There has been controversy over the expected and long-planned-for sale of the historic Fort Lawton houses (Officers’ Row and non-commissioned officers (NCO) in Montana Circle). This sale comes as a result of a many layered and complicated set of century-long historic events, circumstances and laws.
After a long, political process with many twists, the U.S. Army stipulated that to get the fort in Seattle, land needed to be donated. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, thinking this would be a great economic boon, accepted that proposition. David Chance’s “The Evolution of Intent at Fort Lawton” reports records do not provide a clear picture of the sales, trades and dealings. The chamber raised funds and formed a committee to obtain land from original owners. After complicated acquisitions, this land was deeded to the Army in 1898.
The fort waxed and waned during the Spanish American War and World War I. Oddly, though, in 1938, the Army felt the fort was no longer viable and offered to sell it back to the city for $1. According to “Magnolia: Making More Memories,” “The members of the City Council, led by John Dore, a frugal mayor, declined the offer because of the Depression, as they were unsure whether they could bear the cost of maintenance.
Fort Lawton would soon begin a new mission; as Chance noted, ‘The next decade and a half was to be the post’s moment in history.’”
During World War II and the Korean War, “Seattle became the third-largest Port of Embarkation, behind San Francisco and New York. In 1946, a half-million people passed through the Seattle port.”
After more twists and turns, Sen. Henry Jackson, in the late ‘60s tried unsuccessfully to make the fort an anti-ballistic missile site and much controversy ensued: “Jackson sought to mollify his Seattle critics by making the surplus military installation available for a park. He pushed through the Federal Lands for Parks and Recreation Act [of 1969], which made surplus federal land in metropolitan areas available for parks at little or no cost to local authorities. Cities across the country used the act to acquire federal property as parks.”
This act brought Discovery Park into existence beginning in 1972.
The Seattle Parks Department Acquisition Summery, supplied by Property Acquisition Services manager Donald Harris, outlined what parcels came to the city, for how much and when:
•390.9 acres, for no cost, on April 17, 1972 (surplussed) — Beginning acreage for Discovery Park. As a result of protesting in 1970, 20 acres of these are leased for 99 years (renewable) to United Indians of All Tribes.
•127 acres, for no cost, on May 7, 1980 (surplussed) — More acreage restored to park and the creation of the original Historic District. Chapel on the Hill included on the acreage was $67,750.
•2.039 acres, for no cost, on Aug. 1, 2005 (surplussed) — West Point Lighthouse and two keepers dwellings.
•11.92 acres, for no cost, on Jan. 1, 2008 (surplussed) — Old barracks demolished and restored to open space as part of the park.
Properties with in-use military housing became subject to privatization through the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996 and had to be bought at market rate. “These divestitures will correspond with new/replacement homes constructed nearer to the installations where the service members work.”
•5.97 acres, for $2.775 million, on Dec. 10, 2007 (Capehart Housing) — Demolished and restored to open space as part of the park. Bought by the city.
•18 acres, for $8.325 million on Oct. 22, 2010 (Capehart Housing) — Demolished and restored to open space as part of the park. Bought with city, county and federal funds.
Approximately 531 acres (and buildings, significant and otherwise) in the park were acquired for a little more than $67,000 (Jackson Bill), and 24 acres were bought for more than $11 million (Privatization Act).
Then, Officers’ Row and NCO housing (9 acres, with the homes protected and landmarked) went up for sale for millions of dollars.
The Army surplussed Fort Lawton’s Reserve Center in 2008, and it is the last and only property left; it was vacated in 2012. This land and its buildings have been going through the complicated Federal Base and Closure Act of 1990 (BRAC), a process that could allow Seattle to acquire them at little or no cost if it meets certain mandated criteria.
It is still stalled out in the Department of Housing and Urban Development because of legal considerations; this land remains in limbo. The cemetery will remain the only Army-owned property left inside the park.
Friends of Discovery Park could not get a partnership with government and other entities needed to purchase the Officers’ Row and NCO housing because of the cost mandated by the Privatization Act in the time the economic recession was taking hold.
The city moved to ensure historic preservation. Guidelines were established in good process: No new construction is allowed, except small changes (pre-approved) to garage and garbage areas. Interiors can be rehabilitated. All other proposed changes must go through the City Landmarks Board for approval. Exteriors and landscapes are protected. There will be the exact number of houses having residents occupy them as they have for more than 100 years.
RISE, a small investment firm in Vancouver, B.C., with all holdings in the Puget Sound, is intending to purchase the houses, rehabilitate them on the interior and sell them each with land around them (a single-family neighborhood with a homeowners’ association having covenants, codes and restrictions).
Thrive Communities, a local firm associated with RISE, will do the property rehabilitation and management.
The Magnolia Historical Society is working with all local stakeholders to ensure historic guidelines and the integrity of the park’s Master Plan are upheld. The first meeting on April 30 was very positive; notes of that meeting, and all the participants’ names can be obtained by going to www.magnoliahistoricalsociety.org.
A community meeting with Department Planning and Development, to go over the issues of the sale, will take place on Thursday, May 29, at the Magnolia Community Center (2550 34th Ave. W.) at 6:30 p.m.
MONICA WOOTON is a board member and past president of the Magnolia Historical Society (www.magnoliahistoricalsociety.org).
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