With $2 million raised, a grassroots effort to revamp Be’er Sheva Park in Rainier Beach could be largely completed by fall, highlighting the efficacy of community-led improvement projects and raising questions about equity in the system that relies on them.
Since 2017, Rainier Beach community members have been working to update the 25.5-acre park — named after Be’er Sheva, Israel, one of Seattle’s sister cities — and the Lake Washington beach in the South End, calling for waterfront, pathway and general park improvements.
After hosting a series of community meetings to gather public input, the group worked with the Seattle Parks Foundation and other partners to create an upland improvement plan that would restore and improve the park and waterfront for about $2 million.
Now the group has received enough funds or pledged funds to complete the upland phase of the improvements to Be’er Sheva, which include a new pedestrian boat launch, grills and picnic tables, safety lighting and updated pathways, a new fitness area, new shelter and seating, and an updated entry plaza, among other upgrades.
“It felt like so much weight was lifted off of our shoulders,” Link2Lake co-Chair Sally Li said in an interview last month. “Equitable access to quality green space is something that we’ve had to fight so hard for, but the fight shouldn’t be so hard.”
About half of the $2 million came from Seattle government sources, including $568,000 from the overall city budget; $250,000 from Councilmember Tammy Morales’ office (whose district includes the park); and $250,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department’s Real Estate Excise Tax capital fund.
Other funding came from nonprofits that contributed a combined $180,000, Amazon ($100,000), King County ($165,000), Washington state ($485,000) and individuals who contributed over $16,800.
“It took like an entire two years of really advocating for all this money, so I’m just really relieved to see that coming through,” Li said.
With cash in hand, the group is now in the process of navigating permitting with the hopes of beginning the bid process in March, starting construction around May and finishing construction in October, according to project manager George Lee.
“The only thing that could really delay the project is if some partner really drops the ball,” Lee, who is funded by the nonprofit Seattle Parks Foundation, said in an interview.
While Lee believes there are “no insurmountable” obstacles in the permitting process, the bureaucratic process of getting approval for a project involves different environmental elements.
“Basically there’s just so much water,” Lee said, noting Mapes Creek, for example, a creek running through the park, posing manageable but time-consuming setback hurdles for the project to clear before going to bid.
“And we probably could handle a tiny bit more delay, but if it delays a lot more, we push into this thing called the fish window,” Lee said.
The fish window refers to designated times of year in which this kind of waterfront construction can be completed, designed to limit impact on endangered wildlife. To protect salmon in the area of Lake Washington where Be’er Sheva park sits, construction can be completed only between July and December.
“We’re on track to do construction during that time this year, but we don’t want to get delayed so that we essentially miss our window, because then we’ll have to wait,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, the group is still planning phase 2, which is a separate in-water improvement “to improve habitat for endangered juvenile Chinook salmon, which use the little bay for resting and feeding,” for which the group has already received some funding from King County, according to Lee.
And depending on how the bidding process goes, the group could still have to raise additional funding for public art, which was removed from the budget during planning but is still a goal of phase 1.
“Our next meeting is figuring out how we can loop in the tribes, especially the Duwamish, in incorporating signage and history into the park, and getting other community groups to contribute art pieces,” Li said. “So we’re exploring those options and looking for additional funding for that as well, because those portions are not funded.”
According to Lee, there’s still a chance the $2 million is enough to cover phase 1 and some public art.
“Hopefully what happens, and what we’re planning for, is that we have the money to just bring art back into the plan,” he said. “You know, we took art out at one point for value engineering, but art has always been a part of the design.”
But the group won’t know the actual cost of the contract — which could fluctuate significantly due to nationwide shortages of supplies and workers — until the bid process is complete.
“I think the big sigh of relief will be when we sign the contract with a construction contractor that says that we have enough money and we’re actually going to build everything,” Lee said.
In an emailed statement, Rachel Schulkin, a spokesperson for Seattle Parks and Recreation, noted the importance of efforts like Link2Lake in catalyzing improvement projects, which she notes can take as long as five to 10 years to plan, fund and complete.
“Community-led projects are a common way that park projects come to fruition,” Schulkin said. “We are honored to work alongside the Seattle Parks Foundation that specifically focuses their philanthropy on supporting community-led projects that serve historically underserved neighborhoods.”
But Lee says the community’s success with fundraising for Be’er Sheva can distract from the issue of parks and infrastructure investments across different communities, which he believes are “structurally racistly distributed.”
To fix it, he says, the city has to shift the onus away from community members and prioritize investments in historically marginalized communities.
“Things need to move faster, without so much community effort, in order to really improve this problem systemically,” he said. “So it is like an amazing project, but it should be more systematic in the city to get these things done.”
According to Schulkin, Seattle Parks and Recreation relies heavily on the priorities of the mayor and City Council members, who fund most major projects through the city’s budget. When the department proposes a project, she says, it is usually spurred by “public meetings, community advocacy, gap analysis reports, critical maintenance needs, code compliance ([Americans with Disabilities Act], stormwater, etc.) or other important park needs.”
Then, she says, the department triages projects using an equity map formed by the Office of Planning and Community Development, which weighs community factors like race, income and health data to help the department prioritize funding.
“For example, when asked to make historic budget reductions in the first year of the pandemic, Mayor Durkan and SPR proposed halting all land-banked park development projects except those in historically underserved neighborhoods, ensuring the Rainier land banked project and the park development in the Little Saigon neighborhood [could] continue,” Schulkin wrote.
The department is also in the process of transitioning its existing Major Projects Challenge Fund, or MPCF, to a new Community Response and Equitable Park Development Fund, as recommended by a task force formed by the department and the Park District Oversight Committee.
This starts with a $300,000 transfer from the MPCF that will allow the department to hire two staff members to lead the charge to manage the new fund, ahead of the new Park District planning cycle, which spans 2023-28.
“The Challenge Fund has never had dedicated staff and these positions were recommended by the task force to better engage and support community groups with their park-related needs,” Schulkin said. “The new fund is intended to address barriers identified through the first two rounds of MPCF awards, including project size and matching requirements, and distribute funds more equitably.”
Lee says the success and drive of Link2Lake advocates has likely influenced the conversation around park funding, but says it’s not enough.
“I think that we did change the conversation, and I think this project pointed out issues. And we had politicians who agreed with us and that’s why they gave us money, right?” Lee said. “But no, I don’t think this is going to change the racist distribution infrastructure in Seattle. Nothing really changes in politics without sustained pressure.”