Over the past few weeks, Westlake Park in downtown Seattle has played host to a World Cup soccer viewing, noontime yoga classes, pingpong matches and a barbershop quartet.
The revolving program of events and activities is part of a strategy by the city and some downtown organizations to energize and turn around urban park spaces that over the past few years often have felt more menacing than welcoming.
“The principal objective is to bring more people to the park and have them use it in positive ways,” said Jon Scholes, vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association.
A similar effort is under way at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square where a weekly farmers market, giant chess board and revolving art installations seek to attract more nearby office workers and crowd out the people openly drinking alcohol or using drugs.
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No one believes that upbeat activities alone will reverse problems that include deep state and federal cuts to social services and a precipitous drop in the arrest and prosecution of low-level crimes downtown.
But parks officials and neighborhood advocates say that a new mayor and police chief, coupled with a more active approach to managing the city’s downtown parks, could start to make a difference.
“I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in the past five years,” said Leslie Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square.
The plan to fill downtown parks with activities is drawn from a model developed for New York City’s Bryant Park, where a seedy square largely abandoned to drug dealers in the late 1970s was transformed into a vibrant public space with flowers, landscaping, cafes and free entertainment that about 8 million people visit each year.
Many Seattle leaders visited Bryant Park this spring to learn about its operations and to meet Dan Biederman, the co-founder of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, whose private consulting business has guided similar transformations at urban parks in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and Dallas.
With a private donation by the Seattle-based R.D. Merrill Co., the Seattle Parks Foundation contracted with Biederman to develop a plan for Pioneer Square that is supposed to be delivered this month.
At the same time, the Downtown Seattle Association has allocated $150,000 for a two-year pilot project at Westlake Park to schedule more activities throughout the day and into the evening, bring in brightly colored tables and chairs, hire street performers and give more people reasons to visit.
The nonprofit Friends of Waterfront Seattle is also donating to the effort to invigorate Westlake and Occidental parks as the group prepares for the city’s redevelopment of the central waterfront into what would become downtown’s largest park.
“We all recognize that if we’re going to build a new park on the waterfront, we need to do a better job managing our existing space,” said Heidi Hughes, executive director of Friends.
The low point for downtown parks came last summer when a series of assaults in the retail core, most of them in daylight hours, sparked calls for more police enforcement and more city resources.
But the problem goes back even further, said Victoria Schoenburg, the Seattle Parks Department’s manager of Center City Parks. She said former Mayor Greg Nickels convened a task force to revive downtown parks in 2006.
The parks added several rangers and worked more closely with the police department, she said, but the city lost ground during the recession.
More recently, the police, under federal scrutiny for excessive use of force, largely stopped writing tickets for low-level offenses such as open drinking and public urination, and City Attorney Pete Holmes declined to prosecute those with repeat citations, referencing the high costs of jail and the lack of treatment alternatives.
“By 2012, we were aware the downtown parks were getting bad,” said Schoenburg. “By 2013, we were jumping up and down and saying, ‘We can’t do this by ourselves.’ ”
New Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said she adheres to the broken-window theory of policing that if low-level disorder isn’t addressed, it’s an invitation to more serious crime.
She said she’s committed to deploying the resources the parks need to maintain security.
But she agreed that no single agency can solve the challenges and that she needs to work with Holmes and community leaders to develop protocols for handling low-level offenders.
“Bottom line, people who live in our community and visit our community should feel comfortable when they visit our parks,” she said.
City Attorney Chief of Staff Darby DuComb echoed that commitment to stepped-up enforcement. “We are absolutely committed to prosecuting low-level offenses in downtown,” she said.
DuComb said the city also is making progress on addressing the problem of offenders who fail to respond to police citations because they are homeless or mentally ill.
She said her office is working with Seattle Municipal Court and King County to make sure everyone coming through the criminal-justice system is enrolled in health care and can obtain substance abuse and mental-health treatment.
The Downtown Association’s Scholes said the parks in the city’s core need more officers, more foot and bike patrols and more presence on evenings and weekends.
He said the city’s eight full-time rangers are stretched thin among almost a dozen downtown parks and could be more effective if police regularly responded to their calls.
But he said the city is increasingly aware that it’s not enough to empty the trash and power wash the bricks at urban parks.
To that end, look for swing and salsa dancing, competitive beanbag tossing and a screening of the World Cup final this summer at Westlake.
“We have to be very intentional managing urban parks,” Scholes said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes