The Downtown Seattle Association and Metropolitan Improvement District will manage Seattle’s downtown Westlake and Occidental parks for at least a year under a contract with the city, Mayor Ed Murray said Thursday.
Toddlers were clambering around a play structure in Westlake Park Thursday when Mayor Ed Murray signed a 1-year trial contract tapping the nonprofit Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) to manage the plaza space and Occidental Park in Pioneer Square.
Food-truck workers were setting up shop in another part of Westlake while a jazz trumpeter polished his horn to prepare for a lunchtime show. Ping-pong and foosball tables stood ready alongside cafe-style outdoor tables and chairs painted bright green.
The additions to a park sometimes dominated in recent years by drug dealing and drug using are part of what officials are calling the Urban Parks Activation Partnership, which includes the city, DSA and Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), Murray said.
“We’re about to reinvent how our parks look and work downtown,” he said. “These organizations will manage the parks and the city will continue to perform maintenance and upkeep. Private investment is going to result in a significant improvement.”
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The parks also will have greeters this summer, live music on weekday afternoons, fitness classes and “reading rooms” — mobile shelves with books and magazines.
The DSA and the MID, a street-cleaning and social-services organization financed by an assessment on property owners, are contributing about $650,000 to the partnership, and the city $60,000, Parks and Recreation Deputy Superintendent Christopher Williams said, calling the deal “a great bargain for taxpayers.”
The contract only requires $3 in private investment for every $1 in public funds.
The DSA and MID helped pay for and carry out programming in Westlake last summer and have been ramping up their involvement this year, but the new contract designates them as official city contractors rather than ad-hoc community partners.
The mayor and other officials went out of their way Thursday to portray the ongoing and planned changes in Westlake and Occidental as a democratizing effort rather than an attempt to clear homeless people out of the city’s most prominent open spaces.
“Westlake Park had become an area where we were seeing a lot of crime, particularly open drug markets,” Murray said, connecting the new public-private partnership with the “9 ½ Block Strategy” for downtown crime that he unveiled in April.
“We were seeing enough disorder that it wasn’t being used by all people of all ages. We want this park to be a park used by homeless people,” the mayor said. “We want it to be a park used by people visiting, who work downtown, people who live downtown. This is about making all people safe and all people having access to our parks.”
One passer-by said the crowd has changed already. Karen Seard, a 62-year-old Bellevue retiree, bobbed her head to the trumpeter’s notes while waiting for a bus.
“When I’m down here there are usually a lot of scrubby people,” she said. “Now there’s a little more life, and things going on to attract people as opposed to making them stay away. I like how it’s looking now — much better than how it usually looks.”
Public-private partnerships to manage urban parks have worked in other cities, providing amenities that governments can’t afford on their own, Seattle officials said, citing New York City’s Bryant Park and Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park as examples.
Private management of public space can also yield problems, however. In New York City, investment in some parks and not others has led to debates about equity, and Michigan’s American Civil Liberties Union organization sued a Detroit nonprofit this year over a security contractor allegedly forbidding political activism in a park there.
“These parks will continue to be open to everyone,” MID Vice President Joshua Curtis said Thursday. “We’re working closely with the parks department to ensure that free speech continues to be celebrated and allowed here in Westlake Park.”
Westlake, DSA President Jon Scholes said, “has served as an important civic square in our city’s history, as well as a place for gatherings, protests, memorials — and that will continue and has continued in those other spaces across the country.”
The contract between the city and DBIA Services, the corporate entity that operates the MID, requires the nonprofit to designate a “Speakers Corner” in Westlake for non-permitted First Amendment events. The contract says the parks department will regulate and maintain responsibility for all free-speech activities. The DSA and MID have hired private security to patrol overnight from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., a spokesman said.
The contract also requires DBIA Services to keep open books, report quarterly to the city, give advance notice of public meetings and follow normal parks advertising rules.
Ron Roberts, 60, a retired steel-mill worker from West Seattle, rested under a tree on his bicycle after visiting his brother in Belltown.
“I used to bring my daughter down here but there was so much crime I stopped doing that,” Roberts said. “To see this happen is a wonderful thing. The kids are playing and having a good time. The little girl over there was just dancing to the music. This is a different feeling, not always having to watch your back.”
Information in this article, originally published June 25, 2015, was corrected June 26, 2015. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Downtown Seattle Association and Metropolitan Improvement District were contributing $60,000 to the city. In fact, the city is contributing $60,000 to the partnership.