After a 13-year delay, Seattle votes to build hundreds of affordable homes at Fort Lawton

Neighbors have long opposed the city's plan for the former Army post. The Seattle City Council on Tuesday brought that battle to a close. 

Fort Lawton, a decommissioned United States Army post, on March 5, 2019. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to move a decade-old affordable housing project forward. The plan will result in the construction of at least 235 new homes and new park space at the old Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center site adjacent to Discovery Park in the Magnolia neighborhood.

The housing options at the site will range from rentals for people exiting homelessness to three-bedroom townhomes available for purchase and intended for working-class Seattleites. The city also will convert more than half the 34-acre site to parks and recreation space, including two sports fields for Seattle Public Schools.

As is nearly always the case with a new housing development, the Fort Lawton plan has been a source of friction for the surrounding neighborhood since it was first floated in 2005 under Mayor Greg Nickels.

The city and its supporters argue that amid Seattle’s homeless and affordable housing crises, it would be foolish not to build low-income housing on the site. Opponents of the project say the need for more natural space in the growing city outweighs the need for housing in this case, and have pushed to have the site annexed into Discovery Park. Others have expressed concern about the impact that low-income housing will have on their neighborhood. Opposition has not been idle — two legal challenges slowed the project’s progress for more than a decade. The Great Recession also put the project on hold for many years.

“With housing costs soaring and the displacement crisis at very high levels, there’s an intense need for these homes to be built now more than ever,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said Monday. “This is really an incredible opportunity to celebrate. … This is a community vision to develop affordable housing at Fort Lawton.  

The Fort Lawton plan hinges on the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act, which allows the city to take ownership of the land at no cost if it uses it to either build housing for homeless residents or convert it to parkland. The Department of Defense began planning to close the site in 2005 and officially shuttered it in 2011. The Army reserve center’s six buildings, roads, parking lots and incinerator stack have sat unused since.

Though it is a distinct plot of land, park supporters see Fort Lawton as a natural extension of Discovery Park. The entire city park was, after all, originally a military installation until the 1970s. But, driving home the point that Fort Lawton is not currently park space, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said, “Fort Lawton is asphalted right now. We’re going to turn it into housing and a great portion of that into parks.”

According to the plan, Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington and the United Indians of All Tribes will build and manage about 85 units of permanently supportive housing for people over 55 years old who are exiting homelessness. Those apartments will have on-site staff to assist residents with counseling and other needs. Catholic Housing will also build about 100 one-, two- and three-bedroom rental homes for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. Currently in Seattle, that’s no more than $42,000 a year for an individual or up to $60,000 a year for a family of four.

Habitat for Humanity of Seattle/King County will build about 50 three-bedroom townhomes available for purchase by families earning up to 80 percent area median income. That’s about $64,000 for two people and about $80,000 for a family of four.

All told, the city estimates it will cost about $87 million to build the housing, the funding for which will come from a mix of local, state, federal and private sources. Once built, the site will provide a rare opportunity for below market-rate rentals and home purchases in Magnolia, where the median home value is over $930,000 and the median two-bedroom rent is more than $2,600.

Whether it’s a sign that passions on both sides of the fight have waned, or simply that council votes take place on weekday afternoons, only three people showed up to testify in support and two in opposition.

Marty Kooistra, executive director of Housing Development Consortium, a nonprofit affordable housing advocacy group,   was one of those in favor.

“I’m in favor of moving ahead quickly with Fort Lawton,” he said Monday. “Eleven years ago I was excited to bring Habitat for Humanity’s work to that area. It’s been a long time coming.”

About two-thirds of the 34-acre site will be devoted to parks and recreation. Up to 5 acres of the site will be incorporated into Discovery Park. About 13 acres will be converted back into natural green space. Up to 6 acres of the site will be home to two multipurpose athletic fields that Seattle Public Schools will use and manage. An existing building will be given to the Seattle Parks Department to use as a park maintenance facility.

Mosqueda framed it as a win-win for affordable housing and greenspace. But for many of the plan’s opponents, anything short of bringing the full Fort Lawton site into the Discovery Park fold is a failure.

On Monday, Friends of Discovery Park’s Marva Semet said the original vision of Discovery Park was “to create and protect this place that’s free from the noise and the clamor of the city; to provide its citizens a place of refuge and solitude.”

She argued that converting Fort Lawton to housing will be bad for the birds that nest along the nearby canal. Semet said, “Not only is the parcel adjacent to the park, it’s also a few hundred feet from riparian zone of Salmon Creek and Kiwanis Ravine, where a small band of blue herons have been nesting for thousands of years. They, too, are stakeholders in this decision.”

Other opponents, such as Magnolia resident Rosalind Tan, expressed fears about what the new development would do to their neighborhood. “I feel it’s inappropriate to take a neighborhood with its own quiet character and drop 600 more people and their cars into a small residential space,” she said.

Tan suggested instead that the city build housing at the soon-to-be retired National Guard armory in Interbay.

“Right now we are at least 156,000 affordable homes short in King County,” said Kooistra, who testified after Tan. “It’s not a matter of should we or should we not. It’s a matter of how much, including Interbay and every other possible location, we can build.”

The city council’s approval might mark the end of a 13-year fight, but there’s still significant work to be done before people can move into affordable homes. The city must now submit its plan to the Department of Defense for final approval, which it expects to take place by the end of 2019. Once that happens, the city can take ownership of the land on which the nonprofits will build. Permitting in construction is expected to begin in 2021, with renters and buyers getting their homes by 2026.

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