By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“I’m not here to promise we’ll fix everything you tell us about,” warned new Seattle Parks Superintendent Jesús Aguirre as his citywide “listening tour” made its third West Seattle stop last night, at Alki Community Center.
Alki CC coordinator Katie Fridell introduced him to the 20+ or so in attendance (not counting the half-dozen-ish other Parks Department managers and staffers, including Aguirre’s predecessor, longtime acting superintendent Christopher Williams, who is now deputy superintendent).
The bullet-point slide deck with which he began spelled out Parks by the numbers:
$144 million operating budget for 2015, 983 employees (the number almost doubles to 1897 in summertime), seven divisions, 6200 acres of land, 465 individual parks, 26 community centers, 4 golf course, 4 environmental learning centers, 165 tennis courts, 85 athletic fields, 205 basketball hoops, 7 motorized boat launches, 14 off-leash-dog areas … Aguirre’s presentation also included a list of challenges such as “public perception of (the department) has not always been positive” as well as “looming ‘retirement bubble'” and “don’t always collaborate well with other agencies.”
His previous role was as a superintendent of schools and his bullet points belied that – noting that parks are asked to do more as schools cut back on things such as extracurricular activities, and that parks find themselves with roles in public safety, such as helping teens/young adults stay busy before and after school.
Then he acknowledged the changing city and world – most City Councilmembers about to be elected by district, city’s population booming, people’s lifespans lengthening, etc.
With all that as a backdrop: He says Parks must be clear about what it does and “what we DO NOT do.”
After going over all that in the course of about 20 minutes, he stopped for questions.
First one: How long has Parks’ mission statement been in place?
He didn’t know, offhand.
Then he started to get a question that might have become a complaint – and he instead insisted that people tell them what they’re doing well and need to do more of, at least in the early going, though that vein of discussion was relatively short-lived. That led to an attendee’s kudo for maintenance of the center, keeping it clean. Next: “Cleaning the beach.”
Next: Green Seattle is working well, said an attendee – trail-building, native-plant installation, etc.
Then: “Good fitness programs for seniors.”
And: “We’re doing well with having the programs we have here, given we’re only open for (limited hours).”
A pitch for more people to join the volunteer Advisory Council followed.
And then, an expression of envy regarding the newer community centers around the city.
With that, Aguirre said Alki is #7 on the priority list for $3.4 million of the forthcoming Park District money earmarked for community-center projects. “We can’t build a brand-new community center but certainly we’ll give (Alki) a lot of love and care. … Even out of those seven, someone’s gotta go first, someone’s gotta go last,” so not everyone is going to be happy.
The Alki Beach boardwalk/promenade needs some TLC after damage caused by king tides, Aguirre was told. “Those are the type of things we need to take into account as we spend this money,” he agreed.
But: “My goal as superintendent is not to come in and immediately restructure because I don’t think that’s what we need,” he said.
He says there will be lots of plans and documents to read, when asked how all the plans would be communicated to community members.
Shifting gears from community centers, “you need to do more to protect natural areas,” Aguirre was told, first reference to the ongoing controversy about potential changes in the Supplemental Use Guidelines for those areas (see the revised proposal here).
Will he have meetings like this again, or just now when he’s starting the job? He promised the former.
Next, a concern: Some community centers, like Alki, are geared up for kids’ activities – how can seniors safely use them too? “We have to be able to balance that,” acknowledged Aguirre.
Schmitz Preserve Park steward Ken Shaw told the story of what he faces, taking care of the park for many years, saying he had picked up the baton from previous stewards as they aged, and now understood what that was like. “We still don’t have anyone taking care of (sites like Schmitz). The last person to get drunk and shatter a bottle threatens everyone else. If no one on Parks staff is (accountable) for finding that and cleaning it up, then it remains until (somebody does).” He says he’s even seen “day care kids, little toddlers” climbing in areas where somebody left a knife behind: “It’s just God’s love that protected those kids because I missed it, 15 years in that one instance. … That’s just a minor detail in a torrent of grievance I can explain to you.”
Aguirre countered, “We’ve got lots of people whose job it is to clean the parks and maintain the parks … we just don’t have enough. We rely heavily on volunteers and probably shouldn’t because we’re putting them” in harm’s way. … We’re never going to have enough people to go to every one of our 6,200 acres and look for the things that people will do.” So, he said, they need to focus on education of young people, so that “as they grow up maybe they’ll think twice about doing it.” Shaw suggested asking city leaders “to encourage every citizen to take a chore that they perceive is not being done fully enough and to become part of the solution … (otherwise) we are all part of the problem.”
Aguirre brightened at that, saying “individual responsibility” could indeed help solve the problem. “It is a challenge, and one that we’re going to keep thinking about.”
On to the list of problems:
*Doors on appliances taken outside need to be disabled or removed
*Fumes from materials being used in treatments in the Alki CC gym – find something that “doesn’t smell as bad as what we have now”
*”We need more nature and more high-quality nature” with the population growing
Next, concerns about trees being cut on public lands – SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities – maybe Seattle Parks should take ownership and help save the canopy, suggested the attendee. Aguirre responded by mentioning a city policy requiring replacement of trees that are cut. That was followed by someone wondering about the conflict between accessibility and sustainability, a resident concerned about the Pelly Place Natural Area. He segued into the Supplemental Guidelines for Natural Areas, saying that the process surrounding it has been anything but transparent, despite Parks’ contention that transparency and inclusiveness are among the department’s goals. The lack of those, especially in this process, has “damaged the relationship” between the city and neighborhoods/communities, he contended.
The topic of expanding volleyball usage on Alki Beach then came up (as it has several times in the WSB Forums). It covers much more of the sandy beach than it used to, contended the attendee. “I have nothing against volleyball, but … there is a limit to how many games you can have. These people, I’m sure, they’re very nice people, but they’re aggressive, they take over the sidewalks, they bring in barbecues, they bring in tents …”
“We’re working on it … it’s something we’re concerned about as well .. they shouldn’t be taking over the beach … there’s a very specific permit they’re given” but they’re going beyond it, Aguirre said.
An attendee then said that he had some context behind the increased interest – beach volleyball is becoming a sport through which youth can get college scholarships. He contended that some of the volleyball is just “people looking for a good time after work” but the organizations are getting blamed for “taking over the beach” because they’re the only identifiable people in charge and their activity is right up against the organized games. He then segued into his concern: Illegal beach fires.
“I know the department has struggled with that,” Aguirre replied, saying it seemed to be a matter of signage among other things. (Here are the rules.)
David Whiting, president of the Admiral Neighborhood Association, then brought up the after-hours problem at Hamilton Viewpoint Park in North Admiral. He said the standard response is “call it in to the non-emergency police line,” but things are getting worse, and security is inconsistent. Several others chimed in with word of suspicious activity there, though the previous night’s robbery and gunfire (WSB coverage here) were not mentioned.
When the talk turned back to balancing greenspaces and activity spaces, “it’s going to be a balancing act and we’re going to navigate it as best we can,” Aguirre said.
He then said he had time for one last group question, before hanging around to talk one-on-one, and that turned out to be a request: Be clear about the process by which decisions are made. Aguirre said the intent wasn’t to just throw out decisions fully, or almost fully, formed before the community has had input (such as the 2012 GoApe Lincoln Park case, which remains vividly top-of-mind in the memories of local natural-areas advocates).