A recent hearing-examiner decision brings the project at Fort Lawton near Seattle's Discovery Park, which could house nearly 600 people, closer to reality.
Ten years after first floating the idea, eight years after losing a battle in court, and more than a year after bringing the idea back from the dead, Seattle may finally transform an unused plot of land at the edge of Discovery Park into more than 200 affordable apartments and houses.
The city hearing examiner last month cleared an obstacle for the city’s proposed housing project at Fort Lawton in Magnolia. The Seattle City Council could vote on it by April, bringing the proposal closer to reality than it has been in a decade.
“We are eager to move quickly,” said Emily Alvarado, manager of policy and equitable development for the Seattle Office of Housing.
But the history of the project has been anything but quick.
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Seattle first pitched a similar plan in 2008, proposing homeless and market-rate housing to replace the former Army installation. A lawsuit led by neighborhood activist Elizabeth Campbell, who is still fighting the project today, delayed the idea. By the time a court reached a final decision, the city was still weathering the effects of the recession. The project stalled until the city revived it last year.
This time, the proposal came amid booming growth, a homelessness state of emergency and a serious shortage of affordable housing. In a city struggling to make incremental progress on housing affordability, what might otherwise be a hyperlocal neighborhood fight drew citywide attention. More than 1,000 people submitted comments or attended a public hearing during the city’s environmental review process.
Opponents argued the area should become a school, playfields, an environmental camp for children or be integrated into Discovery Park. Supporters said the land presented an opportunity to house hundreds of people struggling to remain in an increasingly expensive city.
Why Fort Lawton
Fort Lawton isn’t just any piece of empty land. In Seattle’s hot real-estate market, it could come at a steal.
Today, the U.S. Army owns the land and leases it to the city. Under federal law, the Army could transfer much of it to the city for free if it was set to be used for parks or homeless housing, according to the city’s Office of Housing. Under the city’s plan, 21.6 of the 34 acres will be parks and open space.
On the remaining land, the city proposes around 240 housing units, including about 85 apartments for formerly homeless seniors, 75 to 100 affordable rental row houses and about 52 Habitat for Humanity-built row houses and townhomes for sale. The senior housing, to be built by Catholic Housing Services, would include case management on site.
The affordable rentals would be designed for residents making up to 60 percent of area median income — about $60,200 for a family of four, roughly what an entry-level Seattle teacher makes. The homes for sale would be for people making slightly more, up to 80 percent of area median income. The project is estimated to house a total of about 596 people and include 266 parking spaces.
The city hopes to secure the acres used for parks and homeless housing for free and then buy the rest. Officials have not yet said where the funding for that land would come from or how much it would cost.
Fort Lawton is also located in an affluent neighborhood that the city argues has excluded people with low incomes. Overall, by 2040, King County will need more than 100,000 new housing units affordable to people with the lowest incomes, according to a draft five-year-action plan from the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, which includes King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“There can never be enough green space”
Hundreds of public comments submitted to the city reveal the neighborhood’s split on the project.
Some opponents, including the board of directors of the Friends of Discovery Park, urge the city to incorporate the land into Discovery Park. Since it sits between the green space of the park and the nearby Kiwanis Ravine, this “would create a much-needed wildlife corridor,” board president Phil Vogelzang wrote.
“Seattle has many needs, not just housing,” wrote one commenter. “Seattle suffers from a lack of parks for its current population.”
“There can never be enough green space in the city,” wrote another. “I moved to Magnolia 14 years because it was a nice, quiet and small community.”
Other opponents worry the area has insufficient transit access or raise the specter of drug use and crime.
Supporters see an opportunity instead of a threat. “Discovery Park is an extraordinary treasure,” wrote one Magnolia resident, “and it’s exciting to know we’ll be able to share it with more families.”
“For too long,” wrote another, “the only development in Magnolia has been tearing down small houses and building giant new houses where the same number of people continue to live in them — that is, development that caters to the ultra wealthy. This is forcing many residents either on to the street or out of Seattle far from jobs.”
Of comments from about 1,100 people and groups, about 71 percent were positive, according to the Office of Housing.
Carol Burton, a trustee on the Magnolia Community Council who supports the proposal, believes sentiments are changing in the neighborhood. Some members opposed the project or wanted to avoid taking a position, but the debate was “pretty quick,” Burton said, and the council eventually came out in support of the project.
Meanwhile, posts about the project on sites like Nextdoor are getting less vehement response, Burton said. “Either people are tired of it or they’re beginning to think, ‘OK let’s go with it.’ ”
Even if Burton is right about her neighbors, there’s one person whose mind hasn’t changed. Campbell, who led the lawsuit against the project in 2008, appealed this year too.
Campbell has said the area should be turned into parkland. She challenged the project’s environmental-impact statement on technical grounds, including whether it had considered sufficient alternatives.
The proposal for housing, she wrote in her appeal, “will severely impact the natural urban park experience at Discovery Park, not to mention will negatively impact the natural, social, cultural, and built environments, locally and citywide.”
After seven months of hearings and filings, hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled against Campbell on Nov. 29. Now she’s mulling another challenge.
It’s still not over
A decade in, the proposal for Fort Lawton still hasn’t cleared all possibilities for delay.
Campbell said there’s a “high probability” she’ll take the issue to state or federal courts, though she and an assistant city attorney disagree about how soon she could do that.
Campbell said she and about 25 other people in the neighborhood are still determining their next steps. She said she would need $50,000 to fight the project in court, but declined to say how much money she’s raised so far.
The Office of Housing plans to send its redevelopment plan to the city council in the first quarter of next year, Alvarado said. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, chair of the council’s housing committee, said her committee will likely hold neighborhood meetings. The full council could vote on the plan by April, she said. The council will also consider legislation to rezone the area.
Even then, the project will just be getting started.
City officials will need to negotiate the land handoff with the federal government. Then there will be permitting, planning and construction. All told, the city estimates a seven-year process for approving and building the housing, officially stretching the idea of affordable housing at Fort Lawton well into its second decade.