Magnuson Park is partly known for its athletic fields and facilities, but it's also a frequent political football. The park has a long history of controversies involving athletics boosters, Native Americans, arts groups, preservationists, homeless advocates, dog owners, park staff, and neighbors, to name a few. It seems like little can happen there without stirring up a storm. Or in this case, too little happening has stirred up a storm.
Magnuson is back in the news. This time, controversy swirled around the city budget and the fate of Building 30, a key part of the Sand Point Historic District, which includes many of the old buildings at the former Naval Air Station. The former base was added to the National Historic Register last July.
Building 30 is a facility that many community groups have used over the years, from the Rat City Rollergirls and Seattle Tilth to the Friends of the Library book sale and Cascade Bicycle Club. The building needs some refurbishing (its hangar and west wing) and it could generate income of around $300,000 to $400,000 per year for the city.
But work needs to be done to make it safe and up-to-date, and the city is looking to restrict hangar events there until that happens. That would mean cutting off about $100,000 per year in current revenues and forgoing the possibility of significantly increasing income by making improvements. In a time of budget cuts and limited ability to raise taxes, looking for ways to increase revenues from city parks and properties is becoming a top priority. Plus, isn't infrastructure spending an economic stimulus?
For the mayor, a perfect solution seemed to emerge from a deal he thought was less than perfect. McGinn wanted the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) to share a big chunk of the $47 million it received from the state to relocate to South Lake Union as part of the Highway 520 expansion project. (Disclosure: I did some paid consulting work for the museum last year.) A compromise engineered by Councilmember Nick Licata allowed MOHAI to keep its money, but arranged for the museum to give the city an interest-free loan of $8.5 million for two years.
McGinn proposed spending that money on Building 30, figuring it best to spend the funds not on ongoing services, but on a longer-term asset that could bring in money to the city. As McGinn wrote on his blog, "(P)rofits made from the sale of Parks property, should be reinvested in Parks — not used to fund other city services. We should also resist the temptation to use one-time loan funds to restore programs that require ongoing revenue."
This idea popped up in public late in the budget process, after the mayor had proposed deep cuts for city council consideration and the council had heard from angry constituents about service cuts to libraries, women's programs, neighborhoods, the poor and elderly.
The city council decided to ignore the mayor's idea to invest the MOHAI loan money in Building 30 and instead divided it between many worthy programs that were feeling extreme budget pain, like childcare, domestic violence intervention, adding to community center hours, and the neighborhood matching fund. The seattlepi.com reported that Licata said, "If we didn't have this MOHAI money we'd be in a world of hurt." Budget chair Jean Godden refers to it as "Reinvesting in Community." The $8.5 million will soften the blow of many cuts. The city expects to repay the loan from $15 million in proceeds from the sale of the MOHAI land in Montlake.
But some Magnuson Park advocates are extremely concerned about what they see as the city's ongoing neglect and under-funding of the park and historic district, highlighted by Building 30 and McGinn's proposal. There are un-funded capital projects that are holding the park back from reaching its full potential in both providing space for a diversity of uses, and raising much needed cash for the city.
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