The county’s ownership of City Hall Park is one step closer after the Metropolitan King County Council voted last week to acquire the park from the city of Seattle. While there is some merit to concerns over the deal, the land swap between the city and the county remains the smart move for both.
The Seattle City Council, which is expected to vote on the agreement early next year, should approve it.
The Pioneer Square neighborhood park, located south of the King County courthouse, has a long and troubled history, with persistent crime and public safety issues. Those problems came to a head this year, as a large homeless encampment that had taken over the park was the site of increasing violence and a fatal stabbing in June.
Growing incidents of harassment and assault against county employees, jurors and local workers prompted county council members to push for the county to take over the park to improve safety.
After the city and the county partnered to move about 70 people off the property and into supportive housing in August, the park was fenced off and is currently empty. Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Jenny Durkan announced they had reached an agreement to transfer ownership of the park.
In exchange for the 0.56-acre City Hall Park, King County agreed to transfer 13 county-owned properties, most bordering existing city parks, including a 0.4-acre lot adjacent to the South Park Bridge and Cesar Chávez Park.
“King County and members of the King County Council have committed to ensuring the safety and vibrancy of City Hall Park for years to come,” Durkan said at the time. “The city of Seattle is eager to support the county’s investments and vision towards the park and campus.”
But the vagueness of that vision sparked pushback from some members of the King County Council as well as some downtown and homeless groups, including the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the Chief Seattle Club and Real Change. A study on options for what to do with the park is not due before the County Council until Jan. 15.
Opponents say the process was rushed, requires more public input and that a county takeover could mean the end of City Hall Park as a public space. As to the speed of the process, that should be lauded, not condemned, as an example of government acting quickly and not being bogged down by spending months asking questions everyone already knows the answers to.
More concerning is the possibility of the park no longer being open for public use. Part of the challenge of the area surrounding the courthouse is that it is home to many of the city’s homeless shelter beds and supportive organizations. For many people there, the park is their de facto backyard, and they should be as welcome to enjoy it — safely and responsibly — as anyone else.
Flexibility demanded that the County Council vote down an amendment proposed by Councilmember Joe McDermott that would have kept the park a park, but the council also did the right thing in supporting a separate amendment requiring public input before any changes are made to the park.
“By working together, we will ensure this space is inclusive, recreational and safe,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a co-sponsor of the land swap legislation. “Any movement toward making this space anything but open will be subject to robust public engagement.”
City Hall Park, and the community around Pioneer Square, deserve nothing less. As the county moves ahead with its takeover, the future of this long-neglected space is already looking brighter.