Downtown Seattle Parks: Can a Private Company Save Them?

A chance to save Westlake, Occidental and downtown’s other foundering parks
downtown parks scary seattle how to fix downtown seattle parks seattle magazine
NYC’s Bryant Park (color photo) may be the model for revitalizing Occidental Square Park (black and white)

Jon Scholes likes to say that Seattleites are so blessed with gorgeous scenery that they somehow find themselves settling for subpar public spaces in their downtown core.

“Other cities don’t have Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier right in their backyard like we do,” says Scholes, who is vice president of advocacy and economic development for the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). “Other cities, they need vital public spaces. Us? Maybe because of the beauty that surrounds Seattle, we are willing to put up with this.”

By “this,” Scholes means Westlake Park, where he stands on a sunny, early spring morning. A Seattle Parks and Recreation concierge is setting up a few bistro tables and chairs, while professionals cut through the park in every direction, some clutching cups of coffee, others likely seeking some. Two homeless men have commandeered a couple of benches, and half a dozen street youths cluster around the fountain, where they will spend the day. This is the way Westlake Park looks much of the time—underused and a bit sketchy.

Scholes could have just as easily been referring to Occidental Square Park, or Victor Steinbrueck Park, or just about any one of the 23 public parks tucked among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s downtown core. Each park has its own unique challenges, but, in total, they might be boiled down to this: They are small, mostly paved and largely underused.

They simply aren’t comfortable and welcoming, which makes it less likely people will stop, pause and use the park as it was intended. Underused spaces can quickly become magnets for, at best, unpleasant behavior and, at worst, illegal activities. And that negatively affects both the residential and commercial properties, especially retail, nearby.

This is not a new problem. Nor is it isolated to Seattle. All municipal parks and recreation departments struggle with the successful activation (park speak for getting people to spend time in a park) of downtown spaces largely because it isn’t solely a parks and recreation problem. It is an urban problem, with crime, mental health, affordable housing, poverty, substance abuse and density all part of the mix.

“My job is to activate the spaces that are struggling with negative behavior,” says Victoria Schoenburg, Center City Parks manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Since 2006, she’s been responsible for programming the downtown parks. “I wouldn’t define those parks as problem spaces, but parks that take proactive work in order to make them feel welcoming. And the work that we do is insufficient.”

So much so that Seattle Parks and Recreation announced in April that it had inked a deal with for-profit, New York City–based consultancy Biederman Redevelopment Ventures (BRV, whose namesake president is famous for turning around NYC’s Bryant Park) to study and recommend options for Occidental Park. And in doing so, Seattle moved one step closer to what civic leaders have been quietly kicking around for some time: some version of private management of downtown parks—a move some citizens consider a step in the wrong direction.

The timing of Seattle’s dalliance with private parks management is no accident.

The Downtown Seattle Association has developed a vision for a potential $20 million–$50 million redevelopment of Pike and Pine streets, making the blocks between Pike Place Market and the Convention Center more park-like and pedestrian-friendly. Even more transformative, the city’s more than $1 billion renovation of Seattle’s central waterfront will create a 26-block public promenade within the decade.

Given these ambitious plans, there is worry that if we can’t take care of the public spaces we already have, what makes us think these future public spaces will fare any better.

“Westlake Park is only a 10th of an acre,” DSA’s Scholes says. “If we can’t get a 10th of an acre right, then we need to be really worried about all of the new acres that will be a part of the central waterfront.”

Just as the waterfront is forcing us to redefine our ideas of what sort of city we are, how we will manage that space may challenge Seattle’s progressive ideals.  

“I think [the parks department] has done as good a job as anyone could have,” says Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation. “They are stretched financially; the department has been looking for other resources for years.”

Through the foundation, the R.D. Merrill Company is funding the four- to- six-month study by Dan Biederman, the man behind what is considered the gold standard of park activation.

A 6-acre park located behind New York’s iconic public library and just one block from Times Square, Bryant Park was a scenic landmark that had famously become, by the 1970s, the sole province of drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells. In the 1980s, Biederman and a colleague formed a nonprofit corporation to revive the park, funded by a cooperative business improvement district of adjacent property owners. Biederman still leads the nonprofit corporation that manages the park, in addition to the for-profit consultancy hired by Seattle, BRV.

In 1991, after a four-year, $8.9 million renovation, Bryant Park reopened with a budget of about $500,000 and management by the Bryant Park Corporation. More than 20 years later, Bryant Park has an annual budget of more than $12 million for everything (from capital expenditures and horticulture to maintenance and programming), none of which comes from the City of New York.

