In 1856, on land that is now City Hall Park, Chief Leschi led a defensive movement against colonizers in what is now Seattle. Leschi was concerned about losing access to the land his people had occupied since time immemorial. Today, another Battle of Seattle is being waged over the future of this park space and whether this land, which has been held in the public trust for the past 120 years, will remain so in perpetuity, with equal, equitable public access to this precious downtown open space.
Pioneer Square is home to a higher percentage of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), elderly, non-college educated, renters and low-income residents than other city neighborhoods. The park is adjacent to more than 600 units of low-income housing, with another 160 in development, and has the highest percentage of people experiencing homelessness in the region. Pioneer Square has less green space than nearly any other Seattle neighborhood. City Hall Park is one of the very few places in the neighborhood where grass grows and mature trees thrive, and yet the city, without conducting a race and social justice analysis, wants to divest us of this land without public input.
The problems in south downtown are complex, connected and the result of decades of failed policy decisions that have concentrated poor people, often poor people of color, while depriving them of essential resources. What happens in the park, or other problematic areas of the district, reflects historic underinvestment throughout the neighborhood. Our crises of homelessness and criminal activity will not be solved by fencing off the park, or by cutting down the trees to “promote safety” or other one-off solutions that do not address the systemic challenges and contextual obstacles we can only address by working together.
Park advocates, local businesses, property owners, jurists, government officials and social service providers all want the same outcome for City Hall Park. City Hall Park should be surrounded by a mix of people and building types feeding into a thriving neighborhood and civic hub where people feel safe to play with their kids, connect with nature, walk their dog, watch music or a movie, or simply have their lunch.
City Hall Park should be a place to learn, reflect and commemorate the history of Seattle’s Indigenous people, while also celebrating our collective future as a vibrant and diverse city. At the doorstep to both city and county government, City Hall Park should be a place that underlines and strengthens our shared civic trust by working together on difficult but solvable goals. The community has proven this vision is possible in Pioneer Square with the transformation of Occidental Square Park over the last decade.
We encourage residents of Seattle to speak out against this rushed transfer of City Hall Park to King County. In its current iteration, this land swap is a bad deal for everyone who cares about the challenges facing downtown and portends a cloudy future for Seattle’s parks. We request the city and county take a six-month pause to be transparent and build the trust that is so strained in this part of the city. We need time to bring the community to the table and to understand the priorities of those whose lives and livelihoods depend on recovery in Pioneer Square. The answer to the challenges we face here is within the convening of the stakeholders surrounding this place.