Neighbors not ready to give up on troubled Cal Anderson Park

SEATTLE -- Despite at least 11 assaults and one robbery reported at Cal Anderson Park since mid-April, Capitol Hill residents are not ready to give up on what many see as a community hub.

"Cal Anderson really functions as the backyard for so many Capitol Hill residents," said Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. "The last thing we want is for Cal Anderson to have a reputation as a place that's not safe for people."

Capitol Hill Community Council member Lisa Kothari walks her dog in Cal Anderson three or four times a day. She said drug deals started increasing a few years ago when the wall erected for light-rail construction created some easy hiding places. But, she said the sexual assault and multiple stabbings reported in the news lately are unprecedented.

Kothari said she's been hearing from others in the community that the park is changing, that it's not like it was even three years ago. She said she doesn't feel comfortable walking her dog through the park after 7 p.m.

"It's sad," she said. "It's staying light out later; I should feel comfortable walking my dog until 10 or 11."

The Seattle Police Department announced it would be increasing patrols at Cal Anderson after a woman was sexually assaulted in the park May 2. Assistant Chief Nick Metz said those emphasis patrols will be continuing at all hours in the coming weeks. He said the patrols were prompted by both the recent increase in crime and public outcry.

The Chamber of Commerce offices are right across from the park, and Wells said he's seen a lot more police patrolling the area since last week. And, while he's concerned the park could start seeming too militarized, the extra patrols seem to be helping.

Kothari said these kinds of "hot-spot" patrols have led to a drop in crime in the past, but it always returns when the extra patrols stop.

"I think that's going to have to continue," she said. "I'd love to see Cal Anderson Park be continually on the hot-spot list."

Michael Hayes, operations manager at the neighboring Richard Hugo House, said some of the problems in Cal Anderson stem from the homeless population that spends time there, despite them being largely nonviolent.

"I think the large groups of transients are definitely a worry for folks, families especially," Hayes said. "I don't think they cause much trouble in the day time, but that's not much comfort to someone with a child running around."

Hayes said the extra police presence in the park is pushing homeless people into the surrounding areas, causing problems for businesses and homes. He said the Hugo House has had to deal with homeless encampments, gigantic messes from dumpster divers and more.

"I don't know what's worse: people sleeping on our front entrance all night or trash left all around our parking lot," he said.

Kothari said Cal Anderson's problems are making it more likely people will avoid the park, leading to an increase in its criminal troubles.

The Chamber of Commerce is taking steps to increase activity at the park and hopefully increase the safety of its users at the same time.

The Chamber will be hosting a neighborhood cleanup event June 1 in the park. More than 300 volunteers are expected to meet at Cal Anderson before picking up trash around the neighborhood.

Wells said the Chamber is encouraging the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct to move its annual summer picnic the few blocks from the precinct to Cal Anderson.

In the meantime, the East Precinct has partnered with a new community watch group called Social Outreach Seattle formed in response to ongoing crime in the neighborhood. The group will be hosting its first march Wednesday.

Kothari and Wells are encouraging everyone to be vigilant and call 911 when they see any illegal or suspicious activity. Hayes said people should walk with a buddy when in the park at night and try to stay in lit areas ("commonsense stuff" that is "sadly necessary").

Metz said it's this kind of partnership between the neighborhood and police that will improve the situation at Cal Anderson.

"We can't do it alone," he said. "It's going to require the community to be the eyes and ears for us."

Wells said Cal Anderson is such an important part of the community, neighbors have no choice but to pay attention and take the park's issues seriously.

It's a sentiment shared by Kothari.

"It's a real central hub for our community," she said "What else can we do but be vigilant?"