I've been of two minds about Proposition 1, the Seattle Parks District measure on the August 5 ballot. If it passes, it will bring in major changes in how parks are overseen and funded. A new taxing district would be created and managed by members of the Seattle City Council; the new district would dramatically increase the park system's budget and have the taxing authority to raise funds as needed.
Many are skeptical of the plan. The Seattle Times Editorial Board, the Seattle-King County League of Women Voters and many neighborhood activists I respect are opposed. They worry about creating a new, immortal public entity and taking away the right of voters to approve park funding via levies. Proponents argue that this is the best available way to get dedicated funds for parks to deal with maintenance backlogs, park expansion, and operation expenses. Supporters of the plan include The Stranger's editorial board, the Muni League and others I also respect, like City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and the Seattle Parks Foundation president, Thatcher Bailey.
Seattle parks, which most of us think of as a good thing, are also controversial. Every neighborhood had a gripe against the parks department — bright lights on sports fields, crime, campsites for the homeless, inappropriate uses (remember the plan to put in a zip line in Lincoln Park?). Reel off park names — Magnuson, Westlake, Occidental, Discovery, Burke-Gilman — and you might as well be naming Civil War battlefields.
The parks department is a little like the school district in that we tend to think well of parks in the abstract — like schools — but we often have issues with the ones nearby. Lots of Seattleites believe their parks make problematic neighbors. Some of the roughest public meetings I've witnessed have been over parks.
Yet we also use and love them to death. The city has relied increasingly on citizen volunteers to clean, weed, protect and improve our parks, and Seattleites have pitched in with sweat equity and private donations to fill funding and labor gaps. I've been impressed with the passion that flows from the neighborhood into a park I've used all my life, Seward Park. The scale of work, dedication and funding from the community is impressive. Countless hours have been spent on pulling out ivy and marking trails. Some parks are like flourishing community P-Patches, with lots of local involvement, or as the jargon might have it, "stakeholder ownership."
I have concerns about both the parks district and parks decision-making in general. I don't particularly like the creation of the new taxing entity that will never go away. As a rule, such entities Balkanize government into too many funding silos and public authorities tend to get too little oversight as they act in their own self-interest. The Port of Seattle is a classic example of an entity that, despite much public attention, has proved hard to control, let alone reform. Still, the creation of a new district or entity can also be a pragmatic response to other legislative inaction and tapped-out funding sources.
I also don't like the fact that the new parks district's proposed budget assumes millions of dollars per year to operate a new waterfront park that doesn't exist yet, isn't designed, and, in my humble opinion, ought to be approved in a separate public vote once a plan is nearly final. I don't like voting money to fund operations and maintenance for a project that still has many questions to answer and where there is no final design or costs. We should be asking hard questions about adding a downtown park that requires millions of dollars a year to maintain.
I, too, question some parks decisions, such as the proposed mountain bike trail pilot project for the Cheasty Greenspace linking Beacon Hill with the Rainier Valley. Here you see a conflict between the neighbors, the parks department, and also city policy. This greenbelt has been designated as a natural area designed to re-emerge as healthy urban forest habitat. I remember a few years ago being taken on a tour of the greenbelt by city workers who were showing off the work they'd done restoring it to a more native state. I know the area well as I used to live nearby. I remember in the '60s when the winding boulevard had the reputation as a rape corridor, which caused my mother to declare that none of her children would be allowed to walk home solo from school (Asa Mercer) via Cheasty. It has come a long way since those days.
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