Last Tuesday, a group of students from Seattle University’s Community Design Workshop presented their research on McGilvra Place Park in a talk entitled, McGilvra Place: A Reconnaissance Study of a Pocket Park. In front of a crowd of about 40 people made up of both fellow students and community members, the two project managers, Chase Clancy and Leah Julius summed up the findings of four project teams, which analyzed various aspects of the small, triangular park off Madison and 15th Avenue. The presenters set the tone of the presentation by starting a real-time video of the park, filmed from the top of a nearby apartment complex, and challenging the audience to find a single person actually using the park during the duration of the talk.
The presentation started off with the basics: It is a 2,600 square foot park with eleven 60-70 year old London Plane Trees, and a small patch of grass surrounded by a nearly two foot high cement wall. The park came about when the city street grid was extended across Madison street, leaving a small,disconnected parcel between Madison, 15th, and E. Pike street. The land was officially acquired by the city in 1901 and named after U.S. Attorney of Washington Territory, John J. McGilvra, the man who funded the original “Madison Street Improvements” in order to connect his Lake Washington estate with downtown Seattle. Although included in both the Central District and Capitol Hill Neighborhood Plans, there have been no significant improvements to the park other than the initial planting of the London Planes. Today the Parks Department spends about 60 hours and $3,622 a year maintaining the park.
Next, the presenters went on to the “meat of the project” as Julius put it, displaying their findings about human behavior in and around the park. The project team set up observations at four different time-blocks throughout the day and logged a grand total of 36 hours of park watching. Although the observers witnessed 1,400 people in the park area, they saw a mere 12 actually use the park itself. Of those 12, eight simply walked through the park, leaving just 4 out of 1,400 people who sat or laid in the green space. When interviewed, 80% of people said they weren’t even aware that the open space was indeed a park, and the majority said the area felt “unwelcoming and cold.” One common perception of the park was that it was used by the homeless population as a place to sleep, yet, observers did not directly witness any of this activity. The team spoke with East Precinct Sergeant Jay Shin about this issue and he did say that they were asked to increase patrols of the park two months ago, but he also emphasized that all members of the public are allowed to utilize the park during regular park hours.
The human observations in the park highlighted the main theme of the presentation: Even though the park sits in the midst of a dense urban neighborhood, it is vastly underutilized. They recommended a number of park improvements that could highlight the park’s unique position at the intersection of some of Seattle’s most culturally rich neighborhoods. For example, they suggested some possible “decorative boulders” that could be used both as interpretive signage as well as seating. They also recommended a number of green features, such as bio-swales, but they pointed out that the current slope of the park is too steep for such additions, and would need some regrading to make it work. Acknowledging the city’s troubling financial situation, they recommended a public-private partnership as a possible funding source, pointing to the success of the Portland Parks Foundation as a model.
Two of the most likely candidates for a public-private partnership could be Point32 Development, which is set to build the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction just east of the park on 15th Avenue, and the Bullitt Foundation, which plans on occupying a portion of the Cascadia Center after completion. Point32 CEO Chris Rogers and Bullitt Foundation Director Dennis Hayes both watched intently during the presentation and stuck around afterward to chat with the presenters and answer questions. When asked what kind of financial commitments Bullitt was willing to provide to the park, Hayes said that they are currently open to all options. Rogers said that they are considering having a shared buy-in from all tenants of the Cascadia Center that would contribute to the maintenance and improvement of the park.
One of the most interesting parts of the presentation was when CHS itself was invoked during the question and answer session. Point32 CEO Rogers asked whether the team looked into vacating 15th between Madison and Pike, suggesting it could provide additional space for the park. Clancy said it was a possibility, but that comments on CHS’s preview of the McGilvra study illustrated that some people were worried about the park being incorporated into the Cascadia Center’s campus. He recommended that further public outreach be done on that particular issue. Both Hayes and Rogers seemed stunned by the possibility raised in comments on CHS and when asked later Hayes said he believed that closing 15th to vehicle traffic could make the park and the Cascadia Center more accessible to the public, not less. CHS will let you know if there are additional public meetings on the topic, but until then, feel free to share your opinions below and perhaps we can again help shape the discussion on this little park.