Reinvigorated Westlake Park shows what a private-public partnership can accomplish for our shared spaces.
If you haven’t been to downtown Seattle’s Westlake Park recently, go take a look.
The park reverberates with the sounds of foosball and live music. Candy-colored bistro tables are full of downtown workers at lunch, playing board games. There are Zumba classes, salsa dancing and food trucks.
“It was really unexpected,” said Tony Zalutskiy of Tacoma. He was whacking a bright orange pingpong ball across the table at a friend, as they and their four kids waited to hop on a Ride the Ducks tour. “Very nice.”
Westlake Park, underused for years, has had a patina of neglect — a rare downtown civic space used by skateboarders, drug dealers and homeless day campers. There’s been a sine wave of efforts to invigorate, but nothing seems to stick.
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This most recent attempt gives me hope. This time, it’s led by a big investment of private money to “activate” Westlake and Pioneer Square’s Occidental parks. A management contract between Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) and its partners will pump about $665,000 of private money into Westlake and Occidental parks over the next year, bringing fruit stands and food trucks, live events and so on.
Seattle Parks and Recreation is adding $60,000 as well, which new Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre sees as an excellent leveraging of public money. “There really is a transformation of that park. We view it as an incredible success,” said Aguirre.
This model of “activated” parks is not new; Bryant Park near New York City’s Times Square set the standard decades ago. So what took so long in Seattle?
DSA President Jon Scholes suggests that Seattle’s natural beauty allows us to take public spaces for granted. I see parks as also caught in the crossfire between businesses, which want robust management, and human-services advocates, who often object to the consequences of it.
Either way, Scholes is right when he says, “The downtown parks have been mediocre for too long. And mediocre might be generous.”
The DSA began negotiating with Seattle Parks and Recreation two years ago, and the city hired Biederman Development Ventures, which was central to the Bryant Park revival, to map out a plan.
Westlake seemed to have hit a low point two years ago with the high-profile beating of the concierge at the Seaboard Building, which abuts Westlake Park. Around that time, I walked the parks with a law-enforcement officer, watching an active drug market in Westlake centered on a man in a wheelchair, who had as many warrants outstanding as he did piles of his belongings, piled up like snowdrifts.
There’s none of that today. Tim Harris, founder of the newspaper Real Change, said he was “alarmed at first” about the DSA management. Westlake Park is historically the spot for rallies, and Harris worried an activated park would squelch free-speech activities.
Harris is monitoring for conflicts, but sounds mostly satisfied. “Poor people are using those tables and chairs just as much as people getting their lunches,” he said. “Parks activation makes it a more well-used space. More people around makes it feel safer.”
With kids reading books in one corner of the park and tourists playing chess, Westlake “is like the peaceable kingdom,” Harris said.
So what will it take to get more of this? Victor Steinbrueck Park next to Pike Place Market seems like a potential next step. Scholes mentions a new park going into Belltown, too.
Well, it would take Seattle Parks and Recreation seeking more partners willing to make an investment like the DSA has done. And it would take a commitment by Seattle Parks and Recreation to up its game downtown. “Our folks aren’t interested in coming and spending private money on baseline city services,” Scholes said.
The new parks levy passed by voters last year gives a nearly 10-fold increase in city money for urban park partnerships, up to $570,000, beginning next year.
The money is there. Activated parks are cool. More of this, please.