The city of Seattle will retain ownership of City Hall Park, nixing a deal announced last year to transfer the troubled downtown park to King County.
The about-face was declared jointly Friday by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, about 11 months after Constantine and Harrell’s predecessor, former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, had announced a land swap that would have had the county take control of the park.
The deal fell apart under the auspices of a new mayor who hadn’t agreed to it, and in the face of opposition from residents worried that the downtown neighborhood could lose one of its few green spaces.
The park, long plagued by crime, has been closed for 14 months, since a large homeless encampment there was closed and residents were moved to other shelters. It has seen years of problems that peaked in the summer of 2021, when it was the site of a fatal stabbing and several assaults.
More than 50 King County judges who work in the courthouse abutting the park had urged the county to take it over. Judges said crime and public safety issues, not just in the park but in the whole area around the courthouse, were keeping jurors from showing up to trials.
A chain-link fence rings the shuttered park, as it has for more than a year. There was no immediate estimate Friday for when it might reopen. Ballard Commons Park, where a large encampment was also removed last year, also remains closed.
The Metropolitan King County Council had approved the land swap, which would have seen the county give up about a dozen smaller plots of land in exchange for the half-acre park that borders the downtown county courthouse.
County officials have described the park as the courthouse’s “front yard” and had expressed hopes of being able to reopen the courthouse’s long-closed Jefferson Street entrance, in arguing for the county to take control of the property.
“Seattle will gain even more green space in its parks throughout the city,” King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said in July, describing the proposed land swap. “And King County will have a park of its own in the heart of the county seat, a park that will remain a park for all.”
Kohl-Welles talked about the possibility of using the park as an outdoor plaza, similar to the paved plaza in front of Seattle City Hall.
But the County Council also expressly rejected making any guarantee that the park, one of the few in downtown Seattle, would remain a park in perpetuity.
The County Council voted to acquire the park before completing its own internal study of what it might do with the land.
Ultimately, the Seattle City Council never approved the land transfer.
“There is a lot of consternation and concern in the community about what might happen to the space,” Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis said at a committee hearing in July.
Harrell said he’s dedicated $2.8 million in his recent budget proposal for “activation, security and a visible presence” in the park.
“After months of continued engagement on this potential land swap, we believe City Hall Park should remain with the City of Seattle,” Harrell said in a prepared statement.
The plan to transfer it to the county ran into opposition right away. A minority of County Council members were wary of picking up the financial tab to care for a city park, when other parks, in outlying areas also need attention.
“City resources should maintain and operate city parks,” County Councilmember Joe McDermott wrote Friday. McDermott had led the opposition to the land swap.
Downtown neighborhood groups and homelessness advocacy organizations also opposed the move, arguing the needs of area residents weren’t being considered.
Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, applauded the move Friday to keep the park under city control.
Howard, earlier this year, had said she lost trust in the county, describing the process to take over the park as rushed.
“The people that lose out if this is done in a way that doesn’t cover the bases are some of our poorest populations,” Howard said in May. “There’s over 800 units of affordable low- and ultra-low-income housing around the space.”
The Chief Seattle Club, which serves Native people experiencing homelessness, and the Seattle Parks Foundation had also opposed the transfer, arguing the city shouldn’t risk the possibility that something other than a park might be built on the property.
The city Friday said it would work with local transit agencies to provide a visible security presence at nearby bus and rail stations and would work with building owners “to ensure appropriate building security measure are in place.”
The city said it would also allow food trucks in the park on weekdays, add new moveable and fixed seating areas and would work with businesses to fill nearby vacant storefronts.
“I’m looking forward to the City of Seattle making investments and improvements to this cornerstone of downtown Seattle,” Constantine said. “Making this long-neglected space a safe and enjoyable park for thousands of King County staff, jurors, customers, visitors and residents will help restore and revitalize downtown Seattle.”
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