Over the past several months, activists in Seattle have moved heaven and earth to prevent Burien from demolishing 162 units of affordable family housing at Lora Lake. But what if the City of Seattle spent $11 million to buy 24 acres of property with 66 units of functioning affordable family housing, only to tear it all down for green space? And no one said a thing?
This is the question I set out to answer when the September 5th Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a City Council Parks Committee hearing was scheduled that afternoon to do just that. I read the article again and again.
The deal would remove 66 "Capehart" duplexes and homes in a small Navy development that has housed military families in Seattle for nearly 50 years. Military families live in them today.
The proposal, which comes after 2 1/2 years of negotiating between Seattle and the Navy, raises mixed emotions. Park advocates are thrilled at the prospect of more green space, but others say the small homes could be better used as housing for displaced veterans.
But it is a separate plan -- to sell 26 elegant, historic houses that military families also are living in -- that is getting the most attention.
The Navy wants to sell those homes, and the city isn't interested in buying them. They could go to private owners.
How could something like this come out of nowhere and be heading for a hearing that same afternoon without so much as a peep from anyone?
Sharon Chan from the Seattle Times called for comment. Why were Seattle housing activists so keen on saving housing beneath a runway in Burien, and yet so disinterested in housing in Seattle? Didn't it strike me as odd that the city was about to pay $11 million dollars to acquire 66 units of affordable housing as a tear down to add green space to Discovery Park. Where was everybody?
Yes, I said. The answer was yes. And as to why nobody seemed to know anything, I didn't have a clue. I'd just read it in the paper myself. And I had to go. I'd come in at seven so I could get home to a sick four-year-old by noon and my wife could leave for work.
As I drove home, it was like a post-Labor Day neutron bomb had gone off. I did downtown to Shoreline in 20 minutes. Mica had been to the doctor that morning and the verdict was pneumonia and antibiotics. She was sitting on the couch getting nebulized when I arrived.
I nuked some leftover breakfast and started calling people who might know something. Mica sat on my lap while I Googled around on my laptop and found this from the P-I a little over a year ago...
After 40 years in Magnolia, the Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center is being closed, putting a rolling swath of land, several buildings and one of the best views in Seattle up for grabs by interested agencies and organizations.
The rare opportunity has sparked interest from groups that help the homeless, which will be given priority in acquiring the property. But the land offering also has been noticed by fans of Discovery Park, who see it as a chance to expand the park's open area, and by neighbors who worry that future uses could bring more traffic.
"People who live in this area will be very interested in what happens to that property," said Heidi Carpine, who lives across the street from the reserve center. "All the owners have put in a lot of money into upgrading their houses; it has become a beautiful, safe neighborhood. I know everyone is going to be very alert to what is decided for that property.
The phone rang. It was John Fox at the Seattle Displacement Coalition. He'd talked to Sharon at the Times too but didn't know much more than I. He couldn't go to the hearing either. Yep. It was screwy. Seattle. What can you do?
I looked at the Council website. The Parks Committee is chaired by Dave Della and has Richard Conlin, Sally Clark, and Jan Drago as members. Not exactly our list of champions. I tried calling to see if there would be public testimony but no one at City Hall was answering phones.
I looked at Mica, who was happily taking bits of omelet off my fork. A sick kid is a good excuse to relive the baby years. She was happy.
"Do you want to go somewhere with Daddy?" I said. She nodded. She was looking pretty good. No fever. No coughing. I asked her again. Mica grew more excited. The house was boring. She longed for adventure.
I-5 was dead. We sped all the way to James, parked in the Municipal Building garage, and were at City Council Chambers by five minutes of two. The place was deserted. Dave Della was the only councilmember there. Only three other people had signed up to speak, and one of them meant to sign a different sheet.
Mica and I sat next to a nice lady who had seen the article too and was there out of curiosity. "Are you teaching her about civics?" she asked, smiling at Mica. "Yes," I said. "I think it's important for her to feel betrayed by democracy before she gets to be seven."
It was a conversation-stopper.
I was beginning to feel like the kid who showed up to school on a snow day. Where the hell was everybody? I looked up to see Bill Block, the head of the Coalition to End Homelessness in King County.
We chatted as Mica sat on my lap, happy as a clam. He was there on a minor matter in his role as a board member of Seattle Center. Bill didn't know anything about Discovery Park.
"Haven't researched it," he said.
