In South Seattle, a forested green space The Seattle Times once called “Walden Pond in urbania” is now a battleground between mountain bikers seeking to bring the sport back to Seattle parks and advocates for undeveloped natural areas that protect wildlife and wetlands.
The contested ground in question is Cheasty Greenspace, a 43-acre natural area that stretches from just north of Martin Luther King Way at S Angeline Street north to S Bayview Street on Beacon Hill. A proposed mountain bike trail for the area will include a one-and-a-half-mile, cross-country, north-south loop and a section for technical jumps, drops and stunts at the center and south end of the park. Plans also include a one-mile hiking trail parallel to the bike path’s east leg.
The idea to construct a mountain bike trail in Cheasty sprouted largely from the work of Mary DeJong, who has lived with her family in Rainier Valley next to Cheasty Greenspace since 2004. The pleasure of a wooded oasis so close to home soured quickly for DeJong once she observed the unwelcoming state of the overgrown and somewhat menacing greenbelt, which was marred by homeless encampments, illegal dumping, prostitution and drug activities. “We tried to take walks in the forest, thinking ‘How awesome is this?’” DeJong says. “It became quickly evident it wasn’t safe.”
The enterprising DeJong formed the Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mt. View with neighbor Andrea Ostrovsky, an attorney, to “reclaim, restore and reimagine” the city’s urban forests, and set to work with like-minded community members, removing invasive plants, organizing work parties and eventually creating a charming walk through the woods from a trail entrance near Martin Luther King Way and S Alaska Street to Columbian Way.
It wasn’t too much of a leap for the group to envision extending the trail and restoration to the 33 acres of north Cheasty, across Columbian Way. But that vision came to include a mountain bike trail, with the hope that it would attract more funding, volunteers and active use than the Mountain View parcel was receiving. And that’s when things got interesting.
Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mt. View began to muster support for the ambitious project, designed by Johnson Southerland, a Columbia City–based architecture and landscape architecture firm. They found a strong reception from Seattle Parks and Recreation, Seattle Parks Foundation and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, a statewide mountain bike advocacy and trail-building group behind the I-5 Colonnade mountain-bike skills course near Capitol Hill. “Seattle desperately needs opportunities for residents to mountain bike,” says Glenn Glover, executive director of the alliance, “without having to be under a freeway or driving 45 minutes to a single track trail.”
Apart from the need to raise more than $700,000, there remained just one more obstacle to the proposal: a city policy prohibiting bicycles off-road or on paths in natural areas or areas with wetlands or steep slopes, two characteristics of Cheasty Greenspace. The policy, created to address past damage from mountain bikes in Discovery Park, Carkeek Park and others, went into effect in 1995.
Undeterred, Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mt. View persevered and—after several public meetings and comment sessions—won the support of Seattle Parks with a proposal not to abolish the prohibition, but to instead approve the soft-tread bike trail, which would include an area for runs and stunts, as a three-year pilot. That decision was in January 2014. By the end of March and the first public meeting on the proposal, volunteers and dollars were pouring in, a website proclaiming the initiative as the Beacon Bike Park was live, and bike blogs were humming with anticipation.
That hum caught the attention of Mark Ahlness, a retired schoolteacher in West Seattle and member of the Seattle Nature Alliance, then known as the Alliance for Lincoln Park Nature, which worked to defeat a 2012 Seattle Parks proposal allowing a for-profit company to install a zip line course in Lincoln Park. To Ahlness, the bike trail represents another example of a cash-strapped city agency seduced by the offer of free labor and private funding. “They are trading restoration services for the right to put a bike park in, which would eliminate Cheasty as a natural area,” Ahlness says. “Why restore it if you are just going to destroy it?”
After the Board of Parks Commissioners’ decision to support the trail initiative, opposition to the bike trail began to pick up steam as Ahlness spread the news among parks supporters. Those supporters included Ed Newbold, a wildlife artist and Beacon Hill resident who lives within two miles of Cheasty. Newbold took action by placing several ads in The Seattle Times lambasting the bike plan and accusing Seattle Parks of sneaking the plan through the back door by calling it a “pilot” and allowing too much influence by a private group, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
Seattle Parks and Recreation disputes this characterization. In an emailed response to questions, Joelle Hammerstad, a Seattle Parks spokesperson, wrote, “One of Parks’ highest goals is to respond to the changing recreation needs of the community. Adhering to that value, and in recognition that 66 percent of Seattle’s bike owners use them for recreation, it seemed appropriate that we revisit our bicycle policy.”
During the first public meeting to discuss the proposal on March 25, opponents laid out the key points of their opposition: They claim the bike plan violates the intention of the state Legislature and King County, which provided funds to preserve the greenbelt as open space in 1989; threatens birds already in decline, including Wilson’s warblers and rufous hummingbirds; and especially confounding to Newbold, alters a natural wetland. “Government asks people not to build in wetlands,” he says. “Then Seattle Parks, without any study, goes in and wants to build a mountain bike trail.”
Cheasty Greenspace is among the 14 percent of Seattle Parks properties designated as “natural areas,” as opposed to those that support active recreation, such as tennis, swimming and team sports. Natural areas, according to a 2005 city manual on best management practices, are designed to have limited or minimal human disturbance and provide habitat for plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians and sometimes fish in an urban setting.
The proposed change for Cheasty infringes on this designation, say detractors, with ominous undertones for the future. “This is a decision that will ultimately involve the entire city,” says Mark Holland, a Beacon Hill resident who visits the site to watch birds and take photographs. “People don’t understand the gravity of turning every forest and greenbelt into a bike park.”
That’s not the plan right now, but Seattle Parks does leave open the possibility for additional bike trails. “Our direction in the future will be determined after the pilot program has been evaluated,” wrote Hammerstad. Those who love mountain biking already see their vision of heaven, however. In an April post to a mountain bike forum, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance project planner Mike Westra wrote, “These are the first of Seattle’s [approximately] 120 miles of wooded trails that [mountain] bikes will be allowed on. There are a lot more of these neglected wooded areas that are essentially garbage dumps.”
Calling Cheasty a garbage dump strikes at the heart of what DeJong says is part of her mission to transform Cheasty from a space suffering from neglect and crime to one that matches the urban renewal in Rainier Valley, the city’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. “When work is done to elevate communities,” she says, “it will not happen unless land is included in that process.”
Connecting the community to Cheasty trails is part of that work. “Youth who are from the urban south end of the city see these overgrown green space areas as ‘scary’ and ‘dangerous,’” says Deb Salls, executive director of Bike Works, a nonprofit in Columbia City that helps kids earn bikes through volunteer bicycle repairs. “And instead of being able to appreciate the nature in their backyard, they avoid it.” Salls says she’s looking forward to using the Beacon Bike Park for Bike Works classes and summer camps.
In the meantime, the proposed bike trail continues to work its way through the city’s design and permitting process. If the trail receives a go-ahead from Seattle Parks, the agency says it will regularly monitor Cheasty for off-trail usage, erosion, parking issues and other negative impacts. Opponents of the bike trail say they will be watching, too. “In a sense, we took Cheasty for granted,” says Newbold, the wildlife artist. “We should have valued it and we didn’t, and it’s coming back to haunt us now.”