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Don’t sacrifice green spaces to Seattle’s affordable-housing plan

Originally published August 17, 2018 by Carl Guess

Quietly, deliberately and with no public discussion, Seattle has set the stage for fewer parks and less open space, even as its population is surging.

To understand how local officials intend to strip the green from the Emerald City - quietly, deliberately and with no public discussion - it takes only a few minutes of reading and an appreciation for chutzpah.

But it’s all there in the environmental impact statement for the city’s affordable-housing plan: The staggering amount of new parks and open space it must create; a bureaucratic shrug of indifference; and an edit that could fundamentally change how Seattle allocates green spaces.

Start with the problem.

Today, the city creates eight acres of parks and open space for every 1,000 people to comply with the state’s Growth Management Act and the State Recreation and Conservation Office’s standards. Even with a population of roughly 725,000, we still meet this goal.

But Seattle will balloon to 855,900 residents by 2035 according to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) environmental impact statement. That means we’ll need 434 new acres of park and open space.

That’s the equivalent of a bit more than three Lincoln Parks. Or almost six Seattle Centers.

To its credit, the city acknowledges that its affordable-housing plan creates a significant, unavoidable and adverse impact on the availability of parks and open space. It cites bigger crowds at pools, picnic shelters and community centers; longer wait times to use them; and more travel time to find those that are available. What does it intend to do about it?

Cue the shrug.

The city offers three halfhearted ideas. The first kicks the can down the road: The Seattle Parks & Recreation department should study HALA’s impact … for its 2023 update plan.

The second: Use partnerships with other public agencies and tools in the city’s comprehensive plan. That’s logical. Unfortunately, it lacks any estimate of the new acreage to be created — or the cost. Nor does it acknowledge that trees in existing parks and natural areas are less healthy than those on private property, which means we’ll need funds to replace them, too.

Third, the city says it could study a development-impact fee charged to developers to pay for new parklands. “However, decision-makers would need to evaluate such an impact fee in conjunction with potential impacts fees [sic] for other services, including public schools,” states the EIS.

When simply studying an impact fee has officials pitting parks against schools, it’s hard to see this idea going anywhere.

Yet the EIS cheerfully concludes that some combination of mitigation measures will result in a less-than-significant impact on parks and open space. Which measures? In what combination? How many new acres? It doesn’t say.

Given how quickly Seattle is growing — and how fast real estate prices are rising — I would think city leaders would want a detailed blueprint  on how to quickly begin acquiring 434 acres of green space.

Then the penny dropped.

It happened when I saw a small edit on the last page of the Open Space and Recreation chapter of the EIS. It allows the Parks & Recreation Department to consider the quality of facilities and availability of programs and services in addition to or instead of a standard solely based on parks acres per person.

In other words, just change the standard. Problem solved.

Quietly, deliberately and with no public discussion, the city has set the stage for fewer parks and less open space than we enjoy today. You can love HALA or loathe it. But I bet you never thought losing green space was part of the deal.

When that reality sinks in, I suspect people will want to talk. Maybe we can meet in a park. Play some Joni Mitchell in the background.

They took all the trees
Put em’ in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
At least we’ll know what we’ve got before it’s gone.

Link to article online.

Carl Guess lives in West Seattle and is a member of the land use committee of the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO). His opinions are his own.