City blundered on Loyal Heights project
A long-time battle between the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and a group of Loyal Heights residents has ended with some vindication for the community members.
Mistakes were made and opportunities were lost during the public involvement process for the Loyal Heights Playfield Improvement Project, a city audit found. The news was a huge relief for Jim Anderson, president of the Loyal Heights Community Council, the group that fought to make modifications to the project for more than two years.
"Who could ask for anything more?" Anderson said. "Its exactly what we were saying all long. It gave me hope that what we went through did some good."
Neighbors have said parks had shut them out of the public process from the very beginning.
Indeed, the audit found that parks officials should have communicated better with residents about a controversial plan to install artificial turf at the playfield, increasing the field's use by more than 1,000 hours annually.
Some were worried the transformation of the 6.7-acre park would bring unwanted noise and traffic to the neighborhood.
For two years residents were not informed of plans to replace natural grass with synthetic turf.
"Administrative errors" in community announcements contributed to frustration over the public process, the audit said.
Signs and fliers explaining the project or announcing public meetings read that there would be "field improvements" but no mention of "artificial turf."
"That to me is dishonest," said Nancy Toland, a Loyal Heights resident. "It's trying to avoid a conversation that has to take place."
A professional facilitator should have been hired to deal with the neighborhood's rising concerns over the plan and the reconsideration process was unclear and poorly communicated to residents, the audit said.
Neighbors were confused and frustrated during the reconsideration period because they were given contradictory information from parks staff about whether the project could be changed.
"There wasn't really a process designed to connect to people who were opposed to what was going on," said Anderson.
Toland lived across the street from the playfield until last spring. She moved her family a few blocks away shortly after construction began at the playfield.
"It was emotionally draining," Toland said. "As a neighbor I felt like I was pounding my head against the wall trying to get someone to listen to us. It was really starting to effect my life."
The audit's findings are a "bitter sweet ending" for Toland. On one hand, it's nice that the city finally acknowledges residents had been unfairly treated, but the action items are "too soft" and don't hold the city accountable to change their behavior, she said.
In another blunder by the parks department, 16 red oak trees planted along near the park will be removed and replaced with hedge maples. Residents said the oak trees would block scenic views from their homes.
If there had been better facilitation of community meetings, perhaps it could have been an opportunity to build community, Toland said. Instead, parks officials, organized sports groups and community members continually butted heads over competing interests.
"It was a lost opportunity to not help the groups work together," Toland said. "Any change is going to bring controversy...but it doesn't have to be an ugly mess and that's what it turned into."
Expecting 100 percent agreement in any situation is unrealistic, said Dewey Potter, parks spokesperson. But she acknowledged that something had gone wrong in the case of Loyal Heights.
"In the middle or two thirds of the way through it's hard to know how to fix it," she said. "We want to do this right and we're anxious to move forward."
The parks department has already started implementing several changes meant to better involve the public, said Potter. Efforts are underway to improve how the department notifies the public of upcoming park decisions, projects and events.
"We need to be really thorough and vigilant with including the entire history of a project in all the materials we present," said Potter. "I think it's important so people have an understanding that it wasn't just plucked out of the air - that it had a thorough public process."
And if a project has even the slightest hint of controversy, a neutral facilitator will be brought in.
"We should have done that from the beginning," Potter said. "We have learned that lesson very well."
All in all, Anderson is optimistic the audit will "push parks toward a more collaborative style." He hopes whoever is hired to replace parks superintendent Ken Bounds, who retired last month, is interested in "cultural change."
"We need someone who's really good at institutional change," said Anderson. "Those kinds of leaders are out there."
Rebekah Schilperoort may be reached at email@example.com or 783.1244.