Public Means Public

Westlake Park in all its civic splendor, pre-privatization. Photo courtesy City of Seattle
Westlake Park in all its civic splendor, pre-privatization.
Photo courtesy City of Seattle

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has apparently approved the possible privatization of two crucial downtown city parks: Westlake Park and Occidental Park.

Murray announced on June 25 that the Seattle city government will transfer the management of these parks to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) as part of a one-year trial contract resulting from recent DSA efforts to “clean up” downtown. The DSA will take over Westlake Park immediately, while Occidental Park will follow later this summer.

According to Murray, the transfer is part of what city officials are calling the Urban Parks Activation Partnership (UPAP), which includes the city, the DSA, and the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID). The city is spending $60,000 on the pilot project, while the DSA and MID have contributed the significantly larger sum of $650,000.

While this transfer is not actually a direct privatization of these two public city parks, it clearly opens the door to such action in the future. In the meantime, one must wonder how private management will impact the civic function of these parks — especially Westlake Park, which has long been the locus of much local debate over the role of public space in downtown Seattle.

From its grand opening in 1988 to the WTO protests in 1999 and the Occupy Seattle movement in 2011, Westlake Park has hosted many historic social justice demonstrations during the past few decades. Occidental Park is even more historically abundant, being situated in the heart of Pioneer Square and being the locus of several significant events in early Seattle history, such as the beginning of the Potlatch Riot of 1913.

Unfortunately, the DSA’s interest in these two crucial city parks apparently has less to do with their historical and civic stature than with the challenges they’ve both long presented to downtown Seattle’s commercial potential.

Both parks have long been gathering places for homeless people, and the DSA has long been antagonistic towards Seattle’s homeless population, and has therefore supported several items of city legislation obviously aimed at driving the homeless from downtown, including and especially the controversial “civility laws” sponsored by City Attorney Mark Sidran during the 1990s. Both parks have also long been magnets for downtown drug traffic — both actual and imaginary — which has been the focus of many complaints the DSA claims to have received from downtown merchants and residents in recent years.

Real Change Director Tim Harris responded to Murray’s announcement in an interview with Crosscut on June 25. Harris said that, while he supports the DSA’s efforts to mitigate social disorder downtown, he feels that homeless advocacy organizations such as Real Change have been excluded from recent policy discussions such as those that created the UPAP.

“This is the first I’ve heard about this,” Harris told Crosscut skeptically regarding the UPAP.

“These [parks] are public spaces and to me [the UPAP is] very problematic,” he lamented. “In [the DSA’s] view they’re going to make it as comfortable as they can for shoppers and not for people they feel don’t belong.

“There’s nothing that needs to be revitalized about these parks. I see everyone sharing space in Occidental Park and everyone seems to pretty much get along. I’m not buying this line that [Seattle’s downtown] parks need to be revitalized.”

DSA President Jon Scholes insisted on June 25 that the downtown parks will remain fully public under the UPAP, declaring that Westlake Park “has served as an important civic square in our city’s history, as well as a place for gatherings, protests, memorials — and that will continue.”

Will that promise prove credible? Does “public” truly mean “public” in the DSA’s civic dictionary? Stay tuned.

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