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After this weekend’s Capitol Hill Block Party, changes may be afoot for big events on the Hill

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

2019 will be a pivotal year for the Capitol Hill Block Party, which kicks off today. And not because the great flautist-twerker-chanteuse Lizzo is gracing its main stage Saturday. This August, the city will start looking into what effect the Block Party, grown from a street festival into a ticketed, three-day musical extravaganza now in its 23rd year, has on the neighborhood — and how it can move forward on the Hill in the coming years.

The city has hired local consulting firm Fife Consulting to lead an outreach process with people and businesses in the neighborhood. The company is also completing a study of large outdoors events across the city.

The process, separate from the regular post-CHBP “debrief” with city officials or public comment during Special Events committee meetings, will start in late August and will include focus groups, an online survey as well as interviews with residents, businesses and local business and neighborhood agencies, said Seattle Special Events Committee chair Chris Swenson.

By December, Swenson said, the process should be wrapped up. At which point the Special Event Committee will decide on whether the event can go forward as is, or in a modified form. These modifications could be light (as in: keeping the event but changing days, hours or footprint) or more significant, such as the consideration of other neighborhoods, formats and weekends, Swenson said.

“We want to make sure that this is still the right place, time and manner for this event to happen,” he said. “This is a Capitol Hill-centric event, and Capitol Hill is evolving, and we want to make sure this dedicated art center is the best place for the Capitol Hill Block Party.” 

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

The outreach effort by Fife Consulting comes as a response to concerns about the festival’s impact on the neighborhood, raised by a group of “residents, property owners and business owners in Pike/Pine” (and others) in previous years and again in the summer and fall of last year.

Following a meeting with local businesses and the city in November, as well as an online survey to assess the economic and community impact sent out by Capitol Hill resident Rachel Ravitch, the city announced it would assess the “viability” of the CHBP in the neighborhood. 

Around 80 people responded to the survey, mostly residents and business owners. The top concern was revenue loss for surrounding businesses who say they see foot traffic and revenue fall dramatically during the three-day festival, which renders some parts of the Hill harder to reach. Damage, noise, and debris (vomit, in particular), were other returning complaints.

In communication with the city in late 2018, Ravitch wrote that the survey respondents expected “a mitigation plan to be presented” ahead of issuing a future permit for the Block Party, and requested that the city offices responsible for the permitting should plan to host a public meeting where the community could “take a vote.”

None of that happened. By the time of the request, the 2019 Block Party had already been green-lighted by the committee.

They did hire a consultant, Andy Fife of Fife Consulting, to do a Block Party-survey in early 2019. This spring, they postponed the survey to August.

Fife said the move meant they could also include feedback on this year’s CHBP, as well as on other significant public events in the neighborhood such as Pride, in the scope of the survey.

Meanwhile, the city did ask the CHBP organizers to make some changes based on the feedback from the survey circulated by Ravitch. Some of these improvements implemented this year include making sure fencing does not encroach on certain sidewalks, as well as expanding CHBP’s partnerships with businesses, plus offering more free event activities for residents and the neighborhood, as well as better access to the grounds for residents and employees.

“To address this, we added a stand-alone service tent for that group and created a designated entrance to bypass the main gates and the general public,” said Jason Lajeunesse, producer and main partner in the businesses around the festival, which is lucrative for and popular with the area’s nightlife venues including Lajeunesse’s Neumos and Comet Tavern. “We also expanded our communication to local businesses and doubled-down on talking to our neighbors to understand how we can work together.”

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

Lajeunesse also said CHBP expanded its public programming with a second day of skate competitions, all-day programming in Cal Anderson, as well as a kick-off party/fundraiser on Thursday, plus artist panels at the Riveter on Saturday, and that they had expanded promotional and ticket partnerships from 14 business last year to 20 this year.

These promotional partnerships, where businesses can give out free festival tickets in exchange for clients spending a certain amount at their establishment as well as marketing perks, were started in 2011, as a way to mitigate for adding a lucrative third day to the festival by the organizers, including then-producer David Meinert. Lajeunesse said the promotional partnerships really took off last year and have been expanded this year.

Jon Milazzo of Retrofit Home said that her business loses a “chunk of money” during the three day Block Party weekend, but that Lajeunesse (whom she considers a friend) expanded their promotion this year, which she says helps recover the loss. “The truth of the matter is, for us, Pride is the weekend where we lose our shirts,” she said. Retrofit Home will close for three days during the festival while KEXP broadcasts from the store. “Jason has really tried to make things work for us,” she said.

