Mini Mart City Park: Infusing an urban wasteland with hope and imagination
By Kelly Igoe
There is a ramshackle wooden building just north of Boeing Field in Georgetown. It was built in 1932. It used to be a gas station. Underground tanks in the back yard stockpiled 40,000 gallons of jet fuel during World War II. The building probably had a heyday, but the peeling paint and blackberry canes indicate that was a long time ago, a memory of the dead.
The area hosts a mix of homes and industrial warehouses. A couple semi-trucks rumble past every minute or so. With Boeing Field right there and Sea-Tac Airport not far beyond that, airplanes cruise low and loud overhead all day long. The lost little gas station is part of a strip of land rezoned for residential use in the mid-90s. The toxicity of the site keeps developers away. No one wants to tangle with the expense of brownfield remediation for a couple of speculative town houses fronting a busy road.
No one, that is, except SuttonBeresCuller, a trio of installation artists whose latest scheme, the Mini Mart City Park, is causing a ruckus in the halls of the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. The artists originally conceived of their Park as a temporary take-over, a verdant gift to a grizzled community. They wanted to rent an abandoned gas station or fast food restaurant in South Seattle and convert it into a conservatory, preserving the telltale exterior but stuffing the inside with plants in refrigerated vending units. On the strength of this concept, SuttonBeresCuller was awarded a $50,000 grant from Creative Capital, a New York–based nonprofit.
They found the Georgetown building. They figured out how to rent it. They began tearing out blackberries and cleaning up littered needles and condoms. They gutted the interior, exposing ancient fir that reeks with absorbed chemicals. They drew up plans for an extension off the back that would be roofless: a walled park spilling into the sky. And here is where their challenges really began, or maybe they are still beginning.
“I’m exhausted, but at least I’m still smiling,” says John Sutton, a trio member along with Ben Beres and Zac Culler. “City bureaucracy has delayed everything.” Stalled in a permitting purgatory, SuttonBeresCuller has adjusted the scope of the project considerably. Given the site’s toxicity, the building’s decrepitude and the unprecedented nature of a public park erected privately as art, a temporary sculptural installation is no longer feasible. The City would have required the artists to construct their planned extension with eight-foot-deep foundations — an absurd expense of labor, materials and time. Clever problem-solving got them out of that jam: they re-imagined the park as a hillock consuming the gas station. The park element will be on top of and around the building, instead of inside the building. But that doesn’t get them out of complicated obligations to the City like seismically retrofitting the existing structure, and working with the EPA on soil testing.
SuttonBeresCuller understand that moving forward means building a permanent structure on shaky ground. “We are trying to figure out how to purchase the site so the building is permanent,” says Sutton. It will eventually be a major benefit to the community, but the City doesn’t want to take on another pocket park right now. Maybe a major arts funder will swoop in to buy the site and the project, possibly deeding the park to the City one day. Or maybe it will become a community-driven experiment, with neighbors “staffing” the Mini Mart once the doors open to the public. On top of the challenges SuttonBeresCuller faces with the rule-makers at the DPD, they are embroiled in a funding puzzle that will truly test their ability to think outside the box.
Sutton reports that officials at DPD are excited about this idea and definitely want to see it come to fruition. However, this will require careful massaging of the rules, and there’s no choice for the artists but to bend to the City’s lingering timeline as it chews over something as unfamiliar as the Mini Mart City Park.
Why it’s worldchanging:
The Mini Mart City Park is artful, creative and optimistic. Taking on a brownfield remediation for the good of a community is an altruistic endeavor, but Sutton knows that altruism has its limits. There is no profit model inherent in what the artists are trying to do, and yet they envision this project as a potential model for other contaminated sites in scruffy communities across the nation. We agree with their hunch: by turning a would-be wasteland into a public resource that speaks to the neighborhood identity, the Mini Mart park is exactly the kind of living, breathing, interactive teaching tool that will instill hope for cleaning up our past mistakes and embarking on a better future.
In February 2009, SuttonBeresCuller will apply to the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods for a matching grant. If awarded, the City will match volunteer labor hour-for hour with the going rate for similar services. Then the artists find committed volunteers to help them do some dirty work. The City looks like the good guy. And people get involved in a unique community clean-up effort. Everybody wins.
If you would like to sign up for future volunteer work, send an email to email@example.com. Read more about the project and progress at minimarcitypark.com.
Kelly Igoe spends a lot of time staring out her kitchen window at the shifting sky. She also writes, rides her bicycle, gardens, studies yoga and sells apple cider at Seattle’s farmers’ markets. Her essays have been published in Rivet Magazine.
Image credits: SuttonBeresCuller
This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."