Cheasty Greenspace by Florangela Davila

Dueling Visions for a Green Space

Should a green space on Seattle's Beacon Hill be open to mountain biking?

Her parents were Chicago transplants who were raising a family in Spokane. Linda Jensen remembers a childhood that included going down to the state park. Pine forest and coursing water and her parents saying how great it was to just sit there and be.

That probably was when she first became so fond of nature, Jensen says. She’s 66 now. She works as a social worker for the state. She has a Lab/Chow/Chesapeake retriever mix named Barkley. And every morning she leashes him up, slips on some UGGs and heads out for a 30-minute walk into the woods.

If she’s not problem-solving one of her cases from work, she’s listening to the birds. Northern flicker or Stellar’s jay or one of the others she doesn’t know by name. She spots squirrels. She sees shrubs outfitted with new leaves. She smells the fragrances from the flowers. “Depending on what’s blooming,” she says. “Sometimes it smells like wet dew. Very fresh.”

“I always tell people I live in the middle of the woods in the middle of the city.”

And those woods, she adds, take the edge off urban life.

Jensen lives on the east side of Seattle’s Beacon Hill, right by a boulevard named in honor of E.C. Cheasty, a former police commissioner and city parks board member. Cheasty Boulevard was designed by the Olmstead Brothers, the architects who, in the early 1900s, mapped out and created an entire greenbelt for the city. For motorists, Cheasty Boulevard offers a windier and more scenic route to get off Beacon Hill and down into Rainier Valley. For walkers, it provides a trail that borders a long, skinny 43-acre parcel of land known as the Cheasty Greenspace.

The green space stretches 1 ½ miles, north-south, and is part of Seattle’s urban forest. If you look up, you can see bigleaf maple, red alder or black cottonwood. If you look down, you’ll find an assortment of native understory – hazelnut, snowberry, low Oregon grape – along with invasive English ivy and Himalayan blackberry and, once in a while, even worse. I went walking once with Jensen and some of her neighbors and we came across what appeared to be the remains of a dog, the skull and a leg bone peeking out from what looked to be an an old sleeping bag. We figured the animal had been dumped by someone on the boulevard.

Cheasty Greenspace features three riparian corridors and assorted wetlands, according to a 2003 vegetation management plan. It has “notable wildlife value,” with much of that value lying in what’s rarely found in an urban landscape but what can be found here: Forested interior habitat that’s intact.

But the plan also notes how Cheasty holds numerous dumpsites, encampments and social trails. Social trails, in spite of how friendly they sound, are trails made by foot or bicycle traffic that weren’t officially planned. These trails might offer up access or convenience, but they also might encourage trampling and/or the destruction of sensitive terrain.

Over the years, Seattle Parks, EarthCorps and others have taken stabs to restore the forest here. But the most dramatic change to Cheasty−turning a part of it into something inviting and tranquil−arrived in 2008, after Mary and Joel DeJong moved into the neighborhood, took a look at a choking-with-invasives mess and saw heaps of potential. The couple joined forces with another neighbor and they managed to rally a whole host of volunteers who whacked down ivy and planted natives and sculpted walking trails in a 10-acre parcel. “Reclaim, Restore, Reimagine, Reconnect” was their mantra. And it’s now also the mantra embraced by dozens of other neighbors and community members who want to transform the place even more.

And this is when the story about an undeveloped slice of South Seattle gets complicated and controversial, tangled up in the passionate idealism of how best to maintain open space.

A Proposed Schematic of the Cheasty Trail Pilot Project

On one side are those who want to restore the forest by putting in a mountain-bike trail here, a first-of-its-kind project in any Seattle park. The single-track dirt trail, as proposed earlier this year, would loop a perimeter route and run somewhat parallel to a proposed pedestrian-only trail. Trail building would go hand-in-hand, bike supporters say, with continued forest restoration efforts.

“This is a piece of wilderness in the city that has potential,” says Sara Nachtigal, a hiker and a mountain biker who has joined volunteer work parties at Cheasty for the past two years.

“Give a kid a bike and put them in the forest,” says Joel DeJong about creating more access to the woods and more opportunities for local children to play.

But on the other side are those who want to keep mountain bikes out. Foot traffic exclusively, these folks argue, is the only way to preserve the special quality of this place.

“Nature is very important and very precious in an urban setting,” says Jensen, the dedicated walker.

“Every time people see a big green area they see a big empty space to take over,” says Ed Newbold, a wildlife artist who lives nearby.

“We don’t see this as unused space,” adds Kathy Columbo, another neighbor and a new Cheasty forest steward volunteer. “We see this as space being used for nature.”

Both sides argue that their vision could engage youth, especially underserved youth in this racially and economically diverse part of the city. Cheasty Greenspace borders the Rainier Vista housing complex. And don’t kids in this part of town, both sides insist, deserve access to the woods?

In the middle of the debate sit city officials fielding comments, studying petitions, evaluating design criteria and reviewing geotechnical analyses. They weigh human activity and its impact against wildlife habitat while also considering how to grow the corps of park volunteers who are critical to forest restoration. They consider which side has a louder or a more reasonable or a more popular or a more focused rationale even though both sides are made up of neighbors who already feel deep ownership of this place.

On a Saturday morning in March, I watched about two dozen volunteers – pro-mountain bike trail folk−under the towering trees at Cheasty. While a couple of boys played in a small hole−what they were calling “The Cave”− and were yelling things like, “Ships ahoy!” the adults collected garbage, hacked at blackberry and built a type of compost boat. The three-hour work party brought together an immigration lawyer, an IT guy, a construction project engineer and a 26-year old commercial real estate analyst named Carson Bowlin.

Bowlin shares a house nearby with three other twentysomethings. He lives close enough that he can run to the green space when he wants the exercise. He started coming to the Cheasty work parties after reading about the volunteer group and its vision for a mountain-bike trail. And he bought into the vision so deeply that he’s since become a volunteer forest steward so he can also lead work parties here.

He’s more of a climber and a skier than a mountain biker. But he daydreams about getting to ride in a neighborhood that’s now home. “It’s an amazing feeling when you’re pumping on a dirt track. Your senses are on point. You definitely feel alive,” Bowlin says. “In an urban setting, where there’s a lot of density, there’s something unique about being able to look around and all you see is the forest.”

An update: On May 28 2015, the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners approved building the mountain bike trail, along with a pedestrian trail, through Cheasty. The proposal now advances to the Seattle City Council for approval.

The project is estimated to cost somewhere between $400,000 and $700,000; most of it is expected to come from private funding.  

Editor’s note: Forterra partners with the City of Seattle to support the Green Seattle Partnership, which coordinates forest stewards and volunteers to restore local forested parks. Forterra believes cities thrive when there are healthy forested parks with access for all.