PSBJ: Parks and Recreation Inc.: Inside the transformation of Seattle’s downtown parks

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Connect 4 in the Park

This article was published in the Puget Sound Business Journal on July 29, 2016.

By Marc Stiles

A group of women stretch their legs into the air, twisting into a yoga posture near the Westlake Park fountain. Nearby, men play chess using game pieces almost as big as they are, while all around them colorful patio chairs are full of people chatting or surfing the web using the park’s free Wi-Fi.

This liveliness of the downtown Seattle park, bustling with tourists and shoppers, is a new thing.

A year ago, Westlake Park in the heart of the city’s retail core, was not nearly as pleasant. The park was frequented by panhandlers, some of whom got aggressive with people walking through the park. Groups of young men would hang out in the area and intimidate visitors.

Things were no better in Pioneer Square’s Occidental Square Park, where several homeless people were attacked and violent altercations were not uncommon.

The dramatic shift is the result of the one-year trial of a public-private partnership between the city and the Downtown Seattle Association. It’s gone so well that on Monday, the City Council voted to extend the partnership through 2020.

The move, which involves bringing food trucks, games, and live music to parks that are staffed with paid “ambassadors” and private security, is part of a larger transition to make it easier to live in downtown Seattle. As businesses, such as Amazon and Zillow grow, and companies such as Weyerhaeuser, move downtown, more people will live and work in the downtown core.

That puts pressure on open spaces to accommodate the wide variety of people who use those them. The success of this new public-private partnership to create more welcoming public spaces downtown will have a direct impact on the businesses in and around the city’s core — and the value of the nearby real estate. It can also make the city safer.

Safe parks are better for business

After the DSA started managing the parks, crime dropped dramatically. During the first full year of activation, the number of police calls to Westlake fell by more than half, while at Occidental Square the number tumbled nearly two-thirds, according to Seattle Police Department data.

“It has brought an atmosphere of fun to the whole park,” said Miguel Petersen, sales manager at the Romax shoe store on the edge of Westlake Park.

He estimates business is up as much as 20 percent now that transients no longer are loitering outside his store. Before the DSA program, businesses struggled to get people through the door, Petersen said. The program made an immediate difference.

“We had an instant increase in business,” he said, “and it hasn’t really subsided since.”

The activation of Westlake and Occidental Square is the new normal for urban open spaces, said Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Over the next five years, the city will pay the nonprofit Downtown Seattle Association $900,000 to manage programs and concessions at the parks under a deal that the City Council approved on Monday. The DSA must match every public dollar with at least three private dollars.

That shouldn’t be hard. According to Parks and Recreation, during the one-year pilot program, a total of $9.25 was raised for every city dollar, with most money coming from an assessment that downtown property owners pay; revenue from other nonprofits; and food truck and other permit fees.

A decade in the making

The campaign to activate the parks dates back about 10 years, according to Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the DSA. The city and DSA convened a parks task force, which made a number of recommendations. One was to look at a new model of parks management that would involve community groups.

DSA turned to Dan Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Corp., in New York City. Located in Manhattan, Bryant Park was once a forlorn place known more for crime than a place for the community to gather. Thirty-six years ago, Biederman helped write the plan to turn the park around by flooding it with activity. The result: crime fell and the value of surrounding real estate shot up.

The DSA decided that was a model worth replicating.

The DSA started with Occidental Square and Westlake parks, setting up the tables, games and events. The process isn’t entirely new for the organization, which has hosted concerts and other events in public spaces. Now the group is in charge of bringing programs to the park seven days a week. The key is consistency.

“You’ve got to have something going on, multiple things going on, every day,” Scholes said.

The program has proven so successful that the city is working with other community groups to activate Cascade Playground in South Lake Union, Freeway Park, Hing Hay and other parks in the Chinatown/International District, and parks in Belltown.

Today in Seattle, there are still homeless people and some troublemakers in the DSA’s parks. On a recent weekday at Occidental Square, for instance, the DSA park ambassadors calmed down an agitated man who, not long after, was dozing in a chair while office workers had lunch at nearby tables.

Initial concerns have abated

The idea of turning the operation of public spaces over to private groups is fraught with access issues. Parks are often the only places people who are homeless can go. Advocates for the homeless, though, want the parks to be as safe as the DSA does. Several wrote letters to Parks and Recreation supporting the idea of extending the DSA’s pilot program for five years.

Tim Harris, the founding director of the newspaper Real Change, which is sold by homeless people, wrote that he initially had strong concerns but has found that homeless people are just as welcome to use the tables and chairs, pingpong tables and other amenities as everyone else.

At Occidental Square recently, a group of homeless men was playing chess. They appreciate some of the changes, though one of them, Antonio O’Neal, said he doesn’t like the increased security.

“Can’t smoke and get high anymore,” he said.

The idea has never been to prohibit homeless or others from congregating in the park, which would be unconstitutional.

“The successful model for managing an urban park is to flood it with activity to bring lots of people in. It’s not about pushing people out,” said Scholes, who said the city could have stationed police around the clock at the parks. That would have gotten rid drug use and drug dealing, “but it wouldn’t have made for a phenomenal park.”

Leaders and employees of tech and other companies around Occidental Square are some of the biggest fans of what’s going on in the park next to Weyerhaeuser’s soon-to-open headquarters building.

The office of QuoteWizard, a 175-employee company that allows people to comparison shop for insurance, is kitty-corner from the park. The company likes the changes so much that it had a party and charged a $10 admission with proceeds going to Occidental Square. The company and the Seattle Parks Foundation double-matched all donations and raised nearly $11,000.

“Ten years ago, my employees would never go and hang out there just due to the seedy elements,” said Scott Peyree, president of QuoteWizard.

Now on nice days, employees have meetings in the park. The biggest attraction is the food trucks.

“Just to have the vibrant atmosphere for lunch is the biggest thing for businesses,” said Peyree.

Proximity to the park is something that QuoteWizard and other companies could use in the never-ending battle to attract top talent — though QuoteWizard isn’t doing that just yet.

“I think it’s got a little ways to go to get to that point,” Peyree said, “but in a few years it could be a huge draw.”

Marc Stiles covers real estate for the Puget Sound Business Journal.