Why Have Seattle's Urban Forests Dodged Development? | KUOW News and Information

Why Have Seattle's Urban Forests Dodged Development?

Apr 26, 2015

“With so much building going on in Seattle, why haven’t urban forests like Interlaken and Ravenna been developed?”

Adam Goch of Greenwood asked that question as part of KUOW’s Local Wonder project.

With all the construction going on, it’s no wonder that Adam Goch of Greenwood worries about the city’s green spaces. With more density and higher property values, it seems possible a developer might call up the Parks Department and make an enticing offer. Could Seattle parks be turned into housing developments?

We’ll let Donald Harris, the property and acquisitions manager for Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, take the first crack at this answer: “It’s not gonna happen,” he said. “Just – don’t even think about it. Because there’s just no way there.”

Harris, who has worked for the parks department for 45 years, gets these calls often. He said they’re non-starters. “They wouldn’t even get in the front door,” he said.

Except for those who do get through the door. Those who have succeeded in obtaining a sliver of parks land have typically been wealthy Seattleites who give the parks acres of other land they own in exchange for several square feet.

Classified Natural Areas and Greenbelts Map
Credit Seattle Parks and Recreation

A homeowner in Mount Baker built a sports court that went over the property line. A house in West Seattle just got approval to swap land for a swatch of property near their house.

“Some wealthy buyer who bought this lot wanted to create a private estate,” Harris said. “They didn’t want a driveway crossing park property.”

So the owner bought four or five adjacent lots and exchanged them for full ownership of the driveway. The Seattle City Council recently approved the deal.

And in Interlaken, the wooded park between Capitol Hill and Montlake, a family learned that a corner of their TV room was sitting on city turf – they didn’t know until the city got in touch.

Still, it’s rare that people can buy parts of these urban forests, Harris said.

“Every time it has gone to a vote, the voters voted to preserve parkland,” Harris said.

For instance, in the 1970s, Seattleites voted down a proposal to expand the Woodland Park Zoo further into Woodland Park.

And when the city suggested putting the Seattle Aquarium at Golden Gardens in Ballard, the people voted to preserve the beach park. A golf course at Discovery Park – again, no way.

And then, in 1997, the city passed the Initiative 42 ordinance, which makes it nearly impossible to develop city land designated for park purposes.

According to the initiative, the first step to turning even a single square foot of parkland begins with a public hearing.

Parkland as percentage of adjusted city area. (Includes city, county, metro, state and federal parkland within city limits. Does not include airport and rail yard acreage.)
Credit Trust for Public Land

Then the city must pass an ordinance saying there’s no reasonable alternative.  

Then the city would have to receive a piece of land of equal or better size and value in exchange. That land must be located in the same community and be used for the same park purposes.

So it’s possible. But Seattleites have thrown up obstacles to make it an ordeal.

Jim and Lisa Crisera were the couple who bought the house in Interlaken. They bought their home in 1998; Jim Crisera said the headaches started in 2002.

Due to an error made in the original deed, about 700 square feet of the Criseras’ property extended into what was supposed to be Interlaken Park. But over the years, as various owners built extensions on the house, that 700 square feet included a portion of the Criseras’ backyard – and their carport.

“There was like one square foot of actual house structure in the park,” Crisera said.

And that, according to the city of Seattle, would not do. The Criseras would have given up part of their yard, or even the carport – but a chunk of their house?

“It is not something where they were open at all to just letting us carve off even one square foot, which is really all that was involved with this, that wasn’t even an option ever discussed,” Jim Crisera said.

Said Lisa Crisera: “It was kind of hanging over our head that if we couldn’t work it out we would have to tear down that corner of our TV room.”

The Criseras' home is surrounded by Interlaken Park, which makes for beautiful scenery out their windows, but all the shade does make growing plants in the back a challenge.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

The process was overwhelming and last seven years. It involved getting someone to survey the land and draw up the property.

They came to a resolution in 2009, when the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance authorizing a land swap. The Criseras were able to keep their carport and their house if they gave the city the same exact square footage from another part of their property.

“It was definitely a surreal experience though to think that just to get the corner of our TV room back we had to go to a City Council meeting and sit in front of them and watch them vote,” Lisa Crisera said.

Do the Criseras believe any Seattle’s park property could be sold to a developer?

Lisa Crisera laughed. Highly unlikely, she said. But what they went through made them appreciate the rules protecting the city’s greenspaces – thankful that no one could bulldoze the greenery that surrounds them.

So could Seattle’s urban forests – like Interlaken and Ravenna – ever get developed?

Maybe. But given Seattle’s history, the chances seem pretty slim.

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