Sally Li was sorting through a box of old photographs when she came across a snapshot that made her pause. In the picture, Li is a young girl with a shy smile, posing beside her grandmother on a narrow, rocky beach in South Seattle.
The photo strummed Li’s heartstrings because the 35-year-old is today leading a campaign to improve the beach at Be’er Sheva Park on Lake Washington, which looks about the same as when she played there decades ago.
Though the park is located in Rainier Beach, a short walk from light rail and across the street from Rainier Beach High School, Li and other advocates say the neighborhood’s actual beach isn’t the shimmering space that it should be.
Their group is called “Link2Lake,” their slogan is, “Where’s the beach?” and they’ve made progress, using grants from the city’s neighborhoods department to host public planning parties, design renovations and write shovel-ready construction documents.
Now they’re lobbying the parks department to make the $2 million project happen by allocating money for construction in 2021.
“It’s super empowering,” said Li, a real-estate agent who grew up in nearby Skyway and still lives in Rainier Beach. “When you’re young, you’re just enjoying the park. I never thought I would have any role in improving it.”
Rainier Beach is less wealthy than most Seattle neighborhoods but growing, with hundreds of affordable apartments planned or under construction, so marquee open space is sorely needed, Li said.
“I think about the immigrants in our community,” said Li, who was raised by parents from China. “The outdoors was where we could go without spending money.”
Waterfront parks elsewhere in the city tend to be larger, with beach-side amenities, such as picnic shelters, the Link2Lake organizers contend.
There’s a public ramp for motor boats next to Be’er Sheva Park but only a couple of bench overlooking the water. The beach, scattered with litter this month, almost vanishes in the summer when the lake level rises, said George Lee, a landscape architect working with Link2Lake.
The group’s project would enlarge the beach and build a fishing alcove, kayak and canoe launch, and boardwalk, complemented by picnic tables, barbecue stations, safety lighting, a pop-up concessions area and a sheltered performance stage.
Extending a path through the park’s grassy area would create a walking loop, and an entry zone near the street with art and a bike repair station would welcome passersby.
Be’er Sheva Park is used quite a bit already, Li says. Families feed the ducks, kids climb the play structure, martial artists practice moves and long-timers hang out in cars by the beach. Some residents worry improvements could speed gentrification.
Still, Monika Mathews, another Link2Lake advocate, thinks a better beach could strengthen the community ties that make Rainier Beach special.
Residents are proud that South Seattle’s 98118 ZIP code is super diverse, says Mathews, who runs a mentoring program for young people of color.
“But do we really know about each other?” she asked. “There’s so much potential with this project, so many aspects that could unify our community.”
‘Community coming together’
The beach renovations have been years in the making, dating back to 2012, when community members updated Rainier Beach’s neighborhood plan.
The plan said Seattle should spruce up South Henderson Street between the light-rail station and Be’er Sheva Park while opening up views to the water.
The city did take steps, restoring a creek by the beach, renovating a barbecue area in another part of the park and adding basketball courts. Next to the park, Seattle helped create the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, where fruits and vegetables sprout.
But no major changes to the beach were scheduled. “We took this thing by the reins,” Mathews said. “It’s our neighborhood.”
The advocates in 2018 used about $75,000 from the neighborhoods department and Seattle Parks Foundation to conduct outreach and sketch out an initial design. The money allowed Link2Lake to hire Lee.
To collect input, the group threw three “design parties,” including a summer bash at the beach with canoe lessons. Neither Li nor Mathews had canoed before, but they agreed to try. “That was amazing,” Li recalled.
Residents made their priorities clear. “They wanted large areas to grill near the beach. They wanted to exercise,” Lee said. “They wanted a beach.”
Some parents described Be’er Sheva Park as “a little rundown,”he said, and the beach area as not always easy to share. They reported trekking to Seward Park with their kids. Pritchard Beach is closer and has swimming but is hidden away.
Last year, Link2Lake used another $120,000 to collect more input, prepare the construction documents and obtain permits, wrapping up with a barbecue contest.
The advocates next need construction bucks, and their best bet may be the Seattle Metropolitan Park District, which collects and doles out property taxes. Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council will approve a new, six-year Park District budget in 2020.
The Be’er Sheva Park proposal “is wonderful and we are in support,” though many other worthy projects are also seeking money, said Rachel Schulkin, a parks department spokeswoman.
Whether the Link2Lake organizers secure Park District dollars or not, they may also need to raise private funds.
Davion Clark, 18, would like to see improvements made. Though Rainier Beach teens can spend time indoors at the neighborhood’s library and community center, their outdoors options are limited, he said.
“There’s nowhere around here for people to hang out with their friends,” Clark said. “We need that because a lot of people have summer birthdays.”
Not everyone is so excited. Though Nate Green believes beach upgrades are overdue, the Skyway resident says the project could signal gentrification.
“They’re going to run all the Black people out,” said Green, 66, relaxing in his car near the water. “They’re going to say, ‘It’s an improvement.’ I don’t know.”
Li and Mathews say they understand that concern and are working with the Rainier Beach Merchants Association and Rainier Beach Action Coalition to help local entrepreneurs take advantage of the development to come. But ultimately, residents new and old deserve the best park Seattle can build, they argue.
“I see the sun shining down. I see kids collecting shells. I see the community coming together,” Mathews said. “That’s what I envision.”