by Jack Russillo
Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that “the most significant parks” in Seattle would close over this past weekend and likely for future ones as well. Unlike many other parks excluded from the mayor’s list, Rainier Beach’s Be’er Sheva Park was ultimately closed over the weekend without an explanation (The Emerald has reached out to the City and is awaiting a response). For some in the community, Be’er Sheva’s absence from the list, and confusion over its closure, brings into question the significance of the park to the city’s decision-makers in other regards.
Concerned about the future of her neighborhood park, Jenny Frankl is one of many Rainier Beach residents who are worried that their years of working toward improving the neighborhood’s premier waterfront park, Be’er Sheva, are going to waste.
“We don’t want to be put on the back burner, especially during this trying time,” said Frankl, a six-year Rainier Beach resident and co-chair of the Link to Lake committee that is spearheading efforts to add improvements to Be’er Sheva park.
The Rainier Beach Link to Lake group has worked since 2016 to lay the groundwork to push the City of Seattle to allot the resources necessary to transform Be’er Sheva into the neighborhood’s first signature waterfront park. Over the years, the group has surveyed the Rainier Beach community about what it envisioned for the park, organized volunteer-led fundraising events, and compiled a comprehensive plan for improvements. The list of improvements includes a 30-by-150-foot beach with boardwalk, family picnic areas, walking paths, a lawn, safety lighting, salmon habitat restoration, and fishing and kayaking access. Backing its proposals with more than $500,000 worth of volunteer hours, Link to Lake’s goal is to be included in the Seattle Parks and Recreation’s list of capital budget projects with guaranteed funding.
“This process has really been a community agenda, not one person driving it,” said Frankl. “The foundation for this project has been how awesome this park is already. It’s a gem in our neighborhood and we all see it as that… In terms of the plan for the park, that outreach is done at the park by the folks who use the park.”
The City of Seattle was in the midst of creating its next six-year plan for its parks, from 2021 to 2026, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Even before talks of pushing the entire plan back a year began, to span from 2022 to 2027, Be’er Sheva Park was already an unknown in terms of where, if at all, it sat in the city’s budget for improvements.
Rainier Beach is already an underserved part of the city, particularly in terms of its parks. Of Seattle’s 14 signature waterfront parks — defined by unusually large acreage, generous parking, playgrounds, trails, bathrooms, and long public shorelines often with natural beaches — only three (Alki Beach, Lincoln Park, and Seward Park) are south of Capitol Hill. Seward is the only such park in southeast Seattle.
Link to Lake worked to acquire matching grants from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, which funded a full redesign of Be’er Sheva Park with all the improvements envisioned by the community. In addition to the design work, the park is permitted and shovel-ready, but the City has yet to commit funding for the improvements.
The total estimated cost for the envisioned improvements to the park is $1.8 million. Link to Lake is not expecting to receive the full $1.8 million in Seattle’s next park financial plan, but it has designed its improvement plan to be flexible depending on what funds it receives. At the top of the list are places to sit and gather, like picnic tables, grills and other items that don’t carry a hefty price tag but can still help move Be’er Sheva toward the community’s overall vision for the park.
In Seattle’s current capital budget, the only park listed for future development was Smith Cove Park in Magnolia. The park’s improvements (access to Elliott Bay, walking paths, improved soccer field, hand-carried boat launch and beach access, play area) are similar to the amenities that Link to Lake is seeking to acquire for Be’er Sheva. But so far more than $900,000 has been expended for a park in the northwest corner of the city compared to less than a fifth of that for the park in the city’s opposite corner. Smith Cove Park’s expected total budget is $6.4 million, more than triple Be’er Sheva’s. There are no currently-listed projects for Be’er Sheva under the City’s capital budget.
As the Parks and Recreation Department sorts out its time frame and budget, Frankl and the rest of the Link to Lake group continue to lobby for their park project.
“As we recover from this period of time, we want to make sure that we stay on their mind,” said Frankl. “But at the same time, what are our immediate needs? We know we need basic things for the parks, like tables and chairs, so how do we scale our park plan to incorporate some of those into the now? Hopefully, the summer of 2020, if we can gather again, will have all that.”
The Link to Lake group has had to get creative to help make Be’er Sheva Park a better resource for the community. Last summer, Link to Lake organized a grill-off to help bring together the neighborhood with a commonly-cherished event while fundraising for park improvements. With quarantine measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second grill-off this summer is now uncertain.
At one point in 2019, Link to Lake bought five picnic tables from a hardware store, painted them, and placed them in the park’s grassy areas.
“It was kind of like our guerilla effort to provide some more seating,” Frankl said. “We heard that we needed more, so many times. Everybody is just sitting in their cars because there’s nowhere to sit.”
Over the summer, each time she visited, Frankl hardly ever saw any of the new tables empty.
“What a beautiful sight it was,” said Frankl. “All summer long, every single one of them was utilized every time I went by. They were moved in different locations, sometimes they were put together if it was a large friend or family gathering. It was just a beautiful thing to see. It was a very affirming thing to see, our community wants to gather and we gave them the ability to gather.”
One fall day, however, Seattle Parks announced that the tables did not meet the standards for official park furniture and took all five picnic tables away. Eventually, the department dropped off a single picnic table that met its official standards, but the one-for-five trade doesn’t seem fair to the park’s visitors.
“I don’t see why they couldn’t have just left all the tables and chairs,” said Sheila Richardson, a Rainier Beach resident who visits Be’er Sheva regularly. “There’s almost always a need for more places to sit, either the benches are taken up or you’re forced to sit with the geese… I’m not sure what goes into getting more tables but I can’t imagine it’s that hard.”
On the Be’er Sheva Park Improvements page of the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, the budget section notes that the City’s project committee will continue to raise funds for the improvements. People can also donate to the $1.8 million project fund directly on the Seattle Parks Foundation website.
With the possibility that the City’s next six-year park improvement budget process will be delayed a year, and Be’er Sheva’s inclusion in that budget up in the air, it’s no wonder Rainier Beach residents worry that Seattle Parks and Recreation won’t even fund small additions like picnic tables. Add in the current restrictions on large social gatherings and the City has a legitimate excuse to delay adding tables and other inexpensive amenities.
“On our committee and in the community, I think there’s this concern about wanting to build the improvements for our park and have this place be intact, and that it won’t ever come true,” said Frankl. “There’s always a sense of worry that any changes made to this park won’t serve the people that are here now.”
Jack Russillo is a journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Be’er Sheva park (Photo: Jack Russillo)