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Denny-Blaine Park: A lack of transparency, questions left unanswered

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Andy Sheffer, project manager with Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, meets with local reporters after meeting with community members on Dec. 6, 2023 — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie
Andy Sheffer, project manager with Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, meets with local reporters after meeting with community members on Dec. 6, 2023 — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie

In the aftermath of the City of Seattle's decision to cancel a proposed project to build a children's play area at the historically clothing-optional Denny-Blaine Park, the SGN reached out to Seattle Parks and Recreation to better understand the process, procedures, and events that the department undertook regarding the doomed proposal.

What we found was that, behind the scenes, employees of SPR and the City expressed frustration, confusion, and doubt concerning the impacts and viability of the project, all while SPR and the City engaged in official silence surrounding its impact on the Queer community.

The SGN also asked, as an official public disclosure request, about the name and identity of the anonymous donor. To date, despite multiple such requests on behalf of several individuals and organizations, the City has not disclosed that information.

"An 'exercise' that will likely not reach fruition"
Transparency was lacking in the planning of the play area proposal from day one.

Though public visibility on the issue reached critical mass in October and November 2023, SPR was active on the project as early as July. Released emails from July 19 show project manager Andy Sheffer, who led the December 6 public information meeting, instructing an employee named Mike Schindweller to maintain a policy of confidentiality after accidentally mentioning the project at a managers' meeting.

The emails quote him as saying, "Pls. don't share any information on the potential Denny Blaine Play Area. If this gets out it will be very problematic. The topic is confidential at this point." Later in the conversation, Sheffer explained, "This is an 'exercise' that will likely not reach fruition."

It is not clear within these internal communications why Sheffer believed the proposal was an "exercise," nor what that would mean. Nor is it clear what Sheffer understood to be "problematic" should the topic become public. The SGN sent an email to an SPR public information officer asking for clarification, and the response did not answer the question.

"Decisions are made because someone is waving a check"
This policy of confidentiality reflects many of the issues concerning a lack of transparency in the project's life.

The proposed project was funded almost entirely by an anonymous donor whose $550,000 contribution was made to the mayor's office and not directly to SPR. This led to procedural confusion about how the planning was to unfold, with the project kept from SPR's internal planning team and instead conducted by the Seattle Parks Foundation, a planning, advocacy, and fundraising nonprofit that, according to its website, "partners with the community to champion thriving and equitable parks and public places."

By November, managers and employees at SPR saw the project as increasingly unlikely to come to fruition and accelerated the planning timeline. Employees discussed a November planning meeting in which Sheffer characterized the proposal as "horrifying," adding, "once again planning is cut out and decisions are made because someone is waving a check."

Nonetheless, around this time, SPR began to understand the project as being infeasible. According to project manager Jonathan Pagán in an email, "My understanding is a consultant was brought on by SPF to study a few concepts to present to the donor ... Several concepts were eliminated before the powers that be decided to have the project continue."

The SGN reached out to a spokesman with SPR for clarification on why the project was deemed not feasible and if that had any bearing on the decision to cancel it. His response did not answer the question.

Botched public feedback channels
Along the way, SPR and the City of Seattle demonstrated numerous instances of poorly handled responses to public feedback and press inquiries, including the SGN's.

Communications indicate that SPR conducted a public information meeting sometime in October in which officials noted no pushback or opposition to the proposal. Neither the SGN nor the organizers the SGN has reached out to recall hearing about this meeting, yet the officials involved seemed to understand this perceived lack of opposition as a green light for the project.

In mid-November, SPR launched a public feedback email address to handle those who opposed the project. The link to the email address malfunctioned at launch, requiring the City's IT department to repair it.

In another email, a public information officer expresses confusion about the number of petitions received from the Save Denny Blaine Action Network website, claiming they had not received as many emails as a Reddit threat had claimed.

Lack of engagement with the Queer community
Despite the concerns and frustrations of employees behind the scenes, SPR and the City neither publicly nor officially mentioned the existence of the impacted Queer community.

In a late November email, a City employee expressed deep concern around the apparent lack of public engagement, writing in an email to a colleague, "It feels like if they did engage with community, like most things, they only engaged with those who already are frequent users of our parks and recreation services and spaces and not those who we historically continue to not engage with when situations like this come up."

The employee questioned whether the City had conducted an equity analysis, and in the same exchange, another employee, referencing the surrounding affluent neighborhood, said, "If I were a betting woman, I'd say the donor came from there."

The SGN asked a city spokesperson through an email what the City had learned about dealing with the Queer community in this experience, and why the City had refused to acknowledge it in its official communications. The response did not answer the question.

Same response
Frustratingly, when presented with these findings and our questions, a spokesperson for SPR provided the same copy-paste response used since the decision to scrap the proposal.

In it, they said, "We understand the feedback that this particular park is not the best location, and we will evaluate other location alternatives" and "This is why we have a robust community engagement process, ensuring all people — including those who have been historically marginalized — have their voices heard and perspectives considered."

In the response, SPR further claimed to be planning a meeting with leaders of the Queer community "to better understand the importance of this beach to the community and the hopes for future uses."

The SGN has, to date, not heard any details about any such meeting.

The SGN has an open FOIA request filed with the City of Seattle. Further updates on Denny-Blaine Park may be forthcoming as these records become available.