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.
It is also a piece of the original Olmsted boulevard design, linking Lake Washington and Mt. Baker boulevards with Jefferson Park. That connection has been brutally interrupted by Martin Luther King Way, Rainier Avenue and now Sound Transit Light rail. The intersection of those three corridors is a mess. The Cheasty Greenbelt has been improved, but I would argue it needs to be healed and the city should find ways to reconnect it with the original, existing boulevard plan, not cut up by uses like mountain bikes.
Still, even if I am skeptical of Prop. 1, I've also had good, firsthand experience working with the department against knee-jerk NIMBYs. I served on a volunteer committee to resolve a dispute in Madison Park over the parks department's plan to remove a fence between a small waterfront park and the lake itself. Many in the area opposed it — especially the residents of two adjacent condo complexes. The fight got nasty and turned on the notion that removing the fence would be a safety hazard and also attract "those people" to Madison Park, presumably meaning the great unwashed.
The parks department stood firm and I was really impressed by the department's point-man in the controversy, Michael Shiosaki, the park system's planner who is now better known as Mayor Ed Murray's spouse. Shiosaki's calm firmness and grace throughout the controversy — sometimes in the face of verbal abuse — resulted in the implementation of a plan that has improved the park and public's access to the lakefront. Parks bent over backwards to respond to the neighbors' concerns, but also refused to cave and did the right thing. As a reward, at least one objector compared the parks department to "fecal matter." Parks was, in fact, doing the neighborhood a big favor, as anyone who would visit the small neighborhood park today would attest.
Parks have always been controversial in this city, and always will be. The creation of the parks system is also a story of big battles. Matthew Klingle's "Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle" is a great place to read about some of them. The banning of hunting in parks, the creation of playgrounds, the introduction of the automobile, plowing a highway through Woodland Park, these were just a few of the fights. Clashes involved class, race, culture, real estate and conflicting visions of the ideal city.
All of those issue still come into play. They reflect society — who we are and what we aspire to be. Parks come into existence for all kinds of reasons — good, bad and ugly — but we need them, we use them, often roughly, and they are integral to the fabric of what Seattle is and hope to become. And they deserve better from us. Including more money.
Many opponents of Prop. 1 say they love parks, but not the plan. I believe them and agree to a point. But I'm voting "yes" on Prop. 1 because I think it's better than the alternative, which is to continue with levies that don't raise enough money, that don't treat parks as the integral part of our infrastructure that they are and should be. I think parks are going to be even more important in the future of this densifying city, and they are essential to addressing income and class inequities. I think our parks need to evolve in ways that meet the needs of the changing population. I think they need the security and financial commitment that the parks district can provide. I think the new hybrid council system with district elections will give the public additional leverage to help keep the council more directly accountable for parks decisions.
If history is a guide, no matter how parks are funded, there will still be a lot to argue over. But in the case of Prop 1, I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Disclosure: City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw is married to Crosscut board chair, Bradley Bagshaw.