Jon Scholes likes to say that downtown Seattleites are so blessed with gorgeous scenery they settle for sub-par public spaces in their downtown core.
“Other cities don’t have Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier right in their backyard like we do,” says Scholes, who is vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). “Other cities, they need vital public spaces. Us? Maybe because of the beauty that surrounds Seattle, we are willing to put up with this.”
By “this,” Scholes means Westlake Park, where he stands on a sunny spring morning. A Seattle Parks and Recreation concierge is setting up a few bistro tables and chairs, while professionals cut through the park in every direction, many clutching coffee. Two homeless men have commandeered a couple of benches and half a dozen street youths cluster around the fountain, where they will spend the day. This is the way Westlake Park looks much of the time—underused and a bit sketchy.
Scholes could just as easily be talking about Occidental Park or Victor Steinbrueck Park or any one of the 23 public parks tucked among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s downtown core. Each has its own unique challenges but, in total, they might be boiled down to this: They are small, paved and largely underused. Such spaces can quickly become magnets for unpleasant behavior and illegal activity, which negatively affects the stores, restaurants and residential properties nearby.
This is not a new problem, nor is it isolated to Seattle. All urban parks and recreation departments struggle with these issues of crime, mental health, affordable housing, poverty, substance abuse and density.
“My job is to activate the spaces that are struggling with negative behavior,” says Seattle Parks and Recreation strategic adviser Victoria Schoenburg. Since 2006, she has been responsible for creating programming for downtown parks. “I wouldn’t define those parks as problem spaces,” she observes, “but parks that take proactive work in order to make them feel welcoming. And the work that we do is insufficient.”
So much so, that Seattle Parks and Recreation announced in April that it has signed a deal with the for-profit, New York City-based consultancy Biederman Redevelopment Ventures to study and recommend options for Occidental Park. In doing so, Seattle moved one step closer to what civic leaders have been quietly kicking around for some time: private management of downtown parks.
The timing of Seattle’s dalliance with private parks management is no accident. The Downtown Seattle Association is laying the foundation for a potential $20 million to $50 million redevelopment of Pike and Pine streets, making the blocks between Pike Place Market and the Washington State Convention Center more parklike and pedestrian friendly. Even more transformative, the $1 billion-plus renovation of Seattle’s central waterfront will create by 2020 a 26-block public promenade that will handle twice as many visitors as it does today, reaching up to 10 million people a year.
Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s Inc. and a member of Seattle’s Central Waterfront Committee, says parks like Occidental and Westlake are testing the waters with private parks management because of work the committee has done as it explores challenges the city faces with the central waterfront.
DSA’s Jon Scholes agrees. “Westlake Park is only a tenth of an acre,” he says. “If we can’t get a tenth of an acre right, then we need to be really worried about all of the new acres that will be a part of the central waterfront.”
Just as the waterfront is forcing Seattleites to redefine their idea of what sort of city they want to be, how they will manage that space may challenge Seattle’s progressive ideals.
While the parks department has done as good a job as it can, Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation, says it is constrained by limited funds. “They are stretched financially,” Bailey says. “The department has been looking for other resources for years.” Through the foundation, which raises money for public space projects in Seattle, an anonymous individual is funding a four- to six-month study by Dan Biederman, the man behind what is considered the gold standard of park activation: New York City’s Bryant Park.
The 6-acre park behind the New York’s iconic public library and just one block from Times Square was a scenic landmark that had famously become, by the 1970s, the province of drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells. In the 1980s, Biederman and a colleague formed a nonprofit corporation to revive the park, funded by a cooperative business improvement district on adjacent property owners. Biederman still leads the nonprofit corporation that manages the park, in addition to the for-profit consultancy hired by Seattle, BRV.
In 1991, Bryant Park reopened with a budget of about $500,000 and management by the Bryant Park Corporation. Today, it has an annual budget of more than $12 million for everything from capital expenditures and horticulture to maintenance and programming, none of which comes from the City of New York. Most activities in the park are free to the public. By comparison, Victoria Schoenburg’s current annual budget of $500,000 for the 23 parks in downtown Seattle — including salaries but not maintenance—is roughly what Biederman had to program Bryant Park with in 1991.
Public unwillingness to provide consistent support for city parks has made Donegan a vocal advocate of the private management model for the central waterfront. That model excels over public management, he says, in three essential areas:
It can raise a steadier (and potentially larger) flow of operating funds that are not susceptible to city budget tightening.
It can better monitor and control behavioral standards through private security teams.
It can implement higher standards in maintenance, landscaping and programming.
All of these conditions exist in Bryant Park. Donegan loves to point to the bathrooms there, where ensconced lighting, mosaic tilework and fresh floral displays create an ambiance not often seen in municipal parks. It exemplifies what Biederman considers the basic idea for success in any park: “Programming for women, landscaping for women, seating arranged for women. If women feel comfortable,” he asserts, “then the men will come along.”
Biederman likes to program in what he calls a “thick schedule” so that no matter when patrons come to a park, there will be an event that will entice them to stay. This is called “dwell time” and it tends to encourage more visits. And when more people come, others will, too. If there is enough critical mass, he says, people are less bothered by the loitering of homeless people.
