of the county on Wednesday, said that the county and city agreed to base the deal off of area instead of value.
City Councilmember Morales argued that many of the proposed land parcels from the county would not add value to Seattle parkgoers. Many of them add to existing city parks, some adding less than 300 square feet.
On Wednesday, people during both public comment and the panel spoke to the original intent of the land transfer: safety.
As safety concerns mounted last summer, county employees at the courthouse next door called for action. Presiding Judge of the King County Superior Court Patrick Oishi represented that push during public comment, saying, “The courthouse and surrounding area must be safe for everyone to access justice.”
Last summer, the city and the county contracted JustCare to bring people living in City Hall Park inside after courthouse employees and jurors brought up safety concerns. Tiarra Dearbone, with JustCare's parent organization the Public Defenders Association, argued in public comment that changing ownership of land would not address the safety concerns of the park and the surrounding area.
Over the phone, County Councilmember McDermott agreed that the county would not be better equipped to deal with crime in City Hall Park than the city. McDermott suggested that the problem would only move if the county were to "clean up" City Hall Park and focus on the park alone.
“This is not changing the culture of downtown Seattle or Pioneer Square as a whole. It's a false sense of security to say that we're providing public safety by addressing only one block,” McDermott said.
As Lewis made clear at the beginning of Wednesday's meeting, this is only the council’s first briefing on the legislation. They've got many more weeks before they decide the fate of the controversial greenspace in Pioneer Square.