Talk about problems downtown, and Westlake Park will often come to mind. It’s right in the middle of downtown, near transit hubs, the convention center, and tourist draws like Pike Place Market. And the park is not inviting.
At least not inviting to everyone. It is quite appealing to a mix of regular users who spend long hours there. In clusters around the park there are people in their late teens or early 20s, some of them homeless, many of them smoking pot, selling or buying it, and there are older homeless people, too. They like the park just fine, but their presence has long been a source of complaints about the park, and adds to the perception that downtown is a dangerous place for tourists, shoppers and office workers.
This week, I looked up a study of the park done last year by three Seattle University graduate students. It offers some solutions to the park’s problems, and I consulted an SU professor whose specialties include urban crime. I also asked some people who spend time in and around Westlake Park how they see it.
From all of that I gleaned that downtown Seattle is not as dangerous as some people believe, but it does have real problems that could get worse if they aren’t addressed effectively.
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Hailey McLean works in a shop that looks out on the park
. She said sometimes customers, especially visitors to the city, will ask her: What’s up with all the homeless people? But she feels safe.
“There are people sleeping in front of the door when we come in the morning sometimes,” and occasionally someone “mentally handicapped or under the influence will come in,” and she’ll escort them out. It’s a hassle, but she’s not worried about her safety.
Still, she thinks the situation is getting worse. She and several other people said the pot smokers and older homeless people are pretty laid back, and disputes among them rarely affect the general public, but sometimes a rougher bunch of young people spend time in the park and get into conflicts with regular park users or with each other.
A few years ago, Seattle Parks and Recreation created a concierge program, partly to improve the atmosphere in some of its urban parks. At Westlake, concierges work from a small kiosk, offering information to tourists, cleaning up the park, setting up the giant chess game and keeping an eye on things.
There are park rangers, too, but the Seattle University study concluded they were not very useful. There weren’t enough for all the parks they have to patrol, and the study said they didn’t have sufficient training.
The concierges said police presence in the park has been more regular since a security guard,
Joseph Crudo, was beaten this summer by would-be robbers.
John Fox is a park concierge who used to spend lots of time in the park before he was hired by the city. He worked as a cabdriver, grocery clerk and at Goodwill and sometimes, when he was between jobs, he’d come every day and play chess, just to have something to do.
People ask him about all the homeless people. Sometimes they want him to move a sleeping homeless person so they’ll have bench to sit on.
I ask how he’d make the park better. He suggested stationing a police officer there 24 hours a day, but he also said that most of the regulars in the park police themselves. They don’t want trouble, just a place to be. Changing the situation is more of a social-service job than anything else, he said.
The homeless people I spoke with like Westlake because it’s in the middle of downtown, close to transit, and they can meet their friends there.
Some cities chase people away from high-visibility areas, which doesn’t help homeless people, just moves them to another neighborhood.
Elaine Gunnison, director of the graduate program in the Seattle University Criminal Justice Department, said in an email that there needs to be a law-enforcement presence, and “Social Services agencies need to be folded into the solution so they can assist the individuals (homeless, drug addicted, runaways) that may be congregating in these areas to get them off the streets and reintegrated into mainstream society.”
The study I mentioned earlier was done by Nichole Tucker, Heather Burns and Michael Bossi, and offered some sound suggestions in addition to addressing the needs of park regulars.
Among the ideas: Make the park a draw for commuters and other downtown visitors by physically improving the space (add something more people will want to come and see) and staging frequent, and more popular events there. And develop the ranger program by improving training and leadership and numbers.
We need new ideas because the status quo isn’t really good for anyone, not the people whose basic needs are unmet, not the people who avoid the area, and not the image most people want to have of Seattle.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org