K.C. Dietz and her neighbors spent the spring and summer grilling Seattle planners about how many condos and townhouses the city wanted to put at Magnolia's Discovery Park, who exactly would live in them, and what the impact would be on the area's trees, traffic, and wildlife, not to mention their home values.
They were seldom satisfied with the answers. From the very first city workshop on how to redevelop the Fort Lawton Army Reserve property, which sits at the park's edge and will close next year, city staff made it clear the project would include homeless and market-rate housing -- a predetermined goal, Dietz and others say, that never sat well with the fort's nearby homeowners.
They still believe Fort Lawton should become part of Discovery Park, a proposal Dietz fought for by organizing a group called the Sustainable Neighborhood Coalition. But since September, when the Seattle City Council passed the final reuse proposal for Fort Lawton, the only thing Dietz's group has been fighting is the confusion created by a set of Magnolians who left the group, hijacked its website to raise funds for a lawyer, and, on Oct. 13, filed suit against the city.
The lawsuit argues that, the city, in drawing up the plan, failed to conduct an environmental impact study and disregarded the Discovery Park Master Plan, which calls for adding Fort Lawton to the park.
Dietz says the lawsuit is pointless and confusing: It creates the impression, she says, that her group is still fighting the project, which it decided to support in September after wrangling with the council. The final proposal, which the city sent last month to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Army, and Housing and Urban Development, the final arbiters on Fort Lawton, calls for building 108-125 market-rate homes and townhouses on 28 acres at the site, with another 30 townhomes for homeless families, a 55-unit building for homeless seniors, and six volunteer-built Habitat for Humanity townhouses for low-wage earners.
Technically, a local reuse authority -- in this case, Seattle -- can get surplus federal property like Fort Lawton for free if it proposes certain public uses, with federal law giving preference to homeless housing. In reality, as city staff repeated at the workshops held earlier this year, the Army wants some amount of cash, which the city or its master planner, the Seattle Housing Authority, plans to raise through the sale of Fort Lawton lots to private developers.
Given that, and city policies that call for distributing low-income housing around Seattle, Dietz says by August that members of her group saw the writing on the wall and developed a five-point agenda to lobby for at council in exchange for their support. What they got were guarantees that the city would alert the community if the Fort Lawton plan changes in any way, spare seven to eight acres of trees, and create a wildlife corridor for animals to travel between a nearby ravine and Discovery Park, the site of a protected heron rookery.
Dietz says two detractors, Elizabeth Campbell and Robin Budd, wanted no part of it and left the group, continuing their fight and filing the lawsuit through the Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council, which Campbell chairs. "They felt that we just gave up and caved in," Dietz says of the two. "We felt that we were being realistic."
"I am still for parks," she says, "but I don't really understand what they hope to gain from [the lawsuit] other than just throwing roadblocks in the way."
What the Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council wants, Campbell says, is to restart the whole Fort Lawton planning process -- this time, with real citizen input and all options on the table.
The idea of market-rate and homeless housing at Fort Lawton, she says, was originally developed by an advisory team handpicked and driven by the city -- a common scenario in Seattle planning, Campbell says.
But the city is merely using the federal government's homeless housing preference, she says, as an excuse to force high-density development on Fort Lawton and Magnolia. The city itself will profit, Campbell says, by reselling the site's lots to private developers after spending what public records show could be as little as $1.5 million for the whole property.
"They're using the homeless housing as a gateway to open [Fort Lawton] up for market-rate developers," Campbell says. "It's a gateway population to get it for a song and go and do a housing development."
She and two others formed the planning council three years ago after the Magnolia Community Council, which she once sat on, failed to create a neighborhood plan to help control development. The group did use the Sustainable Neighborhood Coalition website -- fortlawton.org -- to raise funds for the lawsuit, she says, but it was Robin Budd who owned the web address and constructed the site.
Dietz says she finally got the website back a few days ago. But the confusion is likely to continue: The other group's new web address is fortlawton.com.
Prior to the split, Dietz says, her group had looked at legal action based on the Discovery Park Master Plan, but "what we learned is that it wouldn't stand up in court," she says -- in part, because the master plan never specifies what will happen with Fort Lawton.
After contacting lawmakers, including the state's two U.S. senators, she also says there's little political will to make Fort Lawton into a park.
"It's unfortunate," she says, "that you have to polarize affordable housing with parks. It's terrible for all of us to be in this position."