By the time the first official city-organized meeting — not the first public meeting — about possible changes to California Place Park had ended, one Friends and Neighbors of North Admiral co-chair was fiercely defending the process she and other group members had gone through to get their idea to what amounts to the official starting line. And park-change opponents were just as fierce in their opposition. The person who’s accountable for the final decision on what, if anything, will happen at the park, Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher, opened the meeting — what he said, and what else was said, declared, argued, proclaimed — plus what’s next — just ahead:
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Three and a half months after Friends and Neighbors of North Admiral (FANNA) called its first public meeting about the California Place Park playspace proposal – which in turn was a month after co-chair Manuela Slye (left) took the idea to the Admiral Neighborhood Association – about a hundred fired-up residents showed up for the first formal city-led gathering about it.
If you are just tuning in to the debate, California Place is a tiny park along California SW, just east of Admiral Congregational Church (map). With big trees, lush grass, and no signage (aside from a rule reminder for dog owners), its unassuming appearance have led some to say they didn’t even realize it was a park:
After Slye’s first presentation to the ANA in June (WSB coverage here), FANNA formed to forward the idea of potentially adding some kind of play area for younger children (the group has branched out to other matters as well, such as organizing a Block Watch). Over a series of public meetings the group has had in the past few months, the idea evolved to a “play space” and then a “natural playscape,” as explained in this page on FANNA’s website.
FANNA applied for and received a $15,000 Neighborhood Matching Fund grant to pursue the planning process for the park, and that has led to this point: Since it’s a city park, the Parks Department has appointed a project manager, and that’s who led last night’s meeting.
Before project manager Kellee Jones took over, though, Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher gave an opening speech — with his presence a signal that this project is being closely watched. Here’s what he told the crowd, in trying to clear up possible misconceptions:
There was one more opening act, Mickey Fearn, a senior manager for the city and clearly someone experienced in mediating and guiding difficult discussions, as he more than once stopped this one from derailing into ugliness. He’s at right in this photo, with Jones at left:
Aside from the tension, the meeting faced another challenge – the horrific acoustics in the Hiawatha Community Center meeting room (which either should be last on the list for major public meetings or should always be provided with an amplification system). After a few minutes with cries of “Louder!” the organizers finally had everyone move their chairs as far forward, and together, as possible:
Jones recapped where the proposal stands, and noted that the meeting would look at not only California Place Park, but also the nearby triangle of SDOT land for which the Parks Department will soon have responsibility. FANNA originally looked into whether that triangle might be available for a play area, but said at a July meeting that SDOT had told them it wasn’t available (which subsequently was investigated by City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who was represented at this meeting by staffer Brian Hawksford).
Jones showed a map displaying the nearest parks — Hiawatha, half a mile south, and the Lafayette Elementary playground (not available during school hours, she noted). Later in the meeting, Hamilton Viewpoint was brought up, but someone who had worked on a proposal for improvements there said it wasn’t open to this kind of plan – Parks staffers say they’ll check to verify that.
More than 20 people in the audience spoke at the meeting, those opposed to park changes outnumbering supporters roughly 3 to 1. A father and daughter were allowed to speak first because they had to get to a soccer game; Maurice Fuller said he thinks “there should be a playscape somewhere (but) I am opposed to making any changes to the park for any reason; what we have in this little triangle is extraordinary, really unique – you can go meditate, think, contemplate, enjoy life. It reminds me of a little slice of Central Park, or Hyde Park in London. The person who envisioned the little triangle with these large trees really knew what they were doing; now we are enjoying the fruits of that vision.” He, like others who spoke later, said he would support a simple park addition — a bench.
His daughter Natalie (right), who told the crowd she was born in 1997, also said she’s against park changes, but then listed four recommendations (and presented Parks staffers with a written copy): Build a playscape in the nearby SDOT triangle, add two park benches to California Place, put up signage with “ideas for games kids could play,” and install a garden.
Jones at that point said that was a great example of what she hoped to hear from meeting participants – not so much about being “for” or “against” changes, as much as what if anything they would want to see.
As the subsequent speakers took their two minutes (or so) each, one by one, some themes emerged: Many suggestions of at least a bench for the park, some suggestions of a garden for the SDOT triangle, concerns about safety of park users, with the California straightaway alongside the park, and reiteration of a desire for no change. Longtime Admiral community activist Dennis Ross said, “The park has served us well for 100 years, I would like to see it not change.”
To the safety concerns, one attendee said, “Bringing children into an area by definition makes it a safer place to be. Children have the right to play in parks. This park does not get used. Right now, it is just a lawn for some of the neighbors. Children should have a place to play in the North Admiral area.”
Others countered the suggestion that the park is not used, saying they walk by it, or have homes/apartments looking out at it, and they see people there all the time — playing pickup football, throwing Frisbees. The park’s simple nature is not a barrier to play, contended a woman who said she’d worked for six years on the playground committee at Lafayette Elementary: “We surveyed the entire community, and the number one thing kids needed in this area was grass, to run and play.” (Lafayette recently tore out some of its formerly all-blacktop playground, to create a grassy space.)
