Magnuson Park: where Seattle's vaunted public process proved a sham

Is Magnuson Park a squandered vision? For many of the hundreds who worked for years to achieve consensus on a master plan endorsed by citizens and city leaders, the park's ongoing evolution is far from what they had hoped.
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A man walking through Magnuson Park, amid a submarine-fin theme setting in the former Navy air base (2007).

Is Magnuson Park a squandered vision? For many of the hundreds who worked for years to achieve consensus on a master plan endorsed by citizens and city leaders, the park's ongoing evolution is far from what they had hoped.

An elegant, well-conceived plan for Magnuson Park — inspired by citizens and designed by one of the best parks architects in the nation — was torpedoed by bureaucrats, even though the City Council had approved it.

To be sure, the park and its plan have had some improvements over the past decade of work by the parks department. There are, for instance, more opportunities for theater and the arts now than might have been expected. But what is most striking is the degree of lost opportunity in the changes from a brilliantly conceived design.

To understand what happened, it helps to read what one of the great landscape architects and parks designers had to say about creating parks, Frederick Law Olmsted. He said, "Suppose, that you had been commissioned to build a really grand opera house; ... after the construction work had been completed (it turned out that) it would also be used as a Baptist Tabernacle with a huge organ, a pulpit and dipping pool. Then at intervals thereafter it would be used for a court house, a jail, skating rink, venue for circuses and dog shows? Pardon me if I overwhelm you; it is a matter of chronic anger with me."

Olmsted, who designed parks worldwide, including his team's considerable work in Seattle, believed that Landscape Architecture was an art and the finished product was little different than a painting or a symphony. If alive, he might say that we would not consider overpainting Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling by painting in Dumbo or Mickey Mouse or adding a new movement to Beethoven's "Symphony No.5" to reflect contemporary music. So, too, he believed that parks should be designed by those who understood the art and that tinkering with the conceptual plan by those without similar training or vision was a travesty. Olmsted understood his parks needed to work for the people who use them.

Magnuson Park's development has in fact suffered from just such tinkering with the original plan. It's a story that prompted these words in the private papers of former city councilmember Jeanette Williams, who chaired the citizens' design project, "Seattle's vaunted public process is a sham!"

Strong words. But Williams, a 20-year veteran of the Seattle City Council, was a woman who understood government and those who ran the system.

Magnuson Park is a sad story of how intrigue, bureaucracy, backroom deals, and selfishness cut the heart out of a brilliant conceptual plan. The story starts with the influence of legendary U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, for whom the park is named, and ends with local politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups selfishly reworking a design their minds never seemed to grasp.

After Williams left public office, she saw the opportunity to turn the sprawling 400-acre former Sand Point Naval Air Station site into a park of international stature. Her interest in this endeavor arose, in part, from her longstanding friendship with Magnuson. Maggie wanted the land to become a public asset as well as a park for Seattle, not a real-estate development intended to create revenue for the city.

Magnuson also believed the University of Washington should have access to part of the property. Likewise, local Muckleshoot Indians had history and interest in the site, as did some federal agencies.

Today, we easily forget that Sand Point was a highly developed naval air base at the peak of World War II with thick concrete runways, hangers for aircraft maintenance a fuel depot, a store, a laundry, even a brig. When the city began take over parts of it in the 1970s, it was not a pristine beach with natural habitat.

Even then, not every one was jumping with joy for what might happen. The fact that Sand Point was a fully developed airport which, with only minor tweaking, could become a center for civilian aviation caused major concern nearby. So did the information that there was interest in a major housing project of primarily low-income housing.

Ultimately, in 1975 a deal was struck with the feds. The agreement, in general, allowed the north part of the site to be reserved for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). There was commitment to low-income housing using existing housing units, and the rest of 195 acres was given to the City. Nobody got everything they wanted. Later, in 1990, then-Secretary of the Navy Dick Cheney brokered a plan that would give the remaining 151 acres to the city.

The task became what to do with the site. The city bureaucrats, elected officials, public figures, and a wealth of interest groups all had ideas and designs on parts of the property. Ultimately the city developed several in-house, general design concepts.

Meanwhile, Magnuson, who died in 1989, had shared with Williams the idea that the public should have a say in how the park would be created. Rather than a top-down plan, why not find out what people wanted in a park? It was a revolutionary idea. She organized a steering committee with the help and energy of friends like Tom Miller, Inge Strauss, Ann Lennartz, and many more. They ultimately reached out to hundreds of community organizations and interest groups, putting out surveys to elicit on what should be in a new park.

The organizing group collated the data and, with some generous contributions from a few parks patrons, hired landscape architect Richard Haag and Associates to create a design that incorporated as many of the ideas as would fit. Haag was chosen because he had gained international recognition for his holistic approach to landscape design and did much to advance the landscape architectural program at the University of Washington.

Using data from the citizens' survey, Haag set to work and ultimately created a master plan that gave life and space for a huge number of park uses. He masterfully blended and balanced the divergent uses in a way they could coexist without interfering with each other. Haag understood that there are distinct differences between recreational opportunities and a park.Haag didn'ꀙt require acclaim and preferred his plan be called "the citizens' plan."

The citizens steering committee promptly took the draft back to organizations that had contributed ideas. Ultimately the plan was submitted to the city. The effort was a triumph of public process that was brilliant.

