City Hall Park has long been a gathering place for homeless people in Seattle. The place derisively known by some as “Muscatel Meadows” has a long and checkered history beyond its use as open space for those living nearby.
The city-operated park in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood was never a stop listed on any tourism guide. People who worked near the park, which is south of the King County Courthouse, knew to keep their guard up. But as the pandemic unfolded, the park’s challenges went from bad to worse.
For more than a year, as a sprawling encampment took over the park, threats to public safety grew alongside it. Harassment, robbery, theft, assault — even animal cruelty — became common calls for Seattle Police. All the while, city officials did little to address the problem.
That neglect now has a body count after 31-year-old Bradley Arabie, who had been living in the park for a few weeks, was killed last month during a fight with another resident.
Arabie’s death has prompted calls to take decisive action: Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn proposed legislation to legally condemn and acquire the park and repurpose it as a meeting or event space for the courthouse. Meanwhile, 33 King County Superior Court judges and four court commissioners signed a letter asking Seattle Parks and Recreation to shut down the park.
The proposals contemplate rehousing the park’s current residents — at least 65 people, according to officials — but while both reflect the much-needed urgency that so far has eluded the city, neither is ideal.
Taking away Seattle’s control of the park would mean invoking a little-used state law that would run into a city ordinance that protects parks from development. A potential legal squabble between the city and the county could continue to leave the park in limbo. Meanwhile, following the judges’ demand to “act swiftly and immediately” risks simply displacing the park’s residents to other areas in Pioneer Square or to the Chinatown International District.
A better idea is for the city to step up to the challenge right now with the county’s help.
To that end, the city and the county have committed $15 million to help move people from City Hall Park and the surrounding area into hotel shelters and tiny-home villages.
It’s difficult to be patient after complaints have gone unheard for so long, but a long-term solution will take time. Fortunately, this is not a case of asking for patience on faith.
The county’s JustCARE model, which combines housing with wraparound services, has already proven successful, clearing high-profile encampments along the Second Avenue extension, and at Third Avenue’s intersections with Pike Street and Union Street.
Officials said the process, which will take several weeks for outreach and placement, will begin soon. The safety of courthouse visitors, workers and those living in the encampment is paramount, but so is clearing out the park in a way that is smart and humane.
After that hard work is done, the city must do its job and keep the park free of encampments and safe for all.