He did his thing and was gone. It was soon my turn to speak. Mica walked up to the mike with me, holding my hand.
Dave Della stared.
"I think it's amazing that nobody's here," I said. "And that there's only one person here from the committee. And in a city that has not only an affordable housing problem, but a workforce housing problem, that we are entertaining a proposal to tear down 66 units of perfectly good housing to create (pause for effect) more green space in Discovery Park? Is this really the most pressing need the city has? I thought we were committed to affordable housing." Della stared.
“I think it’s amazing that nobody’s here,” I said. “And that there’s only one person here from the committee. And in a city that has not only an affordable housing problem, but a workforce housing problem, that we are entertaining a proposal to tear down 66 units of perfectly good housing to create (pause for effect) more green space in Discovery Park? Is this really the most pressing need the city has? I thought we were committed to affordable housing.”
“And then, I read, in this morning’s paper – this is apparently a sleeper issue because I hadn’t heard of it and nobody else I know has either — there’s 26 units of officers’ housing that have been appraised at $16 million that are being sold to private developers. Who do I have to know to get that deal? And the city says they’re not interested in that housing? I don’t understand why not. It kind of looks like this has been in the works for a while, and like this is a done deal, but you’ll hear about this,” I said.
“You’ll hear about this?” I felt ridiculous before I even sat back down for having said something so completely cliché and, for all I know, untrue. Mica crawled into my lap. I didn’t even use my whole two minutes.
Michael Ruby from Friends of Discovery Park rose and gave a gracious two minutes on how this was absolutely the right decision and the culmination of a wonderful process, and then asked to see me outside.
Mica and I went. She’d been promised a cookie and was ready to go.
Michael and I sat next to each other on a small bench in the foyer as he told me that he had been following this issue since 1954. He explained that the Friends of Discovery Park had once felt “exactly as I do now,” but they’d examined the housing and found it to be on the verge of collapse. They’d sadly come to accept that reverting the land to green space was the best option for all. He hoped we’d get to talk again sometime.
I put my three hours’ experience with this issue up against his 50 years and decided there was more to this than I was being told.
I bought Mica a chocolate donut at the Muni building Starbucks, ate half of it myself, and wondered if I had slipped into some sort of bizarro-world, where affordable housing gets torn down for green space and no one notices or cares.
We drove home. Sharon Lee called me back and said LIHI had put in a proposal to build housing on decommissioned Fort Lawton land in a partnership with United Tribes and Archdiocesan Housing Authority, and that it had gone nowhere. After a confusing few minutes, we realized she was talking about administrative buildings on the east side of the park. I was talking about family housing out on the western tip. She didn’t know anything about that.
“How can this be?” I asked. “How can housing get torn down without anyone knowing? Without anyone getting a chance to preserve it. I don’t get it.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have to go.”
I called Sharon Chan again to rant for a while while her fingers clicked on the other end.
“How can this be?” I asked.
“I have to go,” she said.
Mica and I left to retrieve her twin sister from a first day at her new preschool. When I got back, I sat glued to my laptop while the girls performed water volume experiments on the kitchen floor. This involved various containers and the refrigerator’s filtered water spigot. It’s their favorite appliance.
I found the 35-year Discovery Park Master Plan, last updated in 1986, which contained this paragraph.
It is essential that Capehart Housing site eventually become part of Discovery Park. This area is far within and very central to the interior of the Park. The housing is totally incompatible with the Park philosophy and the Long Range Development Plan. It is proposed that the housing ultimately be removed and the site converted to a meadow open space interspersed with thickets and coniferous forest.
Capehart housing is the 66 units, built in the early 60s, in which military families will continue to live until 2009. Then, American Eagle Communities — the ginormously-huge company that has the contract — will tear down the housing and deliver an empty lot in exchange for Seattle’s $11 million.
It’s the fulfillment of the plan. The best part is that American Eagle does the teardown while the ownership is still in their hands. Clever.
Ironically, when Burien says the Lora Lake teardown is part of a longstanding deal, our response is that “Things have changed.” I’d say the same logic applies here.
The city says they’re completely uninterested in the officers’ housing. A private developer, therefore, will make boatloads of money. Right here in Seattle, under our very noses, an upscale neighborhood will get an enhanced amenity and private capital will make a killing, while housing — yet more housing — disappears off the map. It’s business as usual, and that needs to change.