Donald Harris '70: Making the Emerald City greener

By David B. Williams

Over the past 30 years, Donald Harris has spent more than $300 million buying property in Seattle, but he didn't use his own cash. He's spent public money to buy hundreds of acres of green space, all of which is open to the public. The land includes small parks and large green belts, wooded hillsides and vacant lots, and even an old nursery, now converted to one of Seattle's newest and most innovative parks. Seattle Parks Department, Harris' employer, manages all of this property.

Harris got his start with the Parks Department as a lifeguard, during his summers off from Puget Sound in the late 1960s. By the time he graduated in 1970, with a degree in political science, he had worked his way up to beach supervisor. Within a couple of years he was a project manager, planning park design and construction.

"I was fortunate to begin work when Forward Thrust money was starting to kick in," he says. Forward Thrust, which voters approved in 1968, allocated $356 million in spending, including a $40 million multi-urpose stadium (the Kingdome) and $118 million for new parks.

"My first project was Commodore Park, at the Ballard Locks. We thought we had the coolest plan until we went to the design commission. They tossed us out three times before we finally got some help and got the plan approved," he says. "It's still one of my favorite parks and the one I am most proud of." He also worked on the Burke Gilman Trail ("I used to spend my Saturdays selling railroad ties from the trail behind University Village") and Sand Point ("I have been involved there for over 30 years, including several when I was in the National Guard").

In 1989, King County citizens approved another massive funding program, the Open Space and Trails Bond. By this time Harris was director of project development. "We received $40 million from the county, and with additional local and state money we spent $100 million buying over 600 acres in the city," he says. This includes both the northwest corner of the city, Landover Woods, and the southwest corner, Arroyo Heights.

Since 2000, Harris has been the Parks Department's property and acquisitions services manager, principally in charge of spending another $40 million under the $200 million Pro Parks levy, passed in 2000.

Because so many larger green spaces have been bought over the years, the focus is now on neighborhood parks and what Harris calls "every last lot." "We are buying these small lots to counter the greater density. People really need a green place to go, even if it is only a lot or two with a swing set," he says. "It is these green spaces, both small and large, that make Seattle such a livable city. I cannot imagine anything better than being involved with green space."