Not everyone is as happy about it.

Though the mitigation from the Block Party helps, one business owner noted in the survey Ravitch circulated late last year, it also creates a strained dynamic: “We are not comfortable promoting the event though we feel compelled to for financial reasons,” a process described as “meeting after meeting begging for scraps.”

Overall, the Block Party mitigation is a sore point. Some say it helps, one person CHS spoke to compared it to hush money, and others say it’s not adequate. Overall, people say the problem is that there is no clear protocol or oversight over the process.

Ravitch told CHS she thinks that because the city doesn’t have a ‘neutral’ way to oversee mitigation, businesses have had to work directly with organizers to get benefits, which has created “a strange, delicate dance, where business owners feel like if they speak out they are not going to get the same benefits,” Ravitch said, adding that “everyone should have equal access to those benefits.”

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

“There have been staff changes, and in time, unintended mistakes,” Lajeunesse said in a text message in response to a question about the mitigation process. “We have also tried different programs, some worked better than others. As I said last year, we landed on a program and promotion that has had 100 percent success rate. Everyone who was included last year we reached out to again this year and added more.”

The mitigation has been inconsistent, the city’s Swenson said. He said part of the outreach process is looking at ways to make the process more transparent and consistent, though he added that financial mitigation from the city is not an option.

The city will also review the communication between the Block Party, residents, and business owners — another sore point. Locals and business owners told CHS that they expect the city to communicate better as well, and step in and facilitate more public comment.

Some of that comes from a sense of mistrust and feelings of a skewed power dynamic originating from before Lajeunesse’s time, when David Meinert, the longtime face of Block Party, was still in charge. He stepped aside when Lajeunesse took over the festival in 2012. Last summer, he was forced to sell his stake in a handful of Pike/Pine businesses in the wake of sexual misconduct and rape accusations. Critics said Meinert bullied city officials and local businesses over the years.

Those local business owners, “some of whom are still afraid to speak out,” said a local business owner who did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation, “need to be talked to by the city, not by Block Party.”

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

The crux of the issue is not Meinert himself per se, but the fact “that the event continues to enjoy the privileges that an abusive leader set up in terms of the dynamics in the neighborhood,” said a respected community member who did not want to be named.

Particularly for smaller, women-owned businesses, “I think it’s a lingering feeling of powerlessness and diminishment,” the community member said, and added: “Jason [Lajeunesse] is doing a much better job of reaching out to the neighborhood, but he’s a restaurant owner and festival producer, and approaches the world in a way that is very much in line with that function. He’s not a ‘let’s process trauma and community challenges together’ specialist — and that’s not his job.”

“The entire Capitol Hill Block Party team embraces their responsibility to continue listening to the community and evolving the festival experience with the intent to heal any residual wounds that are left over and address concerns the best we can. We want this to be a celebration where everyone feels safe, feels respected, and has a great time celebrating music and the arts,” Lajeunesse told CHS in an email.

And so, as Block Party is coming of age and grappling with its future on the Hill, it might also have to deal with an issue society as a whole is wrestling with: Acknowledging the historical and systemic inequality some have benefitted from, and and creating a new plan from there.

A start, the community member suggested, might be “to recognize the effects that abusive men have in civic participation, and we need to keep processing that. Block Party is not the end of that process — there is still so much [more] work to be done.”

(Image: Capitol Hill Block Party)

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19 thoughts on “After this weekend’s Capitol Hill Block Party, changes may be afoot for big events on the Hill

  1. Thanks for the article. Haven’t attended since 2000. Too crowded, and expensive. I feel sorry for the biz owners I know in the area, who grumble about lost revenue; a few even say they close for the weekend to avoid it, and I know residents who leave for the weekend as well.

  2. The block party is like so many other festival events in Seattle that used to be cheap or free, local, and laid back and are now super expensive money making undertakings that are crazy crowded and really, really loud. Great for people who can afford it, I guess. Not so much for the rest of us.

  3. I live on the top of the hill next to the school. The party people throw their trash in the field where the dogs play. The noise is horrible. Keep it down the hill; don’t continue your party up at the top and sleep it off in the playground! Thank you.

  4. “that the event continues to enjoy the privileges that an abusive leader set up in terms of the dynamics in the neighborhood,” said a respected community member who did not want to be named. What?

    “to recognize the effects that abusive men have in civic participation, and we need to keep processing that. Block Party is not the end of that process — there is still so much [more] work to be done.” What?

    I’m glad I feel too old to care ab i’m glad I feel too old to care out the Block Party.

