Letter from the President & CEO – June 2019
I recently attended a forum featuring candidates vying for a seat on the Seattle City Council. Not surprisingly, the candidates were pressed to address the dearth of affordable housing and the challenges facing our city’s unsheltered population. Lots of strategies were debated. One candidate cautioned that while we definitely face a housing crisis, we must be careful about embracing short term solutions that would undermine generational commitments to livability and equity.
His comment helped me to reflect on an emerging controversy about parklands and housing in Seattle.
Our park system includes four municipal golf courses, which together comprise more than 500 acres of open space and include some of the last remaining natural stretches of open creek in the city. These public golf courses also provide recreational opportunities for a diverse population, regardless of background, income, or skill level.
In March, the city released a report titled Strategic Business Plan for the Future of City of Seattle Owned Municipal Golf Courses. Commissioned by Seattle Parks and Recreation and prepared by Lund Consulting, the document analyzes the current usage and financing of these recreation facilities and lays out options for future programming and budgeting.
As Erica C. Barnett subsequently reported in Seattle Magazine, the city is considering a number of options for these parklands. She quotes Chelsea Kellogg, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan, as saying that the options “could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space or creating affordable commercial space and housing” [emphasis mine].
This is concerning. There is a big difference between enhancing our parks and green spaces to meet the evolving recreational, health, and environmental needs of a growing and diverse population and giving over those lands to build housing and commercial space. In Seattle, we need more open space, not less.
Kellogg goes on to say, “Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”
The mayor’s goals are all important, but how we go about trying to achieve them is just as critical.
As the city strives to meet its equity commitments, we cannot regard access to green space and access to affordable housing as competing goals. They are indivisible aspects of keeping Seattle livable—particularly for our least affluent residents—along with access to educational opportunities, transportation networks, and a healthy and safe environment. Piecemeal solutions, such as surrendering finite green space that can never be recovered to create room for affordable housing, would only lead to more serious problems down the road.
Attempting to address the housing crisis by redeploying parkland is a bad strategy for other reasons as well. First, it would run headlong into a 1997 citizen’s initiative, adopted by City Council, that mandates preservation of any and all Seattle parklands for park use. Second, public outcry over any proposal to reduce park space would be ferocious and divisive, squandering energy that could be devoted to crafting solutions that actually bring people together. And third, the idea of repurposing these parklands raises its own equity issues, given that Seattle’s golf courses are not located in more affluent neighborhoods, where parks have historically been better maintained and managed and rarely come under this kind of threat.
Seattle Parks Foundation advocates a different approach—what we call park-oriented development. For example, we support plans for a new “civic hub” in Lake City, a long-held community vision of a village green surrounded by a mix of affordable and market rate housing, nonprofits and small businesses along with the recently renovated Lake City branch library. The plan has brought together private property owners, affordable housing providers, social service agencies, market-rate housing developers, the parks department, and elected officials to think in a bigger and more integrated way about how a new community center and much expanded green space can be the heart of a neighborhood.
Seattle has the wisdom and resources to achieve this kind of vision all across the city.
By building affordable housing on top of our parks, we use up their value. By building around them, we can amplify their value, thereby achieving the very goals espoused by the city: “supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”
Thank you for all you do, support, and advocate for to make Seattle a greener, healthier, and more equitable place for all residents.