When Joyce Moty saw that city officials wanted to “have a conversation” about putting housing developments on public park land, on the site of the municipal golf courses, she figured the talk might be a short one.
“My first thought was — ‘well that’s illegal,’ ” Moty told me the other day. “I’m not sure why that isn’t being mentioned. But we do have a law against exactly this sort of thing.”
Moty would know. Nearly 25 years ago, the Mount Baker resident gathered hundreds of signatures for a citizen-led measure that enshrined in Seattle law the concept of “no net loss” of park land. It was called Initiative 42.
Its history is telling, which I’ll get to in a minute. But for the present what it means is that this entire debate about converting parks to housing is a non-starter.
The ordinance, passed in 1997 and still on the books, is as clear as they come. It says all city park acres “shall be preserved for such use; and no such land or facility shall be sold, transferred, or changed from park use to another usage.”
What it means, says Donald Harris, a former property and acquisitions manager for the parks department, is: “ ‘Once park land, always park land.’ It means you can’t have wholesale conversion of park land to something else, as they’re talking about with the golf courses.”
The sole wiggle room is that if any park land is changed to non-park use, it must be replaced with “land of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity.”
The four golf courses, all of which are in city parks, total 528 acres. Recently the parks department estimated that if the four were declassified as parks, acquiring that much land elsewhere in Seattle would cost … get ready for this … “approximately $3.39 billion to $12.78 billion.”
That’s not a misprint — those really are “b’s” in that sentence. It’s because Seattle land can run to more than $10 million per acre. It means that the park land the city is having a conversation about is effectively priceless, as well as irreplaceable.
“There’s no way you could replace the land for even a fraction of one golf course,” Harris said. “There aren’t 10-acre plots sitting out there, let alone something bigger.”
And yet the push continues. In an appearance Monday on KING 5, Mayor Jenny Durkan repeated that while the city is just exploring what to do with its golf courses, the idea of putting housing in some is a live one.
“Is there some portion of it that’s close to transit that we could convert to parks or to housing and parks? I think we’d look at it,” she said.
“We could add ecodistricts with tens of thousands of homes directly adjacent to transit, while preserving over half of this acreage as open space and parks,” echoed an essay on The Urbanist website, titled “Unlike Seattle, Golf Really is Dying.”
OK, let’s play along. The city could change a golf course into a different type of park, like ball fields or open space, without triggering Initiative 42. But if it converts just 50 acres of 160-acre Jackson Park in North Seattle into housing, the replacement park land the city must buy would cost $300 million to more than $1 billion, according to the parks department’s own estimates.
That would make for some mighty expensive affordable housing.
Of course the City Council could also just kill Initiative 42 and roll back the park land.
But Moty said the only reason Initiative 42 got on the books in the first place is that back in 1994, in the Mayor Norm Rice era, the city tried to sell off just 1.6 acres of park land to a developer.
“Housing? We’ve Got a Park Here — Neighbors Fight Mayor’s Plans for Playfield,” went The Seattle Times story from 1996.
The neighbors won. Today it’s called Bradner Gardens Park, in Mount Baker.
“That movement just took off,” Moty recalls. “The rabid park people came out of the woodwork all over Seattle. We got 24,000 signatures on petitions in a couple of months.”
“That initiative became the Bible under which we operated,” Harris said of the parks department. “Various interests were always trying to encroach on park property, or buy it up here or there, and we could say ‘nope, sorry, we can’t do it. It’s against the law.’ ”
It still is against the law. Just thought I’d lay that out there as the conversation continues.