Over the past several months, City Hall Park has been in the news, and after the closure of the park by Seattle city government, confusion and criticism have followed. As a King County Councilmember and Budget Committee chair, I’ve concluded that for the future safety and accessibility of the park, it would be best for King County to officially own the park, which borders the county courthouse and downtown civic campus and directly affects people accessing county services.
The park is currently owned by the city, which is responsible for maintaining the grounds. A while back, then-City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and County Councilmember Rod Dembowski led an effort to revitalize the park. And a group has been working for years to improve the entire vicinity of the courthouse. However, with fewer workers and visitors in the area during the pandemic and with an encampment having occupied the park this past year, the council has heard from judges, courthouse employees, jurors and visitors that the courthouse environs and the park no longer feel safe.
Even before the pandemic, reports of assaults and harassment outside the courthouse have increased in recent years. In addition, there was a recent highly-publicized alleged sexual assault inside that prompted a march in support of a safe workplace.
These incidents, though not inherently connected to the encampment, have impacted the willingness of jurors and county residents to access justice. Continued complaints regarding inadequate response and staffing by the Seattle Police Department led our council to appropriate funding for the King County Sheriff’s Office to patrol the area to ensure folks could access the building and the surrounding area safely. But it has not been enough.
This summer, concerns around safety, both for those living in the park and for others, reached a fever pitch. Finally, the city acted, and with the county it jointly financed outreach performed by JustCARE, a collaborative program run by the Public Defender’s Association. With community partners, JustCARE conducts extensive outreach within encampments, builds trust and moves individuals voluntarily into supportive shelters or hotel rooms with wraparound social services, including securing long-term housing. After working with JustCARE and the county to relocate encampment residents, the city closed the park for renovations.
The now-closed City Hall Park, a political flashpoint in the larger conversation about public safety, homelessness and the need for additional affordable housing, is at a crossroads. That is one reason why I have introduced legislation requesting the County Executive Dow Constantine to explore acquiring the park and provide options to the council on its potential uses. In doing so, rigorous analysis and a blueprint for effecting long-term solutions could be provided.
Coming to this conclusion and making it a reality are two very different things. It’s my understanding that the city of Seattle would need to initiate a swap of the land and receive a piece of land or a facility in return of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness, serving the same community and the same park purposes.
If King County were to keep the park as a park, ownership could be transferred without the city’s receiving a replacement property. Although my motion does request that the executive explore other options for the park, my priority would be to keep it as an open space for all to enjoy. If this transfer were to go through, then the park would become county property, which could be the first step toward a larger revitalization. As a central piece of the county’s downtown campus, the park’s transfer would empower the county to ensure that the park be kept safe and accessible.
The downtown King County civic campus is a space that is meant to be safe and accessible for everyone and facilitate, not impede, the public from safely accessing justice at the courthouse. I’m hopeful that this exploratory legislation will provide a path forward that ensures that reality.