When people come to the parks, so do advertisers and sponsors. In Bryant Park, nearly everything—the ping-pong tables, the concerts, the wireless network, the 2,000-plus bistro tables and chairs, the reading room, the winter ice rink—is supported by corporate sponsors or private foundations. Only about 10 percent of the park’s budget comes from assessments on nearby property owners.
“Get other people’s money to fund the things you are doing in your own public spaces,” Biederman told Seattle business leaders in February at the DSA’s State of Downtown event. Biederman suggested that park managers seek sponsors who want to be involved with an important civic project. Any branding in the parks should be tastefully understated. “Seattle has some nice brands,” Biederman notes. “Start with yours, and then go to other cities.”
Restaurants and other concessions on park property also lure visitors to Bryant Park. They have the dual effect of helping populate a park with patrons and workers —particularly in the evening when park attendance might otherwise be low—while also bringing in revenue. In 2012, Bryant Park received nearly $2.7 million in restaurant rental and concessions fees.
Although parks like Westlake are far smaller than Bryant, Biederman says they can still be successful in attracting sponsorship dollars if they introduce programs that lead to more people spending more time in the park. Success might also involve some investment in renovation. Bryant Park fully blossomed only after a three-year, $8.9-million renovation, more than half of which was funded by the City of New York.
Some people fear the Bryant Park model comes with a price. Don Harper, an electrician and community activist who leads Our Parks Forever, worries that private-public management would result in reduced citizen oversight over the parks by removing public accountability. “How much control are we willing to give up?” Harper asks. “These are public facilities. But where is the public input?”
Others, including Lisa Daugaard, policy director of the Public Defender Association, are watching the model closely to be sure the rights of the homeless are protected. “A Bryant Park approach to a park may be effective in transforming that park’s dynamic,” Daugaard says, “but it is not a comprehensive solution to the needs of homeless people to use public space if they have no other place to go.”
During an April forum, a questioner also raised concerns that the possibility of private management along the new Seattle waterfront could impinge on citizens’ rights to assembly.
Biederman has heard these concerns before. He stresses that Bryant Park is and always will always be a public park owned by New York. For the most part, the rules that govern the park are the same as at any other public park in New York, and any additional rules imposed by Bryant Park must be approved by the City of New York. Moreover, when the First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly are at issue, Bryant Park must completely defer to New York City officials. This rankles Biederman when speakers, whose views his patrons might find offensive, use the park as a platform. He believes it compromises the brand but, in the end, he knows it is part of the deal.
Even before Biederman’s recommendations for Occidental Park are submitted this summer or fall, city efforts to activate downtown parks are proceeding. In Westlake Park, according to Scholes, the DSA has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” in partnership with Seattle Parks and Recreation to help activate the park. This has translated into new tables and chairs, regular yoga classes, weeknight beanbag-toss tournaments and an expanded “Dancing ’til Dusk” schedule. At some point, Sholes hopes that procedural kinks can be worked out to allow a small beer garden or café, à la Bryant Park, to take root.
How far these public efforts can and should go is the question. “To make them succeed, we need partners to help us,” Schoenburg says. “It is not possible, and probably not even appropriate, for a park [department] to sink everything into these [downtown] parks to the detriment of others. To take them up to the notch that they should be, we need community partners.”
And support for these efforts is out there. The major community partners — the DSA, business owners, “friends” groups like the Alliance for Pioneer Square and Friends of Waterfront Seattle — are all on board with the redoubled efforts to revitalize these small, yet important, parks. But these partners don’t have the deep pockets or the track record of a company like Biederman’s—and those qualifications may mean the difference between failure and success.
Downtown Seattle Parks
1. Lake Union Park, 860 Terry Ave. N
2. Myrtle Edwards Park, 3130 Alaskan Way
3. Piers 62-63/Waterfront Park, 1951 Alaskan Way/1301 Alaskan Way
4. Victor Steinbrueck Park,
2001 Western Ave.
5. Westlake Park, 401 Pine St.
6. Freeway Park, 700 Seneca St.
7. Occidental Square, South Main Street & Occidental Avenue South
8. City Hall Park, 450 Third Ave.
9. Hing Hay Park, 423 Maynard Ave. S
Other Public Spaces
10. Cascade Playground,
333 Pontius Ave. N
11. Denny Park and Playground,
100 Dexter Ave. N
12. Belltown Cottage Park,
2156 Elliott Ave.
13. Regrade Park, 2252 Third Ave.
14. Plymouth Pillars Park, Boren Avenue & Pike Street
15. Kobe Terrace, 221 Sixth Ave. S
16. International Children’s Park, 700 S Lane St.
17. Tilikum Place, 2701 Fifth Ave.
18. Westlake Square,
1900 Westlake Ave. N
19. McGraw Square, Stewart Street & Westlake Avenue North
20. Pioneer Square Park,
100 Yesler Way
21. Washington Street Boat Landing, South Washington Street & Alaskan Way South
22. Union Station Square, Jackson Street & Third Avenue South