That’s Mark Tomkiewicz from the Youngstown Arts Center-based Nature Consortium. Usually you’ll find him in the West Duwamish Greenbelt along West Seattle’s eastern slope, leading work parties that have planted tens of thousands of conifers and native plants in the city’s largest remaining greenbelt – but today, he was instead in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall, answering questions about a segment of the WDG whose future was once very much in question: The so-called Soundway property, 32 acres that are mostly south of South Seattle Community College. Decades ago, it was earmarked for road/highway development as part of a plan that even envisioned a bridge to Vashon Island; streets were mapped, but the bridge project never happened (here’s some online history). Then just five years ago, the city considered selling part of it to developers (here’s a 2004 story about community opposition and more here). That didn’t happen either – instead, neighbors and open-space advocates won the fight to see the site saved, and today’s Seattle Design Commission hearing was one step toward guaranteeing it will be protected as a greenbelt forever – read on for more on what happened today, and what happens next:
All involved acknowledged that this wasn’t your usual “street vacation” review before the Design Commission. Beverly Barnett, the SDOT rep that handles street vacations, noted that invariably, they involve private development asking to have public right-of-way “vacated” in exchange for some public benefit.
The public benefit here was clear – but had to be explained anyway.
First – take a look at the slide for the roads that are technically mapped out in the greenbelt area – it’s the tan-shaded area you see:
Even without selling the land to developers, the city is still receiving some money on the deal. A few years ago, the Nature Consortium went to the Legislature and secured a half-million-dollar grant – it will get to lease the land, while the city gets most of that money. But as Don Harris from the Parks Department explained to the commission, “you can’t lease a city street right of way, so we had to go through this process.”
While, as Parks’ Chip Nevins noted, this greenbelt was “identified … as important” dating back to the ’50s, the Soundway proposal emerged just the same. And not just in a random spot along the greenbelt – as he showed the commission, these 32 acres separate its north and south halves.
He explained to the commission what many West Seattleites already know about this site – the work parties that happen at least weekly (usually led by the Nature Consortium – they’re always listed at the Green Seattle Partnership site), the “neighborhood trails.” While street vacations usually require a demonstration of public benefit, he noted, “The public benefit here, I hope, is fairly obvious … 32 acres of natural lands to be moved to the Parks Department, to be preserved forever … one of the most important green spaces in the city … we can finally manage this as park property and get the protections that come with it.” Here’s an aerial image of a section of the WDG, from the city website:
Barnett added that the Design Commission’s buyoff is important not just because it’s required, but also because this eventually requires City Council signoff, and SDOT and Parks want “to make sure we haven’t made assumptions on something we should have considered.” In other words, they’re trying to hedge against buyer’s – or maybe in this case, for SDOT on behalf of the public right-of-way, seller’s – regret.
“When we look at this,” Barnett added, “it’s hard to imagine what they were thinking, even in the fifties” regarding turning this greenbelt into pavement. She said she’d tried to find old drawings of what the bridge to Vashon was supposed to look like, but hadn’t yet been successful, while still hoping they might be located in time for City Council consideration of this later in the summer: “It would be something to see that structure spanning (the Sound) over to Vashon.”
In case anyone wondered whether this might be better used as “active” park space, it was noted that Riverview Playfield nearby provides plenty of that, and Tomkiewicz added that work parties and hikes are certainly “active” enough. Though he did not have a formal role in the presentation, he was asked to talk a bit about the Nature Consortium’s involvement in restoring the greenbelt, which currently is dominated by “understory” species that are coming to the end of their lifespan. What used to be all over our peninsula – old-growth conifers – were most useful, he explained, for “carbon sequestering” — taking carbon dioxide out of the air — so they are planting hemlocks and cedars, as well as other native plants (the numbers are staggering – just in the past half-year or so, he said, they have planted more than 15,000 trees, and seeded thousands more, and the percentage of the area covered in invasives is down from 80 percent to about 15 percent).
Tomkiewicz also pointed out that the West Duwamish Greenbelt serves as something of a buffer between much of West Seattle and the Superfund-qualifying polluted waters of the Duwamish River, and acknowledged the need for future hydrology studies of the area to ensure the river, watershed and local creeks can work together the way they once did. He also, in response to a commissioner’s question, said that the restoration work and some trail creation appears to have led to less abuse of the space – the problems of encampments, drug use, prostitution and illegal dumping are dramatically reduced.
Still, one commissioner noted that the space seems underutilized — “Not to the bugs, bunnies and bees,” another interjected, to laughter — and suggested that could be corrected with a more established series of trails; the Parks reps agreed.
Before the less-than-an-hour review ended, commissioners gave their unanimous blessing to having the Soundway property transferred to Parks. Next steps include a review by the council’s Transportation Committee and then a full City Council vote, expected later this summer. If you have comments, this public notice explains how to send them in.
And before he left the hearing, Tomkiewicz extended to the commissioners an invitation that is also open to you (it’s on the WSB Events calendar already) – the Nature Consortium’s free monthly guided eco-hike in this area happens tomorrow – 11:30 am (earlier than usual since it’s the last day of the school year), meet at 14th/Holly (map), RSVP info and other details here.