After more than a decade of delays, a plan to build more than 200 affordable housing units on a 28-acre site at Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center in Magnolia may finally be picking up momentum. The Seattle Office of Housing hosted a meeting Monday to gather input, and there’s another one at 6.30pm this evening at the Magnolia Community Center.

Some neighbors opposed the plan, favoring additional park space or a school instead. Others recognized the urgency of producing affordable housing, particularly on land the City has access to for free under a federal program that seeks to put surplus land to good use. In fact, the urgency results not just from the crisis in housing affordability, but also because the City threatens to lose control of the site if it doesn’t act soon.

History of Re-purposing Fort Lawton

Set up as an army installation in the 1890s, Fort Lawton also had the purpose of protecting against the internal threat the government believed the Northwest’s labor movement posed, according to author Jack Hamann. In 1964, 85% of Fort Lawton was declared surplus and sold to the City at half market value to create Discovery Park. In 1970, after the United Indians of All Tribes (UIAT) presented a claim to all lands that might be declared surplus, the City negotiated an agreement to lease 17 acres to UIAT for what would become Daybreak Star Cultural Center.

The site plan from 2008 included re-purposing existing buildings and preserving trees and green space. (City of Seattle)

In 2005, the federal government deactivated the last remnants of Fort Lawton, which was serving as a regional Army Reserve command center. “The Army named the City of Seattle the Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA), responsible for preparing and implementing a redevelopment plan,” the City website states. We’re still waiting on the plan 12 years later, and our inaction could cost us: if the City’s doesn’t act before its recently signed five year lease is up, the federal government can sell the property to a for-profit development. Writing in The Seattle Times, Vernal Coleman explained the storied history of the affordable housing effort at the site:

The last attempt to redevelop the now empty Army Reserve Center property was scuttled in 2009 when the state Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that the city’s plan to build around 200 low-income rental and supportive housing units for the homeless would have to undergo a state environmental review.

But Elizabeth Campbell, the driver behind the Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council lawsuit that stalled the previous redevelopment effort, says maintaining the property as a public park is the preferable option.

The remaining part of Fort Lawton is irregularly shaped and borders 36th Ave W on its eastern edge. (City of Seattle)

Diving Into EIS Process

Apparently needing to complete the lengthy process of state environmental review paired with the Great Recession stressing budgets led the City to basically give up on the project for a while. Now the City is steeling itself for environmental review. A scoping document indicated the lead agency (Seattle Office of Housing) has initially identified four alternatives to study via the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, although it could potentially broaden the scope.

  • Alternative 1: Mixed Income Affordable Housing and Public Park Uses “Development of a mix of affordable housing onsite, including homeless and affordable rental and ownership housing, with a portion of the site likely rezoned to Lowrise residential zoning. Public park uses would also be created, including active park facilities, preserved existing natural areas and conversion of an existing structure to a park maintenance facility;”
  • Alternative 2: Market Rate Housing Onsite & Affordable Housing Offsite – “Development of market rate single family housing under current zoning onsite, and construction of homeless and affordable housing at an off-site location;”
  • Alternative 3: Public Park Onsite: Affordable Housing Offsite – “Development of the entire site as a public park, and construction of homeless and affordable housing at an off-site location; and”
  • Alternative 4: No Action – “No redevelopment of the site; existing structures onsite would be maintained.”

Balancing Investments In New Park Land

Of course, the site being adjacent to 534-acre Discovery Park already has some of the best park access in the city. The neighborhood doesn’t have a shortage of park space, but it does have a shortage of affordable housing. We’d all love to have infinite park land ready-at-hand; nonetheless, the City must levy Parks Department resources equitably and it’s difficult to make an argument that Magnolia is a priority for these investments. In fact, one could argue Alternative 3 would divert investment from more open-space-deprived neighborhoods.

Alternative 1, on the other hand, would still add 15 acres to Discovery Park–allowing the Parks Department to utilize an existing building and preserving some forested areas–while also acknowledging the great need for affordable housing. The mix of housing being discussed is 75 to 100 units of permanent housing for the homeless, 85 rental units targeted at low-income seniors, and approximately 50 single-family homes targeted at moderate income folks, which potentially could be set up as a community land trust.

