Ire grows over parks decisions
Seattle Times staff reporter
A parks protest is to begin at 8:30 a.m. outside Woodland Park Zoo's south entrance, followed by a march along Phinney Avenue North to the zoo's west entrance.
Whether their grievance is a four-story garage being built at Woodland Park Zoo or a major concert series moving to Gas Works Park, neighborhoods across the city are grousing that the city's Department of Parks and Recreation is dismissive of their desires.
Activists from several neighborhoods are gathering Saturday morning to publicly protest what they say is a parks-department pattern of subverting public process and pressing forward on projects, in spite of organized neighborhood opposition.
"Our desire for this weekend is to rattle the parks department's cage and make them aware there are not just six people in each neighborhood who are unhappy, but there are thousands of Seattle residents who feel trounced upon and abused," said Diane Duthweiler, who lives near the zoo and opposes the garage. "Maybe this will force the parks department to be more responsive to its citizens."
The department's top official, Superintendent Ken Bounds, predicted the people at Saturday's rally will be those unhappy with outcomes — including those whose concerns have been vetted over and over again.
"What I say to neighbors is that their input is critical and important in what we do, but that it is not only their input that is important," said Bounds, a member of Mayor Greg Nickels' Cabinet.
Bounds said he evaluates park projects from a broad perspective and tries to make decisions and take positions that reflect a greater good for the city.
Sometimes, however, that greater good can collide with how a surrounding neighborhood wants a park to be used.
"People love their parks; they just love them in different ways," Bounds said. "Some want natural areas and some want off-leash areas. Those uses are not always compatible."
The neighbors who plan to protest on Saturday are well aware that their opposition to parks projects often is labeled as NIMBYism. They consider that an insult.
"What Parks has done is use NIMBY as a way to avoid answering the real questions we raise about whether they are making the right choices and best decisions for our city parks," said Diana Kincaid, who opposed a parks-department proposal to build 11 lighted ballfields at Magnuson Park at Sand Point.
Bounds' proposal sided with organized-sports organizations — a point not lost on Sand Point-area neighbors.
"Parks was not even amenable to finding a compromise," said Gail Chiarello, who lives two miles from Magnuson. "We had to bludgeon our way through."
Neighbors sued, and eventually the City Council scaled back Bounds' proposal to allow for seven lighted fields. The council has vowed to re-examine whether to build the last three after the first four are up and running.
"The parks department does not represent the general parks user," Kincaid said. "It's like these strong lobbying groups come in and say this is what we want, and parks gives it to them. I understand you have to strike a balance, but it really is unbalanced in favor of sports fields."
Neighbors who live near Gas Works Park learned of the city's plan to move the Summer Nights concert series there only after the parks department already had struck a deal with event promoter One Reel.
Friends of Gas Works Park, a nonprofit advocacy group, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city and One Reel that accuses the department of violating state law when it bypassed an environmental-review process.
"There is a definite sense of frustration with the failure of parks to really constructively engage neighborhoods," said Bob Quinn, spokesman for the Wallingford Community Council.
The neighborhood group is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as it currently is negotiating with the city on ways to minimize parking, noise and traffic problems associated with the concerts. Depending on the outcome of those talks, the group could decide to either support or join the lawsuit.
Bounds said the lack of public process in the Gas Works decision was an anomaly, precipitated by a time crunch.
"I've owned up to the fact that there was not a normal public process, but a decision had to be made," he said. "I think we made the right decision and I'm convinced we can manage the impacts on the community."
But those behind the lawsuit say discussions about Gas Works as a possible venue began quietly as long ago as August — four months before the public was informed of the decision.
Opponents of the four-story zoo parking structure say they thought they had settled upon a compromise for an underground garage. Then the department changed the plan to an above-ground design that neighbors had opposed, but which would be half as expensive.
"If you aren't going to factor in public opinion, then don't take it," Duthweiler said. "Don't waste our time. You asked for my opinion, I gave it to you and I believe it is in the majority. Your final decision ought to factor that in, and yet you still ignore us."
Neighborhood activists in Pioneer Square who oppose the cutting down of 17 trees at Occidental Square also plan to attend Saturday's rally.
Also invited are neighbors who opposed Bounds' plan to build a large skateboard park in Lower Woodland Park near Green Lake Way North. The proposed location was moved farther from a residential area, more to the neighbors' liking, but only after the Parks Board rejected his recommendation.
Jim Anderson, who has opposed a parks-department decision to replace natural grass with synthetic turf at Loyal Heights Playfield in Ballard, also plans to protest Saturday.
"What's left in the wake of all of these various parks decisions are embittered neighbors," he said. Parks officials "have this jock mentality or militaristic management style of 'Let's get it done and if we have to manage the fallout from disgruntled neighbors, so be it.' "
Bounds said he fully understood the concerns of residents in Loyal Heights about replacing the grass, having met several times with Anderson. He just disagreed with their position.
"I have no problem with people disagreeing with what I decide — that's life in the big city," Bounds said. "But then people go from there and say, 'No one ever listened to me' or 'I didn't get to speak my opinion,' when I know and they know that's not true.
"My frustration usually is when there is an intellectual dishonesty going on. It's when I know that people know what the process was, what the input was, and yet they continue to either misrepresent it or intentionally distort it."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or email@example.com
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