And most activities in the park are free to the public. (By comparison, Seattle Parks’ Victoria Schoenburg’s current annual budget of $500,000—for all downtown parks, including salaries but not maintenance—is roughly what Biederman had to program Bryant Park back in 1991.)

The model for Bryant Park, Biederman will tell you, is based on one simple idea: programming. “Not just programming,” he clarifies. “Programming for women. Landscaping for women. Seating arranged for women.” This can include everything from movable chairs, which allow women to position themselves where they feel most comfortable (according Biederman, woman are more particular about where they sit than men), to flower gardens and programs that women are statistically more attracted to, such as language classes and knitting.

He adds: “If women feel comfortable, then the men will come along.” Biederman likes to program what he calls a “thick schedule”—meaning that no matter when a patron comes to a park, there will be some event that will make them stay. It is called “dwell time.” That encourages more visits. And when more people come, others will, too. Soon, there is critical mass.

When people come, so will advertisers and sponsors. So in Bryant Park this means that nearly everything—the pingpong tables, the concerts, the wireless network, the 2,000-plus bistro tables and chairs, the reading room, the winter ice rink—is supported by corporate sponsors or private foundations, which means there are logos and signage dotting the park. The park also earns income from several big events during the year.

“Get other people’s money to fund the things you are doing in your own public spaces,” Biederman told Seattle business leaders in February at the DSA’s State of the Downtown event.

Restaurants and other concessions located on park property also lure visitors to Bryant Park. Offering such services in an underutilized park can have a dual effect—they help populate it with both patrons and workers (particularly during the evenings when park attendance might otherwise be low) and they bring in revenue. In 2012, for example, Bryant Park received nearly $2.7 million in restaurant rental and concession fees.

It is hard to complain about such revenues. But some people fear it comes with a price: less public voice in how those parks are run.

This is the thing that Don Harper, an electrician and community activist who leads Our Parks Forever, worries about. He’s been on the front lines this summer advocating against the Seattle’s proposed metropolitan parks district (MPD), on the ballot for August 5. (An MPD would create a junior taxing district in the city, creating a steady funding source, but removing the public’s ability to approve bond measures at the ballot box.) In Harper’s view, the issues of an MPD and a privately managed park are not dissimilar: If an MPD takes away citizen oversight by removing public accountability, how can you not have the same worries about pubic parks that are managed by a private company?

“How much control are we willing to give up?” Harper asks. “These are public facilities. But where is the public input?”

He’s not alone. During an April waterfront forum, a questioner raised concerns that the possibility of private management along the new waterfront could impinge on citizens’ rights to assembly.

Others, including Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the Public Defender Association, are watching the model closely to be sure the rights of the homeless are protected. “A Bryant Park approach to a park may be effective in transforming that park’s dynamic,” Daugaard says, “but it is not a comprehensive solution to the needs of homeless people to use public space if they have no other place to go.”

Biederman, for his part, has heard these concerns before. He stresses that Bryant Park is, and will always be, a public park owned by New York. For the most part, the rules that govern the park are the same at any other public park in New York, and any additional rules imposed by Bryant Park must be approved by the City of New York.

Moreover, when the First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly are at issue, Bryant Park must completely defer to New York City officials. This rankles Biederman when speakers, whose views his patrons might find offensive, use the park as a platform.  It compromises the brand. But, in the end, he knows it is part of the deal.

Even before Biederman’s recommendations for Occidental Park are submitted later this summer or fall, city efforts to activate downtown parks continue apace. In Westlake Park, according to Scholes, the DSA has invested “significant resources” in partnership with Seattle Parks and Recreation to help activate the park—which has translated into new tables and chairs, regular yoga classes, weeknight beanbag-tossing tournaments, and an expanded “Dancing ’til Dusk” schedule. At some point, Scholes hopes a small beer garden or café, à la Bryant Park, will someday take root.

How far these public efforts can and should go is the question.

“Our downtown parks can be vibrant, wonderful assets to the city,” Schoenburg says, “but it will take more than just the Parks Department to make them happen.”

And support for these efforts is out there. The major community partners—the DSA, business owners, “friends” groups such as the Alliance for Pioneer Square and Friends of Waterfront Seattle—are all onboard with the redoubled efforts to revitalize these small, yet important, parks. But these partners don’t have the deep pockets, the track record or the profit motive of a company like Biederman’s—and those qualifications may mean the difference between failure and success.