Along those lines, another woman suggested children already use the space to play, with their imaginations: “There are dinosaurs and penguins there every day,” she smiled.
But something more might not be harmful, suggested Sarah Airhart, who runs the Community School of West Seattle. “I’m here to support a place for people to be together. I would like it if you don’t think of a playground – think of a place for people to be together, people of every age to come and share experiences together. .. It doesn’t mean children are going to take over the space. It can be a true community space.”
Those opposed to the park are not opposed to children, another attendee noted later, but simply would “like the park to stay as is.”
And so it went through the 20-plus speakers, after which, Fearn offered: “I want to compliment you all on sticking to your two minutes; I’ve never been at a public meeting quite like this. But I want to caution you that, as neighbors, you still depend on each other for things … If there’s this kind of energy and love for the community, we want to make sure the community is whole once this thing is done.”
From there, a Q/A period ensued, with most asking about the process; park-change opponent Jan Bailey told the story of another park that had put in a “natural playscape” and, she said, “the children didn’t like it – they skinned their knees on the rocks. So (the community) went and got more money and put in a regular playground. I want to know, if children don’t like (a potential natural playscape) here, what kind of neighborhood input would there be into any changes?”
Same kind of process as this one, Jones assured her.
Other questions sought understanding of the process from this point — what will happen at the next three meetings. A landscape architect hired with the matching-fund money will be on board by the next one, Jones explained, and by the third meeting, that person would present three alternatives for the community to consider — one, she said, could be “no change at all.” At the fourth meeting, she said, the community would discuss a final “schematic” for the park.
If it’s controversial, Fearn added, there might be a formal public hearing before the Parks Board, before superintendent Gallagher would make the final decision.
Mark Etheridge wanted to know specifics of how the process worked — exactly who at any point along the way would have the final say, and how he would go about challenging something if he needed to. “What rights do I have?”
“You have the right to go to the city council, the mayor,” Fearn acknowledged.
The question then: “If 443 people signed against this, that’s 5 to 1 against (with FANNA’s 100-plus support signatures), so why are you going through this entire process, why go through this in the first place?”
At that point, Patricia Lopez from the Neighborhood Matching Fund program came forward to try to clarify the process, and how FANNA’s successful application for a $15,000 grant, with a community match of money and time, led to the opportunity to “explore options.”
Dennis Ross, noting his long experience with the NMF, pointed out that “broad community support” was a prerequisite; the city team stressed again that FANNA showed community support when it applied. To the suggestion that the strong presence of park-change opponents at the meeting would negate that previous demonstration of support, Fearn said, “A fundamental issue with this is that people who take the time to show up don’t necessarily represent … the total public will of a community. That’s why part of the process is to have enough public meetings to get a full sample of the community.”
The questioning from there grew more contentious and some questions kept resurfacing – no landscape architect has been hired yet, the city reps stressed over and over again. And, they had to repeat, just because the matching-funds money was granted doesn’t mean there will be a park.
To that, one man asked, “Is it possible, then, to just put up a bench and a sign that it’s a park, and not spend all that money?”
From the other side of the room, a passionate rejoinder: “Look at all the people who are here! What is that worth, why would you want to stop this process?”
Before the city team could try to bring the meeting to a close, park-change opponent Jan Bailey got up again and made an impassioned speech, suggesting FANNA had misrepresented some of that community support: “I have all the paperwork here. I have worked really hard to get the truth out. I have 443 signatures from people who want no change to the park.”
A woman who previously had spoken in support of FANNA started to say at that point that she believed those signatures were gathered with misrepresentation — and Fearn cut her off: “Stop right here. You have to be careful about doubting others’ motives. Neighbors HAVE to talk to each other without deciding there is a diabological group of people trying to pull something over on other people. We will discuss this and come to a decision. We are not going to have one group of people getting mad at another group of people.”
Someone else then returned to the contention that “this has not been an open process,” and that brought an emotional retort from FANNA co-chair Limbaugh (photo left): “We moved this forward with the best of intentions,” and she detailed the ways they’d gotten the word out, with press releases, doorknocking, going online, inviting people to meetings. “We’re a small group trying to do what we could. We got a lot of support for it. We found out we have done a significant amount of work, in fact. We feel pretty good about what we have done. There are no malintentions here. We worked together with the intent of making this a nice park.”
Before any more back-and-forth ensued, the meeting was brought to a close. Jones says no dates are set yet for the next three meetings; we’ll publish the next meeting date as soon as it is announced, along with other developments in this story (as we have for more than 4 months). If you have concerns or questions, you can reach Jones by e-mailing her at email@example.com; FANNA has a website at californiaplacepark.org; the park’s city webpage has little information now, but Jones promised that would change.