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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”