The Case For Affordable Housing In Fort Lawton

Seattle Office of Housing would be making a mistake to not develop housing on this large 28-acre lot that fell into its lap. Affordable housing providers face great difficulties acquiring land in Seattle’s supercharged market; to not put this site to its highest and best use would be a shame. If we were sizing the affordable housing to present need, rather than the need of a decade ago–when 200-some units was first proposed–then we’d be building even more affordable housing on the site, which has several qualities to commend it:

  • Next to Seattle’s largest park;
  • Near two highly rated public schools;
  • Route 33 stops within the site;
  • Ballard Locks provide walking access to Ballard (and Route 44).
Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center is roughly indicated with the star, with direct Route 33 access, a route with 15-minute frequency at peak and 30-minute frequency throughout the day. (Background map by Oran Viriyincy)

Nonetheless, some neighbors oppose affordable housing on the site and our system tends to give them a megaphone as white wealthy landowners. Look no farther than King 5 coverage of the hearing on Monday which frames the project from the wealthy homeowner point-of-view that affordable housing jeopardizes their neighborhood. “Ask anyone who lives in Magnolia and they’ll tell you this place is something that must be protected,” the report begins. And the report continues right through Councilmember Sally Bagshaw reminding everyone this project would not touch the 532 acres of Discovery Park to end on the reporter concluding: “How can that be, neighbors asked, when the two are so intertwined; Change Fort Lawton and they feel you’ll be changing Discovery Park as well.”

The City must rank sheltering low-income people a higher priority than the desire of high-income Magnolia residents to not live in proximity to low-income folks. We must be ready to fight for our priorities. The Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council filed the lawsuit that impeded the project the first time around, and it would not be surprising to see another attempt.

A second public meeting on the Fort Lawton redevelopment will take place tonight at 6.30pm at the Magnolia Community Center at 2550 34th Avenue W. Another way to comment is to email the Seattle Office of Housing at this address: OH_Comments@seattle.gov. Comments are due by 5pm on June 26th.

The City’s overview of the Fort Lawton process targets Fall 2017 for the Draft EIS, Winter 2018 for the Final EIS, and Spring/Summer 2018 for the proposed redevelopment plan to be delivered to Seattle City Council for yet more process.

I’ll leave you with the testimony of a supporter of the affordable housing plan, one Bob Kaminski, who attended the meeting on Monday and can give a sense of what the public meetings have been like thus far:

It was a packed room at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. After the speakers from the city finished up, a number of people in the room loudly and angrily took the microphone to speak out against low-income housing in their neighborhoods. Much of it could also be qualified (in my view) as hate speech towards people experiencing homelessness, often totally off the topic of this proposed project. The Daybreak Star Center staff asked the crowd to respect their wishes to keep the mic off and direct comments towards the court reporter, but the rich white folks were not having any of it.

The first person to get on the mic (a self-described “low-income housing advocate”) made the traditional segregationist comment, “I fully support low-income housing, just not here in Magnolia”.

Second person (another self-described homeless and low-income housing advocate) took 8 minutes describing how he cares so much about transportation for the residents that the Housing office should scrap the proposal. The lack of transit access should keep low-income housing out of the area. He mentioned that he loves Magnolia because its effectively a quiet suburban enclave removed from the hustle-and-bustle of the city. (No mention of the fact that Magnolia was intentionally zoned and designed as a segregated community).

Third person gave a long spiel, totally unrelated to this proposal, effectively telling the crowd a single long anecdote about interacting with a homeless person near the Magnolia bridge, and saying that homeless people should be forcibly removed from Seattle. He mentioned he had interplay with Safe Seattle, an “anti-homelessness” group that advocates for encampment sweeps and harsh criminal penalties for drug use. This nice gentleman was very well-dressed, a local businessman by his own admission.

Fourth person was a member of United Indians of All Tribes, a Canadian First Nations member, and Daybreak Star staffer working on services for indigenous people experiencing houselessness. He gave an impassioned rundown of how homelessness destroys people and community, and what Daybreak Star is doing with their own folks about it. I didn’t write down his comments but there was a strong response from a subset of the crowd.

Fifth speaker was a pair of white women who were part of a group tabling at the doorway, asking the city to build a new school for the Magnolia youth on the site instead. Notably, it was an “either/or” statement, not a “both/and” one. Because the rich white homeowners are more important than housing people.

I spoke after them, opening by thanking UIAT (United Indians of All Tribes) and Daybreak Star for hosting in their building (which was created after an indigenous peoples’ occupation of Lawton in the 70s). Nobody–not the city officials or the speakers–had thanked them. Mentioned that US & Seattle are all built on land stolen from First Peoples by force of arms and violence. I opened by asking the room if anyone present had ever experienced homelessness. No hands raised. Asked if anyone in the room personally knew someone who had experienced homelessness, about 20-30 hands raised (out of ~70). Went on to say that these discussions were being held without input from the affected community. No houseless person’s voice was heard in that room…

By my estimation, though, about half of the people in the room were highly supportive of the Housing Office’s plans. Hopefully there will be some folks at the forum tomorrow night at Magnolia Community Center to support.

