Homeless housing in Magnolia faces tough odds

A recent open house at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center revealed intense opposition to the city’s proposals for the redevelopment of Fort Lawton. (Flickr)

A school, a park and housing compete for Fort Lawton’s 28 acres of surplus federal property

By George Howland Jr.

Twenty-eight acres of surplus federal property should be a great opportunity for Seattle. Instead, it shows signs of becoming a terrible civic imbroglio. I fear that the interests of homeless people will be lost in the melee.

Currently, many in Magnolia are organizing against Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to build a new 235-unit affordable-housing development, including 85 studios for homeless seniors, next to Discovery Park. The majority of the 2,000 public comments on the proposal support a new public high school on the site. There is also significant public support for using the surplus land to enlarge Discovery Park from 534 acres to 562 acres.

This opposition is not giving adequate weight to our city’s very real emergency. There are 8,522 homeless Seattleites. Whatever the final plan in Magnolia, it is imperative that housing for the homeless remain part of the mix.

Magnolia’s opposition has not come out of nowhere. Let’s quickly review the history.

Back in 2005, the federal government started a process that ended up with 28 acres of the Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center (Fort Lawton) being declared surplus. Fort Lawton is currently a motley collection of ugly, abandoned government buildings, parking lots and lovely open space.

The feds have also designated the city of Seattle as the Local Redevelopment Authority for the site. The city can have the land for free provided it be used for public purposes like housing, a school or a park.

In 2008, Mayor Greg Nickels tried to develop housing at Fort Lawton, and claimed that his plan did not require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the State Environmental Policy Act. Magnolia neighbors had to band together and sue. They won in King County Superior Court. The city made things even worse by appealing to the Washington State Court of Appeals and losing again.

City Hall’s previous flouting of state law has left a strong feeling of distrust in Magnolia.

Magnolia hates Murray’s vision

Fast forward to 2017 and Mayor Ed Murray.

On June 9, Murray walked right into this hornet’s nest when he released his new vision for Fort Lawton.

Murray’s new development would include the following: 85 studios for homeless people who are 55 or older, 75-100 apartments of workforce housing (available to, for example, a single person who has an income of $40,000 or less—60 percent of the area’s median income) and 50 affordable town houses available for purchase, for example, by a single person with an income of $50,000 or less—80 percent of Seattle’s median income. It would also feature 15 acres of open space including playfields, an off-leash dog area and concessions.

Murray’s vision did not prove popular at the city’s recent open houses on the topic.

On June 19, three-hundred Magnolia neighbors packed the first open house and the level of hostility was so high that they seized a microphone from city staff and held their own public-comment session.

Murray has learned at least one lesson from Nickels’ mistakes. This time, city hall is conducting an EIS as required by state law. The EIS process requires that the city study a number of alternatives. Therefore, the city has suggested four: 1) a mix of affordable housing and a park (as detailed above), 2) a market-rate housing development, 3) a public park and 4) no action. The whole EIS process takes time and the final step, a vote by the city council on the mayor’s final plan, won’t occur until summer 2018 at the earliest.

The horse race between housing and a park

Let’s handicap these alternatives’ chances.

Murray has made it quite clear that he prefers the affordable housing option. Even though he leaves office in December 2017, it never hurts a proposal to be city hall’s favorite. Emily Alvarado, the Office of Housing’s Manager of Policy and Equitable Development, says, “The mixed-income, affordable-housing alternative most reflects the city’s vision.”

Unfortunately, there is no group in Magnolia that is pushing for the affordable-housing alternative.

The market-rate housing proposal seems unlikely to ever get support from city hall. When the average single-family home price in Magnolia is $838,358, using free land to subsidize this part of the housing market is a political non-starter.

Using Fort Lawton to expand Discovery Park has significant support from the Discovery Park Community Alliance. Its leader, Elizabeth Campbell, led the successful 2008 court battle. She says about the current fight, “The city is dealing with people who have money and are active in the community.” Their neighborhood support and their ability to tie up the city in court should not be discounted.

The no-action alternative is just a formality required by the EIS. City Hall is never going to let 28-acres of free land slip through its fingers.

But wait, things have gotten even more complicated!

A public high school comes on strong

The city received around 2,000 public comments on the alternatives, according to the Office of Housings’ Alvarado. Over half, 1,116, she explains, came from the Fort Lawton School Coalition that sponsored an on-line petition to add a Seattle public high school to the list of alternatives for the site.

Currently, Magnolia high school students are assigned to Ballard High School. There are, however, real capacity issues with the city’s schools including Ballard. And Magnolia has a lot of children—at least by Seattle’s standards. Out of 78 Seattle neighborhoods analyzed by StatisticalAtlas.com, Magnolia ranks 11th with its population of 3,500 children.

That is one reason that Seattle Public Schools has been planning a 2023 opening for a new high-school sports stadium and a 1,500-seat high school on the site of Memorial Stadium and its parking lot at Seattle Center. The new high school would serve Magnolia and Queen Anne as well as other neighborhoods. The site might, however, be too small.

This fall, the city can add a school alternative in the next step of the Fort Lawton EIS. The Office of Housing’s Alvarado says the city and Seattle Public Schools are now seriously evaluating Fort Lawton as a site for a new high school. “We are doing our due diligence with Seattle Public Schools,” Alvarado says.

If the school district decides that it wants Fort Lawton, city hall will seriously consider it. The city council knows the public schools are struggling and won’t want to be a roadblock.

If the school district doesn’t want the site, the Fort Lawton School Coalition is already lawyering up and may well mount a court battle.

Homeless people desperately need part of Fort Lawton for housing. Unfortunately, they lack the money and political power to safeguard their interests. The lack of dollars and clout is one of many reasons Seattle’s state of emergency on homelessness shows no sign of easing any time soon.

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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