  5. This isn’t a neighborhood festival anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. This is a professionally run music concert festival and it should be treated just the same as any outside promoter putting on a show on public right of way.

  6. Going on my 4 year living in the neighborhood, and leared quickly that this was a weekend to plan on leaving and exploring some of the other great neighborhoods Seattle has to offer. What I want the Block Party to be is a great time for the neighborhood to come together support local business, local artists, and meet and ejoy eachother. The block party is definately more for people coming from outside of the neighborhood…

  7. To the “lovely” folks that decided to change their clothes out in front of my house and in full-nakedness squat for a pee on our tree, your contribution to the neighborhood goes… with notice.

    – block party 2018

  8. Sure, block party has changed quite a bit, but, as a resident right in it, I don’t find it bothersome. If you live in this area noise is part of the deal. At least they do a good job cleaning up after.

    Re: business impact, how about we have CHBP pay for a few days of the People Streets project on Pike every year (where Pike becomes a pedestrian only zone). As a resident, I really liked these, and I hope they bring more foot traffic to businesses in the area.

  9. The fact is the city has known about the huge negative business impact for years, has had neighborhood surveys and neighborhood sign off forms for years and I don’t believe really wants a public meeting which would be the next logical courteous step.
    Dave Meinart and his associates it appears has had a long history of contract favoritism from the city.
    I also have my doubts about this hired Fife Consulting by the city will be objective. It sounds more like the city is trying to cover their liability (ass) with further delays.
    Encourage Pike / Pine business owners to form their own Business Association now that the city run Chamber of Commerce has folded.

    Its ridiculous that ANY business has to shut their doors so another business can privitize a public street for their own profit.
    The Capitol Hill Pride Festival up until 2017 (when it was hijacked and commercialized by Pridefest) never had a business close or block a storefront. Zero. Block Party? Dozens.
    The Capitol Hill Pride Festival’s public open no fence format had become the highest revenue day for the North Broadway businesses and flies in the face of the Block Party’s structure which for some businesses is their lowest revenue day of the year if their doors are not outright closed.

    And Jason Lajeunesse stands on his own merits alongside Dave Meinart for intimidating business owners. When I had my museum on 10th and Union in 2010 we received a garbage bag on our doorstep – trash from Mario’s Pizza owned in part by Lajeunesse for supporting Pravda Studios request to remove Neumo’s trash bins from their store front. Nice little mafia intimidation tactic so we filed a police report but never received an apology…which we are still waiting for Jason?

  10. It’s interesting that some 25-30K people come to it over the weekend but only the people who aren’t fans are the ones that talk about how horrible it it. A lot of these folks are the same one that are angry that Amazon has taken over and the arts and music scene isn’t what it was.If you keep pushing the arts away, then you’ll get a boring city that is run by corporate interests. Be careful what you wish for.

  11. Capitol hill block party is a private money making event that damages local small business. They do NOT communicate at all with local business and the city of Seattle supports them way more that they support small business. Seattle SUCKS!

  12. My friends on Capitol Hill make a point of fleeing town every Block Party weekend, not because of noise but because of the lousy vibe you get when public streets are fenced off for paid, private access. It’s not cool for the city to treat this corporate cash cow concert like a real neighborhood block party.

  13. Why isn’t the CHBP in Cal Anderson Park? That way businesses could get the benefit of all those people without having the street closed to non-attendees.

    • Good question that gets asked alot. From my understanding, Cal Anderson Park is large but a very segmented area and canopies are not allowed on the softball / soccer area so it makes a poor vendor area. There is the Sunbowl next to the restrooms area but again not condusive to crowds. Also I believe the alcohol license aspect get tricky in public parks – which is usually a big part of the money making profits for an event.

  14. The block party should be called the “blocked off party”. I have always resented the annual blocking and fencing off of publicly funded streets for the benefit of private money grubbing companies. Why are they entitled to fence off our tax funded areas and limit access to only those with enough money to buy their way in? I am just surprised no one has initiated a lawsuit over this. I feel bad for the business owners who are bullied into keeping quiet about their losses.

  15. Yeah, it’s nice that they clean up after the event. But it’s not nice that they end the event so late and make a racket all freaking night. Loud clanging metal tubes on cement until 2AM. Then at 3AM, I thought someone was operating giant circular saw or otherwise doing construction work in the middle of the night. The noise would not stop so I looked outside to see who was doing construction at night, and it was a guy in a safety vest, with a leaf blower, walking back and forth at 3AM.

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