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Originally published March 5, 2011 at 10:03 PM | Page modified March 6, 2011 at 6:39 PM

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Seattle's parks in peril: the choices are to shrink, skimp or pay up

Each new gem means skimping elsewhere; a bathroom gets cleaned less often, a ballfield goes unlined. That's why the Department of Parks and Recreation eliminated 112 jobs representing 11 percent of its staff, cut hours at community centers, increased fees by almost $1 million, deferred repairs on leaky roofs and shut down programs. Here in the city of sustainability, our parks system is "totally unsustainable," says former Superintendent Tim Gallagher.

LET'S GO up to Capitol Hill and take a close look at a lovely little time bomb.

At the corner of Summit Avenue and East John Street, city officials opened late last year a pocket park that's a mere .22 acres — just enough for a community garden, grill, terraced lawn and skateboard rail.

Like most new Seattle parks, this patch of paradise was approved by voters, part of a tax levy politicians crafted to sprinkle greenery around the city. Unfortunately, they didn't include the money needed to maintain all these new parks.

Each new gem means a little skimping elsewhere; a bathroom gets cleaned less often, a ballfield goes unlined. "We're giving with the right hand," says interim Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams, "and taking away with the left."

That's why, with the city swimming in a pool of red ink, the Department of Parks and Recreation eliminated 112 jobs representing 11 percent of its staff, cut hours at community centers, increased fees by almost $1 million, deferred repairs on leaky roofs and shut down programs. The department now uses the $750,000 Environmental Learning Center at Carkeek Park, which attained a gold rating for green buildings, only for rentals.

Here in the city of sustainability, our parks system is "totally unsustainable," says former Superintendent Tim Gallagher.

The problem, he insists, is simple: We keep adding parks without commensurate funds to operate them. That's why Gallagher says he quit his $166,000-a-year job. (He tried to sound the alarm on his way out of City Hall last year, but was drowned out by the din over a $6,000 trip he and another parks official took to a conference in Australia.)

The solutions, he says, are obvious: Shrink the system or raise taxes to run it properly.

But "obvious" and "politically advantageous" are two different things. And raising taxes could be particularly tough when it's pointed out that Seattle's parks have been very well-tended. Until this year's cuts, we had more park employees per capita than any big city in the country. We ranked behind only Washington, D.C., in spending on parks.

Mayor Mike McGinn disputes the urgency of the problem. Fixes are within reach, he says, without a new tax. He thinks the system could be saved by efficiencies, partnerships and commercial opportunities, maybe even along the lines of Bryant Park in New York City, which is privately managed.

Each position has political implications. Gallagher's narrative lays the foundation for a potential campaign to raise taxes for parks. McGinn's serves his own priorities and masks some of his culpability in creating the problem.

Either way, there's widespread agreement our park system faces a reckoning unlike any in its 123-year history. Unless our economy bounces back big-time, the squeeze on parks will get tighter, and Seattle will have to choose a smaller system, more commercialization or more taxes — perhaps all three.

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PLENTY OF people played a part in the parks predicament, particularly voters who said "yes" four times in the past two decades to increasing property taxes by $400 million for new and improved parks. These measures added 40 parks, with as many as 18 more coming this year, and 14 new or expanded community centers.

Even former Mayor Greg Nickels, who opposed the most recent 2008 levy, piled on. Nickels aggressively pushed a new South Lake Union park that comes with an upkeep tab of about $300,000 a year. He also hired new park rangers for downtown and created the Seattle Green Partnership, which calls for $3.5 million a year to restore forested areas.

And while Nickels talked about charging developers a fee to pay for new green spaces, he never followed through after environmentalists, including McGinn, panned the proposal because it might discourage the increased urban density they want.

Maple Leaf neighborhood activist David Miller, who served on the committee that shaped the 2008 levy, says there was much debate about including a share for maintenance. The 2000 levy had put $7 million to that end. But the money's long gone, and City Council this time decided against it. They bet that the good times would keep rolling, providing parks with 5 percent annual budget increases.

"No one anticipated the depth of the recession and the drop-off in funding," says Tom Rasmussen, who chaired the council's parks oversight committee.

New parks will add almost $2 million in maintenance costs this year and $4 million by 2012. That's on top of the $10 million new parks added in the previous decade, says Williams.

McGinn, co-chair of the 2008 levy campaign, says he'd like a do-over. "From where I sit now I wish the levy had operations and maintenance money in it."

And we haven't even mentioned the system's backlog of repairs, conservatively estimated at $200 million. Gallagher says Magnuson Park alone might need $200 million.

PARKS DON'T fare well in the annual Pageant of Suffering, known as the council's budget hearings, a Dickensian competition for financial scraps. With kids and grannies pleading through songs, poems and teary speeches just to keep threads of the social safety net intact, it's no surprise parks trails the pack.

Gallagher recommended one remedy: a new dedicated property tax that would collect $25 million a year, or about $85 from a $450,000 house. The money would restore hours at community centers, clean new parks and chip away at the maintenance backlog.

Just as important, Gallagher says, a vote on the new tax would force a much-needed civic conversation. "Let the people have a choice to say they're either willing to support a system they asked you to build or they're not because of the change in the economy."

The mayor had no interest in his proposal.

"If you want to get me concerned let's talk about how we finance our roads or City Light infrastructure or better transit," McGinn says. "Parks is a smaller challenge and one that is within reach with existing and some new tools."

