The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) sent a letter to the city last month asking them to deny Hempfest's permit this year, due to concerns that it has "outgrown Myrtle Edwards Park as a safe and appropriate venue."
"The noise, trash and traffic congestion resulting from an event of this size—over three days—has a direct negative impact on the thousands of residents who live within a 1⁄2 mile radius," says the letter, part of a bulleted list of concerns cosigned by the Belltown Business Association and Uptown Alliance that they want Hempfest and the city to address.
The letter asks the city not to permit Hempfest at Myrtle Edwards Park unless some conditions are met—including limiting Hempfest's attendance, permitting it for only one day, and improving traffic control, police patrols, and trash pickup in the neighborhood. (A PDF of their letter is here.)
But as combative as the letter sounds, DSA spokesman James Sido says it arose only because Hempfest came to them directly asking for feedback about the event—DSA's "sole focus," says Sido, "was to give them any kind of feedback or constructive criticism that we could." He continued, "It's not a letter saying 'Hempfest needs to end now.' It's 'Hey, let's see if a better venue can be found.'" I told him it sounded like a little more than just feedback, and he replied that there's a "chance that it could come off as more critical than intended."
Hempfest director Vivian McPeak, who did not return calls for comment, sent a letter in response to DSA, addressing their points one by one—Hempfest is a boon to the local economy, its participants do clean up after themselves, and, most importantly, they've already "examined all park venues and the Seattle Center repeatedly in past years," as recently as 2012, and they're sure that Myrtle Edwards and its surrounding park areas are the right fit. (PDF of that letter here.)
Essentially: Hempfest asked the neighborhood for feeback, DSA's feedback was "Don't hold it here," and Hempfest counters that there's nowhere else to hold it and they're gonna keep having it there, thank you very much. On the city's part, Keblas told The Stranger by e-mail this week that as long as Hempfest fulfills permit requirements, "it is the City's intention to issue a permit for Hempfest this year by June 1st," and that will include "a cover letter from the City that address concerns from all parties."
But this is a neighborhood fight—over garbage, drugs, free speech—that's been a long time coming, and it's far from over.
One of the tricky parts here is that even though on its surface, Hempfest may seem like a regular old festival—vendor booths, food, music stages, hackey-sacks—it's always considered itself a political event and relied on a free-speech argument to claim its right to use city land. The organization is entirely volunteer-run, it's free to the public, and it's organized around a political discussion about the legality and cultural perceptions of pot and hemp. It's hard to argue in court to deny a political rally a permit for a city park, and Hempfest is always willing to go to the mat in the media and in court to protect their right to peaceably assemble. And people sometimes underestimate just how ready Hempfest is to fight for its right to party.
But Hempfest is indeed huge, messy, and loud, and it's grown a lot over the 20 years it's been happening. It has enormous impact on the neighborhoods surrounding the waterfront park—just ask anyone who's lived nearby. I had only to swivel my office chair slightly to see my colleague Cienna Madrid, who used to live right by the park, blanch as she talked about post-Hempfest drug paraphernalia, trash, and human feces in the park and surrounding areas. That's not to say that no big festivals ever trash a park, but neighborhood concerns shouldn't be ignored. Why isn't Seattle Center a serious consideration? It may be due to city rules saying you have to hire union labor to run a festival there, and Hempfest is run entirely by volunteers.
As the political landscape around marijuana changes, Hempfest may have to change with the times. We legalized it! YAY! So when does it stop being a political rally and start being the pot equivalent of Oktoberfest? As Dominic pointed out last year, "if Hempfest can't stand up for legalization when it matters, it isn't a pot legalization rally. It's just a smoke-in."