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Doug Trumm is the Publication Director at The Urbanist. He joined the exodus to Seattle in 2014, leaving behind his home state of Minnesota. Living on disputed land between Wallingford and Fremont, he is doing his best to improve both neighborhoods. He is a grad student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a marketing intern at King County Metro. His views are his own and do not represent his employer.

19 COMMENTS

  1. As a Magnolia resident of going on a decade now, I support the proposal for Mixed Income Affordable Housing and Public Park Uses. The HUGE reason why this is being opposed by some of the neighbors is because the site is literally the driveway entrance to some of the most expensive homes in the city. The site currently is a weird no-mans-land with creepy buildings and to bring some life into the area would be refreshing. While I’m sure they have several, I would think the biggest concern of my Classist neighbors is that these perceived “newcomers” or “lower-valued” people will have easy access to drive right onto their street and maybe, IDK, look at them funny or maybe even steel their lawn jockey (it’s fear really, they fear people not-like them). Maybe the plan could dead-end Texas street right before 40th Ave W.? I see great potential for making this a win-win project. Lawtonwood folks can drive through the park rather than taking Texas Way and avoid the “undesirables altogether”. The area will need some more services for sure however, this idea of things should never change is sad and child-like. If you really don’t want your surroundings to ever change, get out of the city and go live on several acres away from anyone, outside of a city structure that is by design, concerned with more people and things then just you. P.S. walking to Ballard to catch the 44 is something only the most hardcore would ever do. Not a realistic option.

  2. You have to ask yourself why only 200 units on 28 acres? The math doesn’t make sense, but the inability for the city to provide a complete infrastructure and assistance package does, they don’t want too much housing at this location for fear of other services being needed. Charleena Lyles is a great example: stick low-income housing on an island without associated services nearby, then beat your chest your solving the problem. Seattle politics are the best!

  3. I believe that this proposal of affordable housing being established at Fort Lawton Discovery Park is an outrage. Myself and wife have visited the Discovery Park many times, enjoying the historical sights and peaceful setting that it offers. I agree that the homeless crisis and need for housing is an issue at hand, however this site should be maintained and undisturbed for the many generations to learn about it’s history and enjoy it’s beautiful scenery. This land should not be used to for the homeless and low income housing persons, because the people of the Magnolia neighborhood have worked so hard to get where they are in life in the way of financial stability thus earning the right to live in a peaceful and beautiful neighborhood that they call their home. For vast amounts of people who don’t want to try hard enough in life to be productive citizens, they need not be given special treatment because of their lack of desire to succeed. With that said, I fully disapprove of this project moving forward and agree that the low income and homeless housing needs to be established elsewhere. Just a thought, maybe the Washington States parks dept should take control of the park then it would be safe from future outrageous Seattle Office of housing plans that negatively affect the community. Hope that many others share this same view of this issue at hand.

    • Some exposure to other life styles and income brackets will do the residents of Magnolia some good. Social class segregation is a bad thing. Trust me, I grew up in a wealthy Bellevue neighborhood and more exposure to middle and lower class society is something I really wish would have happened sooner in my life.

    • Wanted to reiterate the 28 acres of Fort Lawton land is not in Discovery Park. The proposal would not touch Discovery Park’s 532 acres and would in fact add about 15 acres of forested land to the park. The rest of the land, which is currently covered in buildings and parking lots rather than primarily green space would be converted to housing.

      • Definitely understand that, however those building at Fort Lawton are part of our history and should not be disturbed but maintained for future generations to enjoy.

  4. There were low rent rentals in Magnolia when I moved to this city. They were near the train yard. My neighbors were people who crewed fishing boats, were drywallers, nurses, students, musicians, waiters, teachers and single moms. There were subsidized units for people with housing vouchers. Many of the people living there would have been redlined from living in Magnolia back in the 50’s. But 10 years ago, things changed. Older, low-rent buildings were torn down and new, far more expensive ones were put up. Now we have new renters who are very different, younger, with more money, educated, and whiter. That’s what you wanted and that’s what you got. So this piece is a good cover to throw shade at poor policies.

