The finishing touches to the Benefit Park renovation project were put into place this past weekend. After three years dedicated toward restoring the neglected park, the final step was taken on April 1 and 2 in anticipation of its grand opening in May. During the April Fool weekend, children's play equipment was put together and installed, along with an array of vegetation planted around the park.
The Friends of Benefit Park and the Seattle Parks Foundation have spent an estimated $220 million on the renovation and expect an abundance of neighborhood people to show up for the official grand opening May 5.
"The area was getting really run down and people were using it for not so good purposes, so what we're trying to do is have more community things going on at the park," said Leona Morton, a South Beacon Hill resident. "It's important having a place in the neighborhood where kids can go play and be with friends in a clean environment."
With the partnership of the Seattle Parks Foundations and The Friends of Benefit Park, people working for the restoration have come to believe in a positive result.
"One of the most vital things is that people see there is a lot of investment in the park, and having people be in the park and the knowledge that people care about the park will let the neighbors know it's safe now," asserted Justin Hellier, the Neighborhood Parks project manager at the Seattle Parks Foundation. "Because of the hard work of the neighborhood and community folks, in the last three years, the park has gone from somewhere people don't always feel safe, to a community gathering space and an asset to the neighborhood."
According to historical data kept by the city, Benefit Park has been used for a variety of things before becoming the space it is today. Once used to house Boeing workers during World War II, it also featured a satellite school for the Seattle School District. During the 1950s and 1960s, the site held Wing Luke Elementary School.
A demolition project in the late 1970s leveled the school and left the area as an empty field. When South Beacon Hill residents later decided to create Benefit Park, they organized the community group Friends of Benefit Park to persuade the City of Seattle to help restore it.
In 1979 the "Common Grounds" sculpture was placed in the park with assistance from the Seattle Arts Commission and other community groups. Today, The Friends of Benefit Park have adopted this title as the restoration's operating theme.
"We wanted to create a 'common ground' where we can all go to play safely," said Chris Morrow, chairman of the Friends of Benefit Park. "For a lot of people around here, they don't have much else, so to have a park like this is important."
With dark corners, drug exchanges, and a shooting in the early 1990s, the Benefit Park area hasn't been known as a safe place. After years of work by the Seattle Parks Foundation, the Friends of Benefit Parks, and a score of volunteers, the community is hoping this will change.
"We did a survey of 500 houses around the area and found that the number-one concern was safety," Morrow said. "The mindset was that the park wasn't safe, so we're trying to change that and embrace the park as a part of the community's center."
Taking the survey into account, the park renovation was done with an eye towards safety and visibility for people walking around the park. A wall was knocked down that made a shelter on the North end. Before taking it out, the structure provided an area for drug deals and drug use. Additionally, fencing around the park's perimeter was removed to open it up, and tree limbs were torn out for better light in the area.
"It is a lot safer because it's a lot more open," Morrow said. "People will become the eyes of the park as they walk around the loop."
Morrow wholeheartedly believes the park has been a big improvement for the area, and he asserts that the restoration effort has brought many in the community together.
"The process of the renovation was a good thing because at least a small faction of the neighborhood now knows each other better and there's a level of trust there from working together," said Morrow, who is unabashedly proud of the project and what it provides his community. "Our parks should be someplace we can go to dream our biggest dreams and to step above the commonplace of life."