Thirty-three King County Superior Court judges and four court commissioners on Friday signed a letter to Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jesús Aguirre, requesting that he shut down City Hall Park and relocate residents of a sprawling encampment immediately south of the downtown county courthouse.
“We are writing out of deep concern for the safety of jurors, Courthouse employees, the general public and those who find themselves unhoused and sheltering in and around City Hall Park,” the judges and commissioners wrote.
“As you know, conditions in and around the King County Courthouse vicinity, including City Hall Park, have been in a critical, unsafe and unhealthy stage for years. As a matter of last resort to address these issues, we are requesting that you close City Hall Park.”
The letter to Aguirre cites a Seattle Times news story published this week about legislation introduced by Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn to condemn the 0.56-acre park as a public-safety hazard in the wake of a fatal stabbing last week that was preceded by several other incidents of violent crime.
“Our Court has repeatedly met with park officials, city leaders and law enforcement to request urgent assistance to address these conditions,” the letter says. “Little has changed, other than conditions becoming even more dire.”
Citing the recent homicide, a call to police about an abandoned toddler in the encampment, employee resignations and jurors’ trepidation about serving at the courthouse, as well as ongoing assaults and harassment of court visitors and unsanitary conditions in the park, the judges and commissioners wrote they are urging the city of Seattle, which owns the park, “to act swiftly and immediately close the park.”
The conditions in City Hall Park threaten the community’s access to justice, inhibit safe travel to and from the courthouse, and risk the judges’ ability to fulfill their constitutional duties, says the letter, which expresses hope that arrangements can be made to provide alternative housing to the park’s residents.
Signed by Presiding Judge Jim Rogers, 11 judges who serve on the court’s security committee, the chief criminal judge and several others, copies of the letter were sent to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and every member of the Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County Council, as well as Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, the prosecutor’s office, the public defender’s office and area business associations.
A spokesperson for Seattle Parks and Recreation did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents District 7 which includes Pioneer Square and City Hall Park, cautioned against immediately removing the park’s residents for fear they will simply be displaced into the surrounding neighborhood.
“In terms of encampments in my district, it’s my highest priority,” and for many of the reasons cited by the judges, Lewis said Friday of City Hall Park. Many of the park’s residents have “high acuity” needs in terms of undiagnosed mental-health and addiction issues so will need more intensive services, he said.
A plan is in place using the county’s new JustCARE model and the city and county on Monday jointly committed to spending $15 million to help move people from City Hall Park and Pioneer Square into hotel shelters and tiny home villages, according to Lewis.
“My hope is we can turn it around quite quickly. It’s just a matter of procurement and implementation,” he said. “Merchants in Pioneer Square are very worried that if something too precipitous happens, those tents will be in front of their businesses again.”
Last week, all 33 people living in an encampment in the 1400 block of Third Avenue accepted referrals to shelter in hotels through the JustCARE program, Lewis said.
“That could be a dress rehearsal for what we do in City Hall Park,” he said.