It's a proverbial jewel in the city's crown. Cal Anderson Park, which had its official opening just over a year ago, is a large island of open space within a dense, urban neighborhood. Open, welcoming, used by the community, by most measures the park is a considerable success.
Which is not to say that the park, and the neighborhood that surrounds it, is without its on-going problems. Crime, often associated with drug use and loitering and often relating to a transient population that hangs out in and around Broadway, remains a chronic issue.
In an ongoing effort. both park neighbors and the city are taking steps to address this issue. Last week, a small group of Cal Anderson Park neighbors attended a Cal Anderson Park Parkwatch program's kick-off event. Held, appropriately, at the park's shelterhouse, Parks Department community program director Randy Wiger led a presentation about what a Parkwatch group can do to improve public safety. Dubbed the "Cal Anderson Eyes on the Park" program, the parkwatch is modeled after the many neighborhood blockwatch programs facilitated by the police department.
"We're now trying to get it up and running. The parkwatch tries to help neighbors living near the park get to know each other, watch out for each other and be aware of what is going on in and around the park," he said.
It's the first time the Parks Department has tried to establish a parkwatch.
"We're trying to get people who live very close to Cal Anderson Park engaged," Wiger said. He added that since so many park neighbors have a history of active involvement with public safety issues, the chances of success are pretty high.
The city can provide resources, facilitate meetings, help connect people to Department of Neighborhoods grants. But success depends on active neighborhood participation.
"We can help get this going, but it's up to the neighbors to get this thing going," he said. "The city hopes to keep the park a vibrant and active place. The group will sustain if they keep focused beyond the lightning rod issue, in this case crime. It's up to the neighborhood."
Wiger said that the Parks Department will make a larger effort to schedule events in Cal Anderson Park in 2007. Positive activities in the park, he said, tend to displace negative or illicit ones.
The parkwatch initiative dovetails with neighborhood efforts to improve public safety in the residential areas near the park. Last month, a group of neighbors met with Julien Loh from Mayor Greg Nickels' office to discuss safety concerns. Last week also saw the city's response, a three-page document highlighting the issues the neighbors presented as well as initial steps that can be taken to improve the situation.
Erik Reker, who helped spearhead the October gathering, was pleased that the city was taking the neighborhood's concerns seriously. He was drawn to becoming involved with safety issues after a stabbing near the park was followed by a mugging incident a few days later.
"I walk this area every day," he said. "I hadn't imagined a beating and a stabbing so close to home."
Reker sees a great deal of drug activity simply looking out his window.
"People are shooting up in plain sight. Then they toss their used needles into people's gardens. Things like this happen all the time," he said.
It's a common lament. As is the concern that 911 calls do not always generate a quick enough response.
The document that Loh sent the neighborhood, he said, contained positive steps that could make a meaningful difference to the neighborhood's safety. But the issue of adding officers to the police department was not on the table.
The steps that seemed more promising included improving neighborhood lighting to reduce potential hiding spots where illicit activity takes place as well as ongoing efforts at prompt graffiti removal. A longer-term goal of removing or at least reducing the number of payphones along Broadway - phones often used for drug deals and, given the level of cell phone saturation, less often used for legitimate reasons - requires the participation of those businesses who have phones outside their business.
As to the City Council's recent budget decision to add 30 additional police officers - 10 next year, 20 the year after that - Reker said that such numbers are a token amount too small to make a meaningful difference.
"I, and my neighbors, agree, as do many officers, that there needs to be more police officers on patrol," he said.
While he appreciates that Cal Anderson Park is safer than it was before the reservoir lidding project led to its redesign and expansion, Reker said that crime in and around the park continues to shape the look and feel of the neighborhood. By way of an example, he pointed to crime statistics from the Police Department's Web site. In 2006, within the census tracks that include Broadway, there have been 169 reported incident of thefts or burglaries. Reker said that after the holidays he will begin working on getting a ballot initiative to add more police officers on next fall's ballot.
"This is all a positive step," said Reker. "One key to neighborhood safety is that people feel confident that the city is paying attention. But these steps aren't and can't be a substitute for more police."
The Seattle Neighborhood Group and a University of Washington professor have created a survey about neighborhood safety issues on Capitol Hill and in the Central Area. To fill out the survey on-line, go to http://tinyurl.com/y7sk97. For more information, or to get a printed copy of the survey, call East Precinct Crime Prevention coordinator Mary Williams at 323-9584.
Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor @ capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.