By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The two most recent major meetings we covered both severely tested the perennial reputation of Seattle as Politeness Capital of the World.
Then, for a few minutes tonight at Alki Community Center, the first of three “design workshops” to plot the future of California Place Park had a lot in common with what we saw at school district headquarters five nights earlier.
In addition to shouting and disruption, the main common trait was that in each case, the 100-member-plus audience was dominated by people who would have preferred the meeting wouldn’t have happened at all.
First, the background: The proposal to examine California Place Park for possible “improvements” dates back to last summer, when Manuela Slye, one of the founders of park-project organizers Friends and Neighbors of North Admiral (FANNA), spoke to the Admiral Neighborhood Association. (We first reported on the proposal June 25th.) At the time, she talked of a playground; in subsequent months, as the group pursued a city matching-funds grant to pay for the design process that is under way now, that evolved to the term “playscape.” Serious opposition surfaced in August; later that month, FANNA got word it had won the $15,000 city Neighborhood Matching Funds grant for park design.
As tonight’s meeting ended, one attendee suggested the spending of that money should stop right now: “Go back to the drawing board and don’t spend another ten thousand dollars.”
The last major meeting about California Place Park was tense as well; that one happened three months ago at Hiawatha Community Center (WSB coverage here). The same suggestion was made at that meeting, as noted in our report from that night — why even continue with this progress, if opponents are outnumbering supporters at meetings and in petition signatures (no-changes campaigner Jan Bailey told us tonight she now has more than 640 signatures on her petition, 200 more than three months ago)?
“The park belongs to the whole city,” explained Karen Kiest, the landscape architect (and former Seattle Design Commission chair) whose firm has the $15,000 contract for this stage of the process. That echoed what Parks manager Mickey Fearn had said at the November meeting, that people who take the time to show up don’t necessarily represent … the total public will of a community.”
The will of tonight’s meeting was undeniably focused on keeping the park as is:
A few minutes into the meeting, Kiest introduced herself and tried to begin a presentation about California Place Park and somewhat comparable neighborhood park proposals. That’s when the first round of shouting began; when Kiest tried to calm the crowd by saying she understood their concerns, shouts replied, “No, you DON’T!” Voices from all corners demanded to know when they would get to ask questions, and Kiest attempted to explain the “design workshop” process — “We will be contributing ideas at the tables” where most in attendance were seated, preparing for small-group discussions after her presentation — but that didn’t settle anyone down either.
Finally, after she repeatedly asked for quiet so that the meeting could proceed, those who were shouting settled down to listen. Her presentation included some projects with which she had been involved in the past, including Stevens Place Park — “also a triangle (shaped) park” — on Beacon Hill, seen here in Google Street View:
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“What we did at this park was pretty modest,” she explained, discussing a “reading circle” created in response to the nearby library, and noting that the project’s second phase never did get built.
Acknowledging again that she realized many in the crowd were concerned about change, she also discussed a cemetery-centered park which once had been suggested as an off-leash area but by the time the design process was through, resulted only in a “recommendation … to cut the hedge.”
She showed aerial views of both California Place Park and the smaller nearby triangle of SDOT right-of-way that FANNA originally had eyed; since it runs along Ferry Avenue, Kiest suggested maybe there’s a way to connect the two and tell the story of the long-ago ferry run down the hill.
As she segued into an explanation of the small-group process that would ensue, giving participants the chance to draw park ideas — “maybe you envision a tree, maybe a bench” — and to write comments, she was interrupted again, with one man declaring, “You’ve taken more than your 10 minutes!”
Kiest tried again to defuse the disruptions, repeating “I understand many of you don’t want any changes to the park,” then being interrupted again — by a long round of applause.
But as the small-group conversations finally began, the room settled into a productive-sounding level of chatter. Bailey began walking its periphery with her NO CHANGES TO PARK sign (see photo atop this article) and petition forms.
Kiest and assistants circulated through the room during the 20-plus minutes that groups were given to brainstorm, draw, and comment. Others circulating included Matthew Slye of FANNA, looking ahead already to the next design workshop on a Saturday morning in March and wondering aloud if more families might show up for that one.
Reconvening the participants as one large group, Kiest observed that she hadn’t seen much drawing going on. As she asked each table to share one “green card” comment – something positive about CP Park — and one “red card” comment — a concern about the park and/or project — it was obvious why: Few of those in attendance were interested in envisioning anything but the status quo.
The only potential change that was mentioned more than once was adding some seating. (A reading area was also suggested.) Otherwise, as one woman phrased it, “leave the grass alone.” A man at another table echoed, “We feel unanimously that the park should remain completely unchanged; we like the park exactly the way it is – we really like the trees and we really like the grass.” That brought prolonged applause and even laughter.
“We don’t want some hideous play structure there,” said another woman.
And there was a concern: “The process was insulting because (we thought) you would hear our expressions of needs and come to us with a response, rather than coming to us with a predetermined design.” (Kiest noted repeatedly that no “predetermined design” had been presented.)
Before his table finished its turn, a man who had called out repeatedly earlier in the evening said, “I still want my question answered — Is ‘no action’ an option?”
Yes, Kiest replied “The second meeting will show alternatives, and that will include ‘no change’.”
The man admitted he’d like to see “handicapped access” added, then saying, “but you don’t need this meeting for that,” drawing laughter.
Another table suggested focusing on the “southern triangle,” the smaller parcel owned by SDOT; Kiest said the Parks Department “has been working to facilitate management (of that land) since November,” but clarified her task was to discuss California Place Park itself.
With a few minutes left for questions and comments, one attendee observed that the invitation to the meeting had come from the Parks Department, and wondered where they were represented; Kiest pointed out Kellee Jones, the project’s liaison between Parks and the Department of Neighborhoods, which facilitates the type of grant that is funding this process.
So, someone else asked, “How is the majority going to be ‘voted’?”
Kiest replied, “It’s not a vote – we’re trying to find options to see what will resonate .. The whole city owns the park.”
Another attendee chimed in with dissatisfaction about the meeting format: “I ask that the next meeting be divided between you and the representative of the Parks Department … this is backward. You should have asked what people who use the park feel they need; putting alternatives before us is putting the cart before the horse.”
“We haven’t designed anything,” noted Kiest. “I’m not here to draw anything – I’m here to hear what to draw.” A few minutes later, she added, “I appreciate this level of input … but it’s gotten more of a level of concern than it typically would.”
The process can be frustrating, said a man at the back of the room, but is important to follow through to the end.
Then a woman toward the front tried to offer a perspective that hadn’t been heard: “It’s true there’s a boisterous ‘no change’ group … I think people should open their hearts to possibilities … Seattle has a rich history of not wanting change.”
That drew boos and other interruptions before she could resume, “The thing is, there are things that can be done to enhance it, still keeping the grass, the trees, the beauty … enriching it and making it a better place where we can gather as a community.” She offered a few ideas, and received more boos.
Kiest thanked the audience, and the meeting was over. Next one, 10:30 am-noon on March 7, followed by 7 pm April 16, both also at Alki Community Center; what happens during this design process will determine what happens next — if a plan for park changes is the result, the Parks Department would have final say, as keeper of the site, but the community organizers – FANNA – would more than likely have to figure out how to pay for it.
All WSB coverage of California Place Park, including our short report from earlier tonight, is archived here.