"We simply ran out of time," says Sheila Hughes, chief operating officer of One Reel Productions. She's referring to One Reel's decision Tuesday, Feb. 28, to cancel the Summer Nights outdoor concert series for 2006. The series was held last year at South Lake Union Park and for 14 years previous to that at Pier 62/63 on Elliott Bay. The move to Gas Works Park this summer was proving to be too much. It generated a lawsuit by neighbors and has become a symbol of what park lovers citywide regard as general arrogance at City Hall.
Nonprofit One Reel, which also produces Bumbershoot at Seattle Center over Labor Day weekend and Gas Works Park's July Fourth fireworks event, had been negotiating with Seattle Parks and Recreation since last August to move the series to Gas Works due to changes at South Lake Union. What made the timing impossible, in large part, was the fact nobody told the residents of Wallingford until January. The resulting opposition—including the lawsuit, filed Tuesday, Feb. 21, by Friends of Gas Works Park—complicated already complex event planning. Score one for the neighborhood.
But One Reel isn't alone in suffering a backlash by neighbors. This was but one conflict in a growing revolt by neighborhood groups angry over Parks and Recreation decisions similarly perceived as capricious.
Early Saturday, Feb. 25, despite short notice and an ungodly hour, about 200 activists gathered outside Woodland Park Zoo. The event was a protest to coincide with the zoo's garage-design workshop that morning. The zoo project is a massive, four-story, above-ground garage on the west side. But organizers used the event to bring together for the first time a critical mass of people from across the city with a common foe: the Parks and Recreation Department. Critics claim the city has a top-down decision-making process that pits park constituencies against each other, excludes neighborhoods from critical decisions, and favors institutional and commercial interests over those of ordinary park users. City officials deny that.
While the Saturday protest was at the zoo, the most visible recent controversies have been at Gas Works, where a third of the park would have been fenced off for the summer to accommodate One Reel's concerts, and tree cutting at Pioneer Square's Occidental Park. There, the city planned to cut down 17 trees as part of a project to improve the park. In that case, too, the city was sued, but the lawsuit has failed. It is pending and scheduled for a May trial, but Parks and Recreation asked for a $190,000 bond to cover the costs of delaying the project. The court eventually ordered a bond of $119,000—a sum, says landscape architect Ilze Jones, the 1970s designer of Occidental Park, "that was simply impossible for us to raise." Jones is devastated by the imminent tree cutting and other planned changes: removal of the pergola and installation of a new stage, a coffee stand, and retail space. "I think they're totally inappropriate to the district. It looks like something out of Bellevue. Commercialization of public space, that's what it's all about," Jones sighs.
Bif Brigman, former president of the Pioneer Square Community Council and a plaintiff in the suit, agrees bitterly: "I think we're going to see it all over the city. It's a revenue stream they've discovered." Brigman, like activists involved in many of the other park controversies—the siting of a skateboard park at Lower Woodland, the zoo garage, lighted playfields at Magnuson Park, the daylighting of Ravenna Creek, the installation of artificial grass at Loyal Heights Playfield—believes Parks and Recreation was uninterested in public comment and simply rammed home its preferred plan.
Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds and other parks officials strongly disagree. They claim that the Summer Nights agreement with One Reel was in its urgency an exception, and that the lack of public process was a function of the short time available for making the deal. "Whenever we conduct a public process, it's extremely inclusive," parks communications manager Dewey Potter says. "There are many projects where input has resulted in fabulous changes that we would never have thought of."
But the criticism is not new. Jef Jaisun, president of the Ravenna Park Action Council, was helping the Gas Works activists because of his experience from a decade of battling Parks and Recreation over community proposals to daylight Ravenna Creek. While the project is finally moving forward—it's due to be completed this summer—Jaisun says it was only after the Action Council threatened legal action. "About 60 percent of the neighborhood signed off on one plan in 2002–03," he says. "We took it to [the] parks commissioners, they approved it 5-1, and then Ken Bounds tore it up because he didn't like it."
Landscape architect and former Judkins Park Community Council president Paul Byron Crane has also been fighting Parks and Recreation for more than a decade, dating back to the completion of the Interstate 90 lid and the parks there. He, too, singles out Bounds. "I gave up. I had a walk in the park with Ken Bounds. He never followed through. . . . They built what they wanted to build and they didn't want any community involvement whatsoever."
