Two neighborhood events occurred on Saturday, May 20: one a creative neighborhood improvement project, and the other a nightmarish scenario of outside developers destroying a public resource.

First the good news: a number of activists from the Displacement Coalition and other groups challenged Seattle’s no-sitting ordinance by placing benches on the sidewalk outside of various businesses in Belltown and Capitol Hill and inviting people to sit on them. The benches, unlike the cramped, cold, expensive monuments in the bus tunnel, are wide planks of wood on top of concrete bases–perfect for laying down. I promptly tried one out, and could even curl up on my side with comfort.

For those folks who want to find and sit (or take a nap) on these benches, they are located in front of: Green Cat Café, Portage Bay Goods, Utrecht Art Supply, Toys in Babeland, the Hi-Score arcade, Aurifice Coffee, Illy’s and Tony Jones Jewelry, and “F” on Capitol Hill, and at Bethel Temple, the Vain Company, Phil Hodges Gallery, the Speakeasy, and Sports Specialty on 2nd Avenue in Belltown.

The 30 or so people who built and painted the benches support the notion that small things on a human scale are what make neighborhoods livable. It increases foot traffic, decreases alienating and dangerous vehicular traffic, encourages a sense of community, and helps to support small, unique neighborhood businesses.

… The very antithesis of what large mega-stores like Amazon.com and large developers like Wright Runstad stand for.

At least one of the bench builders didn’t show up on Saturday to help put them out on the sidewalk. Bob Kubiniec and another person were arrested earlier that morning on the grounds of the former Pac Med Building on Beacon Hill.

For those folks who don’t remember: the old PacMed building used to be a public hospital managed by a city PDA (Public Development Association). A couple of years ago, the city closed down the medical clinic and, instead of going through a public process to decide what to do with the property, the city went through a secret negotiation process and signed PacMed away in a 100-year lease to developers Wright Runstad for a pittance. (Notably, WR’s lead man in the deal, Joel Horn, is a close friend of Mayor Paul Schell.)

Wright Runstad then turned around and released the historic building and beautifully wooded grounds to Amazon.com for a whopping profit. In the meantime, a handful of neighbors launched a fight against WR’s plans to cut trees on the property and expand the parking lot to accommodate all those new dot-com employees. But the historic designation of the site and the PDA prohibits altering the grounds in any way. The suit is still in appeal, but that hasn’t stopped WR from doing just what they want with the property anyway.

Back to Bob, who lives two doors away from the PacMed building. On Saturday, Bob came home to find that WR had erected two temporary fences on the PacMed grounds, with signs that read: “Private Property–Wright Runstad.” Standing behind each barrier was a security guard. Bob also noticed a police car lurking nearby. The sound of chainsaws and the sight of trees lying on the ground sent Bob running for his camera.

Aghast, Bob walked around the perimeter of the grounds, photographing the destruction of various large birch and Douglas fir trees. During his tour, he ran into another neighbor and told her what was going on. Appalled, they both decided to cross one of the barriers and ask who had authorized logging on public property.

They were speedily arrested by the lurking police unit (which raises interesting questions about how and why the city assigned Wright Runstad its own police car on a busy Saturday afternoon, especially with the U-District Street Fair in full swing). Bob was astonished to see Joel Horn pacing nervously around the grounds, directing the security guards and the police, and obviously expecting more neighbors to show up. Clearly Horn new that what WR was doing was wrong, and he had every expectation of public protest.

Both Bob and his friendly neighbor were taken to the South Precinct and charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass. In the meantime, a logging truck has hauled away most of the evidence, including trees that were at least six feet in diameter. The formerly wooded north end of parking lot is now clearly visible from the street.

This whole business stinks of favors handed out by the mayor, with greased palms at city hall and the police department. Joel Horn, aside from being Paul Schell’s buddy, was one of the lead backers of the Seattle Commons project. Clearly, he’s learned that putting his plans before the people for a vote will lead to defeat (and for good reason). Instead, he and Wright Runstad have resorted to breaking the law, thinking that they’ll never be prosecuted as long as they have friends in high places. It’s time for the City Council to step in on this, and for a few activists to make sure the issue doesn’t die along with the trees Wright Runstad sawed up and sold off.