By KERY MURAKAMI
This article originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 16, 2004.
Fred Kent began his talk with a warning.
“I know this could be heretical,” said the consultant hired by the city of Seattle to figure out a way to turn around Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park.
Indeed, the crowd of about 50 neighborhood residents who gathered Monday night gasped when Kent recommended that the lush ivy be removed from the side of the park’s brick Grand Central Arcade building. Then, flashing a slide showing pastel-colored buildings in Copenhagen, Denmark, he said the brick could be painted.
When the members of the audience caught their breath, one of them, Cecilia Kardum-Smith said, “That might fly in Copenhagen, but that won’t fly in Seattle.”
Heather Rosen, who also lives in the historic neighborhood, agreed. “I think that’s a horrible idea,” she said.
And Sara Jane Bellanca said the ivy and the bare brick are part of the historic neighborhood, noting: “We have a responsibility as a preservation district to preserve.”
There were gasps again when Kent, president of a non-profit New York firm called Project for Public Spaces, recommended replacing the cobblestones in the middle of the park with AstroTurf.
However, neighborhood residents acknowledged that Occidental Park, dominated most of the time by the homeless, drug dealers and public inebriates, needs help. They said they’re willing to consider a more detailed proposal for the park, expected to be released by the city next month.
Kent’s firm has worked with cities from Portland to Paris. Seattle spent $40,000 to hire the firm to make recommendations for Occidental Park.
“I don’t know a place that’s as bad as it is, but could become good so quickly,” Kent said.
The city of Seattle and the Pioneer Square Neighborhood Association have started organizing activities such as bocce ball to draw people into the park. Kent recommended a number of changes beyond that.
The trees and the ivy on the arcade darken the park and deter customers from going to the Grand Central Bakery and other businesses inside the arcade, he said. To create a more open park conducive to movie nights and outdoor performances, he recommended installing an “Astrolawn” and moving three totem poles and trees.
The park’s iron pergola-like shelter, used primarily by the homeless, ought to be replaced by a coffee kiosk with more cafe seating, he said. The money generated by the businesses could pay a management firm to maintain the park.
Ken Bounds, superintendent of Seattle’s Parks and Recreation department, said the city and the neighborhood association will refine the proposals in the next month to present to neighborhood residents, as well as the city’s historic preservation and parks boards. They also will come up with a total estimated cost for the changes as part of the mayor and City Council’s budget process this fall.
As admirable as preserving history and trees might be, Kent said the neighborhood should be willing to accept some changes to “create a very dynamic asset for the whole city.”
Leaving the meeting, Kardum-Smith acknowledged that changes might have to be made.
“It’s just really tragic that we have this gorgeous park and it’s not used,” she said.