For almost two decades, Seattle has had a plan to turn surplus Army land at Magnolia’s Fort Lawton into low-income and affordable housing. That redevelopment plan has languished while many remain unhoused or ill-housed. That delay is a black mark on this city.
It began nearly two decades ago in 2005, when the U.S. Army declared surplus a 34-acre site adjacent to Discovery Park in Magnolia. At the time there was a hot tug-of-war over what should be done. Some wanted the land developed into affordable housing with a portion returned to native Americans whose ancestors had once occupied the area. Others thought the property and its aging Army Reserve buildings could be retrofitted into educational classrooms. The Friends of Discovery Park and many nearby neighbors were adamant that the Army buildings should be demolished, the forest replanted, and additional park boundaries be drawn.
While working through the Base Realignment and Closure Process (a necessary first step), then-Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration and the City Council held community meetings to hear what the public wanted. As a relatively new councilmember at the time, I recall sitting through meetings that sometimes grew hostile and even threatening. One hot-headed resident alleged that the low-income housing would be occupied by “wife abusers and sex offenders.”
During the controversy, several of us toured the old Army Reserve site and the brick and cement buildings dating from World War II. At one point we were shown the staff room where there were – believe it or not – heavy curtains meant to be drawn in the event of a nuclear attack.
After much discussion and process, a plan calling for 100 rental units for low-income individuals and families, 85 studio apartments for the homeless, and six Habitat for Humanity dwellings was proposed. The proposal was unanimously approved by the City Council. Development would be undertaken by Catholic Housing Services, the United Indians for All Tribes, and Habitat for Humanity — backed by a city contribution of $90 million. There would also be six acres of athletic fields, 13 acres for picnicking and viewing, and the remaining 4 or 5 acres added to Discovery Park.
The project, however, was hit by a lawsuit filed by Elizabeth Campbell and others in Magnolia. Between the lawsuit and the beginnings of the Great Recession, development plans had to be shelved while the city struggled with layoffs and austerity.
In 2019 the Fort Lawton plan was revived and then approved by the new Mayor Jenny Durkan. City Councilmembers (among them Bruce Harrell) went along and voted support. It seemed like progress — but then the pandemic hit.
When Bruce Harrell became mayor in 2022, the project resurfaced with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) prepared to approve or reject Seattle’s plan that summer. Facing a deadline, the new mayor appointed an interdepartmental advisory team of 45 and managed to get HUD to stretch the deadline to summer, 2023.
But as that deadline date approached, the city was facing yet another new reality — steep new estimates for road, water, drainage, sewage, and electrical upgrades. Consultants reported that, with infrastructure figured in, the City would have to contribute $145 million. Later that amount swelled to $162 million, pegging the average cost at $673,000 per unit, about three times the original estimate. Stymied again!
Given those numbers, Mayor Harrell pushed to get the HUD time line extended yet again. Latest deadline for approval or rejection of the 2019 proposal is Dec.27. The City must now decide on next steps — even though, once again, the City’s redevelopment proposal is overshadowed by possible lawsuits and the Friends of Discovery Park’s perennial push to abandon the project and reforest the acreage.
Once again, there are calls to proceed, possibly after reworking plans to increase density. An expanded project would lower the cost per unit. The plan originally called for 240 units — hardly adequate to the pressing need. The city is caught in a bind of an urgent need for housing and little land suitable for wide-scale development.
Does Seattle have an appetite for a larger number of units at Fort Lawton? Discussion of a revised plan seems desirable. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Army’s making available the 34 surplus acres.