A photo of a green space surrounded by chain link fencing near tall historic buildings

This article was updated on 12/22/21 to reflect the exact language in Initiative 42, which states that when taking park land, the City of Seattle “shall at the same time or before receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.” Additionally, the City may transfer land to federal, state, or county governments without replacement property and after a public hearing, if the land is for “park and recreation uses.”

Last week in a 7-2 vote, the King County Council approved a land swap with the City of Seattle transferring ownership of troubled City Hall Park in Pioneer Square to the County in exchange for a slew of small properties, most significantly a 0.4 acre parcel near the South Park Bridge. To finalize the deal, the Seattle City Council will need to approve the transaction in January. In the run up to that vote, critics of the deal, including Rebecca Bear, President of the Seattle Parks Foundation, and Lisa Howard, Director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, are urging the city council to vote no, citing a lack of commitment from the County that the land will remain a park.

“The big question is can — and should — Seattle rid itself of downtown park lands in this matter. The county can vote, but the city has the obligation to hold our lands,” Howard said.

Bear agreed. “City Hall Park has been hard and it’s been hard over time. Because of that, the park especially deserves attention and a well thought out plan. Not immediate action.”

The land swap vote was one more development in what has proven to be a long and contentious public discussion over how to best ensure safety at City Hall Park, which was fenced off from use after a fatal stabbing last summer.

A photo of a chainlink fence and a sign reading "park closed" in front a open grassy area.
Currently closed to the public citing safety concerns, City Hall park has been a vexing problem to both City and County governments for decades. (Photo by author)

Voting against the land swap were Councilmembers Joe McDermott (District 8) and Girmay Zahilay (District 2) who both cited the council’s decision to not a pass an amendment guaranteeing by covenant that City Hall Park would remain a public park as among factors swaying their no votes. Zahilay also raised questions regarding policing and safety in the area, which has been a longstanding and thorny problem.

“Will we as a county be sending police responses as a sheriff’s office rather than SPD? Will we as a County be involved in the process of sweeps for example?” asked Zahilay.

At this point, these questions remain unanswered, although if the County assumes ownership, it will be responsible in overseeing all matters, including public safety and park stewardship.

McDermott also questioned the wisdom of taking over the park in view of the County’s tight budget. “We do not have the resources in our general fund to fund parks, and here we are acquiring more park land inside a City where they have the responsibility of public safety and maintaining parks?” he questioned.

City Hall Park has a long and rich history. Legend has it that it was a battleground during the Battle of Seattle in which Chief Leschi attempted to retake his land. For 120 years, the site has served as one of the few public green spaces in Downtown Seattle; however, for decades it has been plagued with problems. Councilmember Kathy Lambert (District 3), who has served on King County Council since 2002, cited how decades of attempting to solve the park’s problems has produced no result.

“I just think at this point it’s time to move forward. Enough meetings have been held. We just need to take the action we’ve been talking about for 20 years,” Lambert said.

A rendering of the King County Civic Campus, which is undergoing a master planning process. City Hall Park is located directly adjacent to the Courthouse (1) and kitty-corner from Administrative building (2). (Credit: King County)

A majority of the councilmembers sided with Lambert; however, with no plan in place for City Hall Park’s future, how exactly the County will succeed in more effectively stewarding the site remains unclear. Furthermore, the failure of the council to pass an amendment proposed by McDermott and Zahilay ensuring the land would remain a park, has elicited concerns about the County’s long-term plans for site, which is at center of County’s campus. Currently the County is in the final phase of a major campus master planning project, thus assuming ownership of the park without restriction could provide flexibility for changes to the campus. A draft master plan was supposed to be completed in 2021; however, the work appears as “ongoing” on the County’s website.

The Seattle Times Editorial Board was pleased with the decision, calling it the “best outcome” for the park. “As the county moves ahead with its takeover, the future of this long-neglected space is already looking brighter,” wrote the Editorial Board.

As someone who works with both business owners and service providers in Pioneer Square, Howard feels more trepidation around the decision and the fact it may lead to the loss of the park. “When it comes to City Hall Park, we’d like to see what every neighborhood would like to see – a safe accessible public space that is managed well,” Howard said.

The case for County ownership of City Hall Park

Although called City Hall Park, the property is directly adjacent to the south entrance to the King County Courthouse. During public comment, Judge Jim Rogers said every year 10,000 people come to the courthouse to seek justice and another 500,000 are summoned as jurors and spoke on behalf of 54 judges who approved of the land swap. “Throughout the hundreds of meetings I’ve attended in the past two years, it’s become abundantly clear that the city is just not able to deal with the park at this time,” Rogers said.

