Capitol Hill Park Plan Sparks Debate About Public Space


Jordie Simpson

Signage posted to the fence for a new park at 1125 Harvard Ave E.

Kay Bullitt, a civil rights activist and staple of the Capitol Hill community passed away Aug. 2021. She held day camps for children on her property, hosted events working towards peace in the Middle East and was instrumental in desegregating Seattle Public Schools. She pledged her property to the City of Seattle before her death, requesting that a public park be built on the land. 

Seattle is attempting to preserve the history of the site, as well as the legacy of community building that Bullitt left behind. Susanne Rockwell, the senior planner at the city of Seattle spoke to the intrinsic value public space has in meeting the needs of communities. 

“Open space, whether you can just go out and be able to sit in the sunshine, lay on the grass or sit with a friend, and just be in a place is such a wonderful thing for people to experience,” Rockwell said. “One thing I love about Seattle is that our parks are open to everyone. Regardless of homeownership, sexual orientation, race, gender or nationality.” 


Assistant Professor of Public Affairs Zachary Wood touched on the role parks have in maintaining and bolstering community, and also creating it.

“This touches on our understanding of public space and democracy as well,” Wood said. “I know that sounds very grand, but parks have long been gathering points for people. In a highly individualized society and one that’s becoming more individualized, the understanding of who claims space changes. Parks are created specifically for public use, for use by the people.” 

Building a park is not easy work and there are many difficulties both in funding and in gathering a diverse range of input from the community. 

“Most [people giving feedback] live within walking distance to the park, which is just fantastic,” Rockwell said. “Kay gave a gift to the community, but it’s also important to acknowledge the incredible position of privilege from which she was able to be so generous. The location of this park, specifically, raises an interesting discussion because the city is very focused on committing capital dollars to underserved neighborhoods, which Capitol Hill is not.” 

Public space isn’t always welcomed with open arms, however. At the second public meeting for Bullitt’s property, residents who lived near the now vacant lot expressed their concerns. Crime, homelessness and drug use were among the issues mentioned.Residents living close to the park worry that they will be responsible for keeping the park secure and safe for all to use. 

A view from above the fence: the new park site and a sliver of the space needle. (Jordie Simpson)

Despite some concerns, Sharon Lee, a resident of Capitol Hill, described her vision of the park. 

“It could really be a gift to the neighborhood,” Lee said. “The security of this park, if in place, has the potential to make this a beautiful space for people to enjoy, to walk through and to just be on. On the other hand, if the security is not in place, it runs the risk of becoming a real hazard not just to the park itself but the neighborhood as a whole. I want to see this park become a beautiful place that everyone can enjoy.”

Wood discussed parks and their relation to crime, and how it may require a larger discussion about community values and what is and isn’t allowed in public spaces. 

“Parks in and of themselves don’t increase or decrease crime,” Wood said. “Parks are simply a place where things can happen. The relationship between crime and parks has to be compartmentalized so that we understand that prevention of homelessness and crime is not about how we condone or condemn behavior in parks. We conflate the two all the time which can lead to making some false assumptions and some mistakes about public spaces and how they should operate.” 

Parks are a significant part of any community. They also force us to confront ideas of what public and private property is, what the function of public spaces are and ways that they can be vulnerable to misuse. Whether Bullitt’s vision of an integrated community park becomes a reality is dependent on how much Capitol Hill residents believe in it.