The push for King County to take control of City Hall Park, the troubled patch of lawn in downtown Seattle, is running into opposition from both elected officials and downtown community groups and nonprofits.
King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month a proposed land swap that would allow the city to give the park to the county in exchange for 13 smaller parcels of land, mostly bordering existing city parks.
The park, which has in recent years been home to large homeless encampments and seen acts of violence, has been fenced off and empty since August, when about 70 people were moved off the property.
One block from the county courthouse and jail, the park has seen persistent crime for decades. The blocks surrounding the courthouse, situated between Third and Fourth avenues on James Street, host many of the city’s homeless shelter beds and social service outlets.
The push to move the park from city to county control is meant to be the first step in addressing the long-standing issues there.
Constantine and Durkan have proposed transferring the half-acre park to the county, in exchange for about 1.4 acres of county-owned land scattered around the city.
If the county acquires the park, “we control the destiny,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a co-sponsor of the land swap legislation. “We don’t rely on the city of Seattle that has been inattentive to public safety, to courthouse employee safety, to courthouse user safety and security.”
A coalition of King County judges has been pushing for changes, saying that safety issues from the park have discouraged prospective jurors.
But the proposed land swap saw pushback last week, as it barely passed, by a 4-3 vote, out of the County Council’s budget committee.
The four votes from the budget committee, combined with the vote of Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a co-sponsor of the proposal, would give the land swap the bare five-vote majority it needs for passage.
A vote is expected at the full County Council meeting on Tuesday. The Seattle City Council, which also must approve the swap, is not expected to consider it until next year.
County Councilmember Joe McDermott argued that taking over the park would redirect county funds to an area that’s not the county’s responsibility.
“There will be future budget implications that involve cash money, and we need to be aware of that,” McDermott said. “These resources would be better used addressing needs in unincorporated King County.”
McDermott, who has opposed increased funding for the block around the courthouse in the past, also said that focusing just on the park does nothing for the broader neighborhood.
“To address that one block provides a false sense of security. It doesn’t address the underlying issues,” he said.
Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who also opposed the land swap, wondered why the county would acquire the park without first having a plan for it.
A study, requested by the County Council, laying out options for what to do with the park is due Jan. 15.
(McDermott, Zahilay and Councilmember Kathy Lambert opposed the land swap in committee; Kohl-Welles, Claudia Balducci, Rod Dembowski and Dave Upthegrove supported it.)
Downtown and homelessness groups — the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the Chief Seattle Club and Real Change — have come out in opposition to the deal, describing it as rushed.
“There is a significant amount of low-income housing in the area and those residents have a right to have their needs considered,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director for Real Change.
Balducci argued the park is already a part of the county’s courthouse campus — functionally, at least. And, while supporting the county taking charge, she said she didn’t yet know what would happen after that.
“I look forward to the day when there’s grass on this property, when the fences have come down and when people of all walks of life can mingle to gather in peace and safety and enjoy this outdoor space,” she said. “I don’t think that our owning that property hastens that day or pushes it back any further.”