While Bounds comes in for a remarkable amount of personal hostility from critics, many also think the Seattle City Council, and current Culture, Arts, and Parks Chair David Della, have been asleep at the wheel. "They were so patronizing," says Cheryl Trivison, the founder and past president of Friends of Gas Works Park. "It boggles my mind why [the] council isn't more on their case," adds Occidental Park designer Jones.
Trivison says that Mayor Greg Nickels' office and Bounds were negotiating with One Reel over the use of Gas Works as early as last August. But community leaders only found out about the plan at a meeting called by Parks and Recreation on Dec. 22, and Wallingford residents learned of the plan at a public meeting in early January. By that time, Trivison says, it was a done deal. A Dec. 14 e-mail from Potter to Nickels' office bears this out: "We are almost ready to announce that One Reel will move the series to Gas Works Park. Early in the year we will hold one or more public meetings in Wallingford with the understanding that the decision is made. . . . "
Richard Haag, the award-winning landscape architect who designed Gas Works Park in the early 1970s, was appalled. "I'm violently opposed to fencing it off and usurping, condemning the park for private gain, a public park," he said last week. (It's not the first time he's disagreed with Parks and Recreation. Haag and Jones once submitted community- approved plans for design of new acreage at Magnuson Park—nature-oriented plans that were rejected by the city in favor of lighted playfields.)
The Friends of Gas Works Park's lawsuit focused on lack of an environmental review they claim was required, but opponents of the concerts had a number of concerns besides the hurried decision: use of the park for what is essentially a commercial venture, loss of some of the grounds for the summer, difficulty scheduling traditional events like Peace Concerts, as well as parking, noise, traffic, damage, and neighborhood safety. Said Trivison, before the 2006 concerts were canceled: "Somebody reserving a picnic table has to jump through more hoops than One Reel did."
Few Gas Works activists seem to blame One Reel. They feel they were blindsided by the city. For her part, One Reel's Hughes is philosophical: "I'm not sitting around fuming at what happened." But she intends to use Gas Works Park for the concert series in 2007. "For us, it's not over. It's just moving back. Sure, the community piece was part of [our decision], but the infrastructure, the booking, every little piece had to line up perfectly for us to go on sale in April. . . . We are committed to Gas Works as the best place for this series to go."
Ultimately, protesters wonder how much of Parks and Recreation's plans—particularly at Gas Works, but also for a proposed events center near the zoo's parking garage, for developer-friendly remakes of Occidental and Freeway parks downtown, and others—are coming from the mayor. An Aug. 25 letter to Nickels from a board member and the president of One Reel states, "As we discussed with Tim [Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis] on Friday, at your suggestion we are vigorously pursuing the idea of relocation to GWP for long-term site beginning the 2006 season. We are presenting a list of improvements that would be required to happen in order to make this venue feasible for a Summer Nights concert series." Occidental protectors Jones and Brigman are convinced Nickels' drive to develop downtown is behind the ramming through of the new Occidental plan. "It's all coming from City Hall," Jones claims. "Parks happens to be executing the intent." Says Brigman: "Greg Nickels has no business clear-cutting a park, I don't care where it is. We made him mayor, not emperor."
Last week, Potter dismissed critics as NIMBYs: "We don't have the luxury of making decisions only for the immediate neighborhood. . . . We don't work for small groups of people. We work for everybody. There are going to be decisions that people don't like." And Potter said Parks and Recreation would not respond to Saturday's global protest: "We're basically going to ignore it. If any of those people are willing to come and sit down with Ken Bounds and talk, he's absolutely amenable to that."
But on Thursday, Feb. 23, in an e-mail to people who have "been a supporter of one or more of the projects listed on the [protest] flier," Potter asked recipients to "express that support in whatever way you feel is appropriate." Says Trivison, of the Friends of Gas Works Park: "When I read her e-mail asking to rally support against citizens, I was appalled."
Judkins Park activist Crane is hopeful the clamor will lead to something. "I've got the feeling that with all this going on, we're going to see the end of Ken Bounds," he says. "It's got to go farther than that. We've got to rebuild the Parks Department."