In budget reports, City Council analysts suggested that parks could still be more frugal. "Considering the amount of reductions made," one wrote, "impacts to public services are less substantial than expected."

They pointed to the city's 26 community centers — costly buildings open, on average, eight hours a day — as warranting further scrutiny. Analysts asked if community-center drop-in programs for juggling, puppetry and pottery are really "essential public services." Rasmussen says he's visited centers and seen more staff than users. While city officials won't come out and say it, we may be nearing the point where we can't afford a coordinator and assistant coordinator, with combined salaries of more than $120,000, at every center.

Council analysts highlighted another issue. The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group, puts out an annual survey of park systems in the country's 85 biggest cities. Those reports show Seattle at or near the top in per capita spending — $252 in last year's edition.

We spend about 40 percent more per person on parks than Portlanders, even though Portland has more than twice our parks acreage. Seattle ranks below the national average in the number of playgrounds, basketball hoops and swimming pools.

So where does all the money go?

Well, we're above average in adult dodgeball courts. We rank even better, sixth in the country, in number of parks, with seven for every 10,000 residents.

In other words, we have a lot of parks and open spaces — 430 in all — and a ton of little ones. Did you know Seattle has 24 parks in downtown alone? That we have more than 100 parks smaller than a half-acre?

"You'll find the average cost per acre goes up tremendously as the park unit goes smaller," says Gallagher. (San Francisco has roughly the same parks acreage as we do but half as many parks.)

Seattle has so many park employees, city officials say, because of its spectrum of services and properties. Not many other parks departments have all those community centers, plus four environmental learning centers, three mothballed military bases, two abandoned landfills and an African-American cultural center.

Seattle parks also tend to be more recreational than natural areas, which means they require more care; 86 percent of Seattle's parkland is designed, or developed, while just 30 percent of Portland's parks fall into that category.

If park employees are overpaid, it's not exorbitantly. Their average salary is $51,000. A maintenance laborer, the department's most common job title, earns $46,144. A council analysis found that 5 percent of park employees are managers, strategic advisers or executives, considerably less than the similarly sized Transportation Department.

ON TOP OF all the other challenges, Seattle's Parks Department is looking at a change in leadership. Again.

Longtime chief Ken Bounds resigned in 2007. Gallagher didn't last three years. Now there's unfortunate news about widely respected interim boss Williams. He is fighting cancer.

"I had a similar bout with cancer in 2000 and beat it, and plan to beat it again," Williams says. "But health is my first priority. I'm not necessarily in the running to be the next superintendent."

McGinn says he appreciates the stability Williams brings to the department and has no plans to commence a search yet. "We'll work with Christopher on what an appropriate path forward is."

Sally Bagshaw is the fourth City Council member in eight years to oversee parks. Joking that Friday is "just two more working days 'til Monday," she certainly brings energy to the task. And she's talking about tapping more energy, along with goodwill and expertise, from nonprofits and volunteers. She's also been talking to Jim Diers, the city's former neighborhoods guru, now a globe-trotting consultant on community-building.

Bagshaw has started an urgent review of the community centers, about which there is spotty attendance data. She plans to wrap up that review, with an eye toward finding nonprofit partnerships, in five months — warp speed for the council.

The Seattle Parks Foundation also has a new leader, Thatcher Bailey, who is working with seven other nonprofits to help the city. Bailey's plan is to publicize the value of parks, look at solutions in other cities and offer city leaders a menu of options. That might require, he says, a new civic attitude about commercializing public spaces.

King County used a multipronged approach in 2002 when it ran into similar problems. County leaders asked voters to raise taxes just for maintenance. They turned over pools and local parks to cities. They pursued partnerships with nonprofits and sponsorship deals with for-profits, culminating in Group Health's $610,000 naming-rights deal for the velodrome at Marymoor Park. (Corporate money has dried up in the recession, and Group Health did not renew that five-year deal. But Cirque du Soleil rents part of the park now and pays a third of Marymoor's operating costs.)

"You really have to transform the culture of the department," says Jessie Israel, former business-development manager for county parks. "It's rough . . . We have to turn over government assets" to private entities.

Sponsorships are likely to cause friction in a city that balks at allowing companies to put their names on top of buildings. But McGinn notes the generally positive reception to bringing a Chihuly glass museum and KEXP's radio studios to Seattle Center. And, his budget quietly calls for selling the naming rights to a new skate park at the center.

Maybe it's not so unrealistic to imagine something like New York City's Bryant Park, funded from assessments on nearby businesses and properties that benefit from a public space with private security, immaculate bathrooms, cool concessions and consistent crowds.

"We need to remember they still are public parks," Bagshaw says. But it's time for "taxpayers and users to be realistic" about our new economic circumstances.

Then Bagshaw demonstrates just how difficult a sustainable solution may be. In an interview about austerity, she can't contain her enthusiasm for another new project, the 3.8-mile Lake to Bay Loop, an urban trail from South Lake Union to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

It's a "linear extension" of existing parks, she reasons. We can't just stop improving parks. We have to seize this opportunity because federal money is available. The city might even get the Gates Foundation and Paul Allen's Vulcan to pay for parts of the trail in front of their parcels.

She might be wise, though, to heed her own words about Green Lake residents who chewed her out because they had to give up a room at their community center in the face of the city's $67 million deficit: "I'm sympathetic to a point," she says about their expectations. "But get real here."

Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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