City budget shines a light on Magnuson Park decay

Some worry that the city is practicing "demolition by neglect" at Sand Point. But a budget disagreement between the mayor and City Council over Building 30 could show why investing in historic structures is valuable to a city in need of revenues.

Crosscut archive image.

Sand Point Building 30 at Magnuson Park.

Some worry that the city is practicing "demolition by neglect" at Sand Point. But a budget disagreement between the mayor and City Council over Building 30 could show why investing in historic structures is valuable to a city in need of revenues.

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 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.

Sand Point has many historic structures and is a rare repository of Art Deco architecture in Seattle. It also has been nominated as a city historic district, a decision likely to be made by the landmarks board next year. The district has the characteristics of both a traditional park and a kind of publicly owned Pioneer Square, an incubator of business, recreation, arts, and non-profits.

It's not just Building 30 that's in trouble. The historic firehouse, Building 18, is in dire straits. It was supposed to receive a new roof in 2002 for $60,000, but the funds were cut and the old roof caved in two years later. The building has been suffering from the elements since, dramatically increasing the cost of rehabilitation in the future and risking eventual demolition. The cost of tearing it down, estimated at around $200,000, already exceeds the cost of putting the new roof on eight years ago.

Julianna Ross, vice chairwoman of the Magnuson Park Advisory Committee and president of the Sand Point Arts & Cultural Exchange (SPACE), says she is afraid the city is practicing "demolition by neglect." She says the proposed use of the $8.5 million from MOHAI was "the first glimmer of hope" they'd seen in some time. Ross is concerned that the lack of rehabilitation of the structures is pushing arts groups out of the park, as spaces for studios and art projects are adapted for other (often private) uses, or remain unusable because the city won't spend the money needed for renovation.

Kathryn R. Merlino, an assistant professor in the University of Washington's Department of Architecture, thinks the city needs to rehab Building 30 and other structures at Sand Point. She is a particularly strong advocate for Building 18 which, she says, can be restored and reused. She says the city has turned it into an "eyesore," and is now using that as an excuse to tear it down. There are features of the building, she and others argue, like the giant garage, that could make it an ideal place for groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club or Outdoors for All. "If the city can't be stewards of our historic or existing resources, who will be?" she asks.

Preservationists and the city have long been frustrated by private property owners in Pioneer Square and elsewhere who have neglected historic structures. A much publicized case is the Alki Homestead in West Seattle, a city landmark that has been allowed to deteriorate due to a fire-damaged roof that has not been fixed by its owner. In the last two years, weather has caused additional damage.

Merlino is right to ask about the city's own responsibility for its historic properties. Seattle is supposed to be a model of preservation and sustainability. Can we walk the talk at Magnuson?

When Sand Point was turned over to the city by the U.S. Navy, a covenant was signed that obligated Seattle to follow federal preservation rules regarding changes impacting historic properties. Greg Griffith, the state's Deputy Historic Preservation Officer, says that, by and large, the terms of the agreement are being kept. But in response to the question about how well the city is doing in the district, he says that "overall performance would not serve as a model for historic preservation planning." Still, he points out that it is a complicated site and that the city has been hit with two major economic downturns since 1997, which have stalled re-use projects.

While the city council has decided the MOHAI money is going to be divvied up for social services and other line items, public feedback seems to be helping to nudge them to take a look anew at Magnuson and its historic district. About Building 30, Godden says, "(W)e will be investigating the possibilities. It may be that it can be handled through a councilmanic bond if there are sufficient revenue sources." One good bit of news: the National Register listing makes the project eligible for major tax credits.

City Council President Richard Conlin says a long-term bond might be the way to go, and he called on the mayor to submit a full plan for park to the council. Godden says the parks department is already conducting a "facilities assessment" for Magnuson, which, in addition to its buildings, needs other fundamental work, such as fixing its sewer system. The bill is likely to be in the tens of millions, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to many capital projects. The deep-bore tunnel it is not.

There's no question that Magnuson is a complex civic ecosystem with lots of uses and potential, both public and private. Which makes it an ideal spot for city investment and to showcase the green and public benefits of adaptive re-use and historic stewardship. The park is used by many groups of all kinds, it can generate income, and it is a unique and vital repository of city and national history (the first flight around the world started and ended at Sand Point in 1924). After decades, it is still a political football that ought to be turned into the civic and heritage gem it could be.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.