‘Jungle’ consultant tasked with determining the future of encampment land

Jun 16, 2016, 6:01 AM | Updated: 6:29 am
Seattle jungle...
Tents are barely visible in the deep shadows under Interstate 5 at the site of a shooting the night before at a homeless encampment. (AP)

There have been calls for change at the “Jungle” ever since a shooting left two people dead and three wounded at the city’s largest illegal homeless camp in January.

“It is time to envision a Seattle without the Jungle,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said the day he charged three homeless teenage brothers with those murders. “It’s time to shut it down, clean it up, and change the environment so that it cannot become a lawless encampment again.”

Related: State trooper attacked as Seattle’s homeless problem spills onto I-5

City leaders and Governor Jay Inslee pushed for something to be done. But what steps must be taken? That’s where Peg Staeheli comes in.

“Our task is to be one part of a city and state initiative,” Staeheli said. “And so we are tasked to look at it from the design perspective.”

Staeheli is a trained landscape architect and the head of MIG, a design firm founded in Berkeley, Calif. in 1982. The company focuses on urban planning and has partnered with city government on past projects like redeveloping Seattle’s oldest public housing complex at Yesler Terrace and the High Point Housing Authority Project.

Her team of 30 architects, engineers, urban designers, and technicians have been hired by the City of Seattle on a $47,000 contract. Their job is to take a hard look at what to do with the space.

They’ve got a lot of work to do.

At its peak this spring, the Jungle was home to approximately 400 homeless people camped out in the greenbelt under I-5, on the side of Beacon Hill near I-90.

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins compiled a report on conditions there and counted 250 fires in five years, 500 emergency medical responses, and “miles and miles of garbage and trash and human waste, rodent infestation, drug paraphernalia” during a recent assessment.

Many suggested simply fencing the whole area off with razor wire. Earlier this year, the Washington State Department of Transportation detailed for the Legislature a $1.5 million plan, saying it had the specifications mapped out and could complete it within nine months.

But homeless advocates and some city council members pushed back against that idea.

“A million dollars to put up a fence that people are either going to climb over, cut or dig under is ridiculous,” city council member Debora Juarez said. “And quite frankly, I’m really offended.”

Juarez pushed for the money to be spent instead on housing or other assistance.

Other ideas have included hiring private security to keep people away from the Jungle. Some suggested clearing the brush and debris to prevent encampments hidden in the foliage.

Still others, including council member Kshama Sawant, pushed for plumbing and portable toilets to improve living conditions.

Staeheli’s proposals could include some of those ideas — or none at all. She says they’re trying to think outside of the box as much as possible, without any assumptions.

“Obviously, all of us bring some personal connection in,” Staeheli said. “Yet we also need to look at things from other perspectives. So we come in from a very moving-around-the-view kind of position.”

And they’re still early in the process, having signed the contract in mid-May.

“We’re at the information gathering stage. That’s kind of our typical designer, in the design world, what we do,” Staeheli said. “Bring a lot of information in and try to keep a really open approach to all of our work. So, looking around, talking to people, observation. Looking at data, kind of looking at some technical information.”

That means poring over detailed geographical and aerial maps of the area, figuring out where the city property merges with state and county right-of-way. The team will also examine where utilities like water, sewer, and storm drains are located.

According to the contract, the crew will have three planned visits to the Jungle, and will talk with stakeholders like the city council, local businesses, and Union Gospel Mission volunteers who have been working tirelessly on outreach efforts at homeless camps.

Staeheli isn’t tasked with trying to get homeless off the streets or preventing homelessness. Another consultant is looking at the city’s strategy for that.

The proposals Staeheli is working on are focused on managing access and keeping people safe, and could include elements like planting trees and other greenery to restrict access to and from the street to the areas under I-5 and the Jungle. They might add lighting. Another possibility could be using that area under and around I-5 24/7 so there are always people there.

By the end of October, Staeheli will submit three different concepts to the city. The state has kicked in $100,000 to put in place whatever recommendations they might contain.

Ultimately, the highest directive is finding some way to ensure safety for both the people under the freeway — and traveling above.

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‘Jungle’ consultant tasked with determining the future of encampment land