Councilmember Rod Dembrowski (District 1) was in agreement. “As a former real estate lawyer, I know it’s a good idea to own your front yard.” Dembowski also voiced concerns about the amendment proposed by McDermott and Zahilay guaranteeing the land would remain a park was too restrictive. “I’m not comfortable tying our hands in a local agreement to this degree. I fear the rigidity this language would impose would prove problematic,” Dembowski said.

During public comment, Teamsters Local 117 President Dustin Lambro also spoke in favor of the County assuming ownership of the land. The labor union, which represents a large number of employees working for the County in buildings near the park, has received numerous complaints from its members. However, since the members are County, not City employees, the labor union has felt unable to hold the City accountable for the park’s oversight.

But while the park may be a front porch for the County government, it is also a “backyard to many in Pioneer Square, the poor and affluent alike,” as pointed out by Alliance for Pioneer Square Business Development Director Chris Woodward during public testimony.

Neither Howard nor Bear were critical of the County assuming ownership of the land. “Our perspective is that no matter who the landowner is, the important thing is to preserve the land as a park,” Bear said.

“We’ve heard a lot about the need for safety for county employees, but what they have not talked about is ensuring safety for surrounding residents. There’s an intersection of needs in this situation so we need to find a joint solution,” Howard added.

While the Council voted down the amendment that was have guaranteed the land remain a park, it did vote to approve another amendment proposed by McDermott and Zahilay requiring that the County “facilitate a public process before any change in the use of City Hall Park.” As part of that process, the County would need to create a report sharing feedback from neighborhood groups, business organizations, and service providers in the surrounding area with the County council before a decision could be made.

For some, including Council Chair Claudia Balducci, that amendment was sufficient for ensuring the park’s future. “I will vote for its sale and purchase, but I will not vote to change it from a park to something else. It is a park and should remain as a park in my view. How we activate it and make it welcoming to everybody is work that we have yet to do,” Balducci said.

But it is also true that given the park’s troubled history, the public may elect to grant the County the right to develop the property as part of its campus master plan. During the councilmember’s discussion before the vote, renovation of the south entrance, which faces the park, arose; however, it was asserted that at the most renovation may include a erecting a glass pavilion at the south entrance that would nominally impact the park. But since the campus draft plans have not been shared, others fear the changes could be more substantial.

Yet, taking a closer look at Initiative 42 it appears that unless elected officials decide to act directly against the initiative, City Hall Park is destined to remain a park.

How the land swap violates Initiative 42

City Hall Park is being transferred to the County in a land swap as a result of voter passed Initiative 42, which has prohibited Seattle park land from being reappropriated for other uses since 1997. According to the language of the initiative, if park land is taken, it needs to be replaced with equivalent park land. Update (12/22/21): Taking a closer look at the language in Initiative 42, it appears that the proposed land swap violates not only the spirit, but the requirements of the initiative.

In section one, it’s stated that “the City shall at the same time or before receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.

This same requirement is repeated in section four, which reads “the City shall replace [park land] in kind with equivalent or better property or facilities in the same vicinity, serving the same community, unless the City has already received as good or better land and facilities for park use in the same vicinity, serving the same community, in exchange for that transaction.

Thus, transferring of the ownership of the small parcels in South Park does not meet Initiative 42’s requirements.

The 0.4 acre parcel owned by King County that would be transferred to the City of Seattle as part of a land swap for City Hall Park in Pioneer Square. (Photo by author)

Additionally, reading over section four of the initiative, it appears that a land swap was also unnecessary.

According to the language of the initiative, “[s]ection 1 also permits by duly enacted ordinance after a public hearing and without providing replacement property: a transfer to the federal, state, or county governments for park and recreation uses.”

Thus, if the County has simply signaled its intent to take over the land and maintain it as a park, a land swap would not have been necessary.

That is not to say, however, that the land in South Park is not wanted.

“We are proponents of those places having land as well. In fact, we’ve been actively working in South Park for those lands to be transferred to the City for some time,” Bear said. “What we don’t like is how this is pitting South Park against Pioneer Square — two communities that are both park poor.”

The land in South Park included in the swap is currently undeveloped. Putting it under the City’s control will allow for it to be included in neighborhood planning, such as the South Park Plaza Initiative, which was approved at 90% design this past November. The 0.4 acre parcel is included as part of the plaza in draft plans, however, it will likely be preserved as habitat or integrated into the existing riverwalk. As a whole, a change over in responsibility for these small parcels will likely have modest impact on their use South Park.

However, in any case, it appears that unless ready to violate Initiative 42, the Seattle City Council will need to vote against the land swap. If the City wishes to put City Hall Park under the authority of the County, then it may need to pass its own amendment stating that the land will be maintained as park land.

The true difficulty will likely be ensuring City Hall Park becomes a safe and welcoming space for the Pioneer Square neighborhood — regardless of whether its the City or County who have responsibility of stewarding it.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.