Last June, 31-year-old Bradley Arabie was fatally stabbed at City Hall Park. The next month, an attempted rape occurred in a King County Courthouse bathroom next to the park.
According to data provided by King County, Seattle police responded to calls for “premise checks” at City Hall Park seven times more often in the first seven months of 2021 than the year before.
As social service agencies’ and mass shelters’ doors closed at the beginning of the pandemic, homeless encampments grew across the city, ballooning to sizes rarely seen. The growth was jarring for many, even in places like City Hall Park, which had long been a regular gathering place for people without housing, and often with overlying issues with substance use and mental and physical health.
By the end of June, 33 King County Superior Court judges signed a letter calling on the city of Seattle to shut down the park. Hundreds of people, mostly county workers and their supporters, protested downtown for officials to address the public safety concerns in and around the park.
The attention set off a chain reaction that has led to a likely change in ownership of the park from the city of Seattle to King County, which could bring with it some dramatic changes to the look and access of the 0.56-acre green space.
King County officials want to close it off to homeless campers for good, with one of the leaders of the effort saying that the highly visible downtown location next to municipal offices makes it a symbol for whether the region is capable of addressing its homelessness crisis.
“City Hall Park is an indicator issue for a larger problem,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who is now running for a seat in U.S. Congress. “I mean, can we even get a half an acre right?”
But some worry that the county would be taking a shortcut to eliminating sleeping at the park by closing off one of the only publicly accessible green spaces in downtown Seattle.
Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, says she lost trust in the county as she watched it rush to take over the park last summer in a process that she says didn’t do enough to involve the stakeholders of the park and didn’t examine or address the root causes of homelessness and crime in the park.
“The people that lose out if this is done in a way that doesn’t cover the bases are some of our poorest populations,” Howard said. “There’s over 800 units of affordable low- and ultra-low-income housing around the space.”
Plans to prevent future encampments
The appearance of the park might contribute to that concern. For the last 10 months, City Hall Park has been fenced off and closed.
“It is the county’s objective to avoid future encampments at City Hall Park,” according to a report prepared in January by King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office on how the county would manage City Hall Park if the land transfer goes through.
To do so, officials want to increase security enforcement in the park.
“More security officers in place, security cameras, 24/7 surveillance, all kinds of things,” Dunn said.
Fellow Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she introduced the land transfer agreement partly so the county would have jurisdiction to assign county sheriffs deputies to the park.
The county also plans to turn the park into something of a courtyard for the directly adjacent county courthouse, opening up the courthouse’s south entrance and turning the temporary fence into something more permanent. Council members said the wall would help sheriff’s deputies monitor the park and enforce park hours.
“Not like Trump’s wall, just to be clear,” Dunn said. “But like a four- or five-foot-high brick wall that you could see through, maybe with some cool wrought iron.”
The county executive’s report also said the county would continue efforts begun by the city of Seattle before the pandemic to “activate” the park, which would include using food trucks, live music and recreational activities to increase foot traffic in the park — efforts to make it “naturally” safer.
Tija Petrovich, president of the Pioneer Square Residents Council, balked at the county’s idea of a permanent barrier or fence around the park. An opponent of the transfer, she said she didn’t want to give the park, a piece of Seattle’s history, away to an entity further removed from the people of Seattle.
“This is our responsibility. This is Seattle’s responsibility,” Petrovich said.
While homeless people would not be allowed to sleep there, the county said it would build a hygiene center near the park so people could wash their clothes and take showers.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to come back”
If tents return to City Hall Park while under King County control, the county intends to utilize the same approach used by the city last year to connect people to housing.
But that approach was expensive. The city of Seattle gave $15 million to JustCARE, an outreach and shelter organization, to address homelessness in Pioneer Square, downtown Seattle and Chinatown International District, with the intent that a major focus of those funds would be to house people staying in City Hall Park.
The nonprofit worked the site hard, concentrating staff and financial resources on moving as many people as possible from tents into shelter and housing.
All but two of the people who were staying at the park were referred to shelters, tiny houses and hotel rooms, according to JustCARE.
The organization said many of those individuals are moving on to permanent housing, like 35-year-old Kaliyah Tramble, who had lived in the park on and off through the pandemic.
“It’s surprising, it’s amazing, it’s a blessing, and I’m happy about it,” Tramble said of the prospect of stable housing. “I’m very grateful that I have got the opportunity and a second chance to get my roof back over my head.”
The county executive’s office did not respond when asked if the county currently has any funds dedicated for the intensive outreach and shelter-placement efforts they say they’d use, or for any of the other projects they want to undertake in City Hall Park.
Derrick Belgarde, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, one of the organizations opposing the transfer, agrees with council members that the presence of law enforcement could help make the park safer, but he worries whether the county would strike the right balance in its enforcement.
“I don’t want to criminalize homelessness, and I don’t want a police state,” Belgarde said. “I don’t want police kicking people out of parks because they’re homeless.”
John Wilson, 61, said he moved to City Hall Park near the start of the pandemic after he was pushed out of Ballard’s Leary Triangle because of an encampment fire there. The search for a place to avoid being moved was a story he heard from many staying at City Hall Park.
“Everybody had been kicked out of somewhere,” Wilson said.
Several years ago, there were only a handful of people staying overnight, said Dan Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center, whose office is across the street from the park. Sometimes, there were no tents there.
But during the pandemic there were fewer places for homeless people to stay inside and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told cities to stop moving unsheltered homeless people around. At its peak, outreach workers counted over 100 tents clustered in the park.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Wilson said. “It filled up too full. There were too many people and there were fights and fires and battles. It was generating the wrong people.”
But the conditions that caused City Hall Park to fill up are largely gone. Since taking office, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration has largely returned to the city’s pre-pandemic approach of aggressively removing encampments.
Wilson said outreach workers at City Hall Park missed him, so after he was kicked out of the park and the fence went up, he moved between Ballard and downtown, eventually connecting with a social service worker who found him an apartment that he will move into later this month.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to come back that was there,” Wilson said. “They’ve already gone into where they wanted to go. They’re not stuck there.”
A park that has grass
In December, the King County Council voted down an amendment that would have guaranteed City Hall Park would remain a park in perpetuity.
That worries some who are afraid that the county could someday develop the space into something other than a park.
“That park is like the last park that has grass in Pioneer Square,” said Eido, a resident of Frye Apartments located across the street from City Hall Park, who also opposes the transfer of the park to King County. He said he misses the freedom of being able to walk his dog in the park now that it is fenced off and closed.
For their part, the current County Council members have stated they have no intention to turn the park into anything else.
The transfer could be months, or even years, away, as 12 parcels of county-owned land promised to the city in exchange for the park are under state environmental review. After that, the Seattle City Council would have to sign off.
Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen wrote in an email that the timeline for reopening City Hall Park would depend on the land transfer.
The mayor agrees with the county that increased security could help make City Hall Park a safer and more welcoming place, Housen said.
While the mayor has so far taken a more enforcement-heavy approach to encampments — similar to what the county is proposing for the park — Housen said that Harrell respects the agreement made between the former mayor and King County and so plans to go along with the transfer.
“Mayor Harrell remains committed to keeping parks accessible to all and clear of encampments,” Housen said.
Reporter Justin Agrelo contributed to this report.
Correction: An initial version of this story did not include that JustCARE also serves downtown Seattle and the Chinatown International District.