Paul Schell, mayor in the late 1990s, appointed a blue ribbon committee chaired by former Mayor Charley Royer, who ably brought the plan to a still larger audience and gained approval with some adjustments. With the blue ribbon endorsement, it was then submitted to the city council. The council looked at the citizens' plan along with those the city had developed and chose — the citizens' plan. Council members adopted a resolution that provided additional design guidance, and, with a few more modifications, approved the plan Nov. 1, 1999. Those who had worked so hard celebrated that they lived in a city where the public would actually get what it wanted.

Rather than becoming just a location for intense activity, the park would bring natural beauty back to the site. Elegant in its simplicity, the plan also incorporated thoughtful details about sight lines, the quality of the beaches for swimming, prevailing winds, the character of the soil, preservation of existing trees, restoration of the wetlands, the best places for parking, recreation, open spaces, and the restoration of natural areas where the urban user could enjoy nature without being beaned by a fly ball from the baseball fields.

After accepting the plan, the city turned it over to the parks department and they in turn sent it to the architectural firm of Jones and Jones. They were to draw up final specifications and resolve a few issues.

A few might have felt Haag, having worked on the citizens' plan, should have done this work, but Jones and Jones was already under contract with the city. The firms of Haag and Jones were consummate professionals with a high level of respect for each other's work, and Jones and Jones moved sensitively forward on the project using the citizens plan, even though they might have had some other ideas.

The task of implementation fell to the city parks department, whose staff had been involved in plans the council rejected. In 2005, the department sent out 350 requests for proposals for development ideas for Magnuson Park to organized sports organizations. None went to passive park users, art, or music interests.

Given considerable responsibility in parks department oversight was Eric Friedli, who, as mayors and council members came and went, became the go-to-guy on Magnuson's development. Friedli, managing the project, hired seven private contractors to prepare EIS reports and planning, which covered design work. The contracts included a planning contract, with yet another planner, that would incorporate more active sports interests and supersede the council-approved plan.

It wasn't long before various interest groups began to make requests for changes in the master plan. Some would ask their share of the site be enlarged or moved to a different location.

Ball fields were already part of the plan, but recreational sports groups pressured parks staff to more than double the number, making them considerably larger with the addition of more lighting for night games, something that other neighbors opposed as attracting regional users at the expense of other values.

The plan originally envisioned non-profits having a role at Magnuson, and the parks department made it happen with arts groups like Pottery Northwest. A Montessori school needed space. Offices for bicycle clubs, soccer, The Mountaineers, and other groups found new homes for their offices. Other projects seemed like overkill, particularly a massive development of additional tennis courts, six of which were put under a 45-foot-high plastic bubble.

The most dominant force comes from organized sports, particularly soccer and baseball. One plan pushed heavily by soccer supporters had 15 lighted fields, a request with enormous impact on the master plan, although the proposed addition of fields was trimmed by more than half as the council acted and the city went about implementing it.

As time went on, the citizens plan became a dusty memory. Commercial users and vendors began to get the notion that they might locate businesses in the park. The parks department now has allowed a developer to convert Building 11 at Magnuson into retail stores, office space, and restaurants. It is the very thing that Jeanette Williams, Magnuson, Haag, and, of course, the Olmsteds would have resisted.

The bureaucracy had triumphed and what Olmsted had written his architect friend became a reality in Magnuson Park. Great plans can be whimsically changed, and hard work by citizens can be dismissed by bureaucrats.

When Tim Gallagher was appointed as parks superintendent, he moved Magnuson parks projects ahead, though some had already evolved away from the original plan before he took office. Gallagher appointed a Magnuson Park Citizens Advisory Committee that represents the majority of stakeholders of diverse park users.

It was the first step in years that could ease many of the differences. Still another citizen effort is gathering support for a "historic district" designation, which they hope would somewhat stem the tide of what they see as powerful commercial and sports organizations dominating park use.

Gallagher, possibly believing life is too short to continue a tug of war with new Mayor Mike McGinn over cuts in the parks budget, resigned. McGinn quickly appointed Christopher Williams (no relation to Jeanette Williams) as the acting parks director, and the acting director promoted Friedli to a new job as deputy superintendent.

Christopher Williams had for some time been active with a program started under the Nickels administration to have city departments find ways to generate revenue to pay for parks. One of those possibilities included establishment of a metropolitan parks district. It's an idea that appeals to city administrators because its use could allow parks to directly levy taxes on Seattle residents and avoid having to trim expenses or cut unnecessary staff. The city could then use the general fund money previously used for parks and perhaps add more city staff for the mayor's new projects.

The Center for City Parks Excellence, a part of The Trust for Public Lands, reports a number of rather startling facts. Seattle ranked in the top four in the nation for the cost of parks per resident in figures assembled last year from 2007 budgets. And Seattle ranked number one in the nation in the number of parks employees per capita in year 2008.

The brilliant vision for Magnuson Park has faded and is in danger of losing even more of its luster as bureaucrats are busy creating revenue sources that would help insure the stability of city jobs. Seattle voters have been generous in their support of building new parks and park improvement. Voters might have assumed the City Council exercised due diligence to reveal the implications of what voting yes or no would do, only to find now the members never looked ahead to the need to maintain the expanding parks.

Seattle Times columnist Joni Balter wrote recently about the council and its support for putting a big parks levy before voters a few years ago, before the economy tanked. The measure didn't include long-term money for ongoing maintenance and operations of a larger parks system. Councilmember Jean Godden told Balter, "It was not very prescient of us. You never sit around and think of what could happen."

We don't know how long our recession will last or if another is in our future, but with planning under way for a waterfront park when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, it seems reasonable to inquire if our city council might, as Godden says, sit around and think of how this dream can be funded and maintained.


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