    This presentation of NIMBYs is designed to cover up what happened. Policies this city with the help of city council and their wealthy backers and lobbyists put forward destroyed low rent buildings. Why didn’t the city offer landlords of older units the same tax breaks as the new ones? Charge impact and linkage fees? Why can a city so determined to put in more new streetcars just in the downtown area, yet can’t find money to replace an aging, structurally deficient Magnolia bridge or renovate our well used, aging public community centers and pools instead of privatizing them. What does that say to the public? It says money and membership are pre-requisite for livability in Seattle. Why don’t you address that and stop making this about racism and NIMBY?

    This is about making some people feel good by thinking they are like Mother Teresa while living the life of Ivanka Trump!

    • I think activists who oppose building low income housing in a neighborhood that’s only 2% black maybe already made it about race…

      A tax break for landlords who keep their units affordable is an intriguing idea. But it didn’t happen so what can we do about that retroactively besides try to correct past shortcomings by building more affordable housing now? Plus, even if it had happened, landlords could have still opted to sell to redevelop and maybe you still end up in a similar place.

      It’s easy to make claims about why not spend money here instead of there, but funds aren’t always fungible. For example, the First Hill Streetcar money came from Sound Transit as compensation for not building a First Hill Link station so it wasn’t something that could go toward community centers or a bridge for cars. We can avoid “privatizing” some community centers but the clearest path to do so involves raising property taxes. Would you be willing to accept that tradeoff?

  5. What’s remarkable to me is how….flexible NIMBYs are with the deployment of class warfare. When pretending to be against the rich (those new units are just expensive condos for tech workers, so let’s fight them) serves the goal of preventing new housing from being built, they embrace it. But they’ll switch on a dime to class warfare against the poor when it suits their anti-housing agenda. (This is one example, but the project to build workforce apartments on Phinney was another example; the neighbors wanted to drive up the price by demanding more parking, more amenities, Air Conditioning, etc).

    No cognitive dissonance at all, as far as I can tell.

  6. I do not align with the NIMBYs in the least especially when it comes to opposing affordable housing. I will be 100% in favor of this plan if the 33 comes significantly more often and the Ballard Locks made more accommodations to cyclists and pedestrians. The Locks hours are limited and saying that people can simply walk across them from this location in Magnolia is easier said than done. In my opinion, I do not get why the city does not push for more housing on the other side of Magnolia near and around Interbay where I live. There is the D Line/33/32/31/24 bus lines and it’s a connector between 2 bike trails. The port has half empty parking lots they occasionally use for storage. There is so much room for development there that would require a limited amount of investment in improved alternative transit.

    • Personally, the port should move to Tacoma. Seattle is more like S.F. in this regard: there is no port in S.F. because of land valuations and no longer needing the direct tax revenue from a land and emissions hog, so the port went to east bay. Same should happen here, consolidate and use it wisely. Train track ROW is another matter all together. We’ll be invaded by aliens from another galaxy and BNSF will still find some way to stay right there!

      • The majority of Seattle’s seaport isn’t all that suitable for dense residential development.
        -In a floodplain
        -At high risk of inundation from sea level rise
        -At high risk of liquification in the event of a major earthquake
        -Lots of contaminated superfund sites

  7. We have this thing called money and people who have lots of money can do more things than people without money.
    There are ~3000 homeless people every night. 240 units might fit 800 depending on family size. That’s still a lot of homeless people left. How about there is a lottery and people who are drawn MUST house and feed a homeless person for a year. Another drawing is held the following year.

  8. “Because the rich white homeowners are more important than housing people.” what do you mean by this statement Doug?

    • That is not Doug’s statement. That is a part of blockquote from Bob Kaminski. You’d have to ask Mr. Kaminski, but the full quote is there so the context should be clear.

  9. Neighbors were frustrated that the city wouldn’t answer questions to the large group. Instead told us to go to the corners to speak to a camera or write comments. I think it’s important that we respectfully listened to the proposal and guest speakers. I for one am in favor of the plan (drawing) showing a compromise of housing, park and city facility. I would have liked to hear more about it. Being shut down was a simple mistake. Give residents their 3 minutes to oppose, why not?

    • You were given an opportunity to speak, but not in the forum you would wish for, and that equates to “being shut down?”
      From the city planners I’ve engaged with, the reason for small groups is that it is easier for city people to collect input that they can continue to re-use in that format. These aren’t public airings of grievances. They actually take all the comments and put them in the record, either in aggregate or individually.
      I don’t work for the city, I’m not particularly enamored with all their processes, but accusations of “being shut down” are a pretty major mischaracterization.

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