Homeless housing plans at Fort Lawton ruffle Magnolia residents
The city sees its land acquisition near Discovery Park as a rare chance to create rental housing for the homeless; neighbors see the potential for crime.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Public meetings on Fort LawtonSeattle City Council will vote on a plan this fall
All meetings are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Today's meeting is at Magnolia Lutheran Church at 2414 31st Ave W. Locations for the others haven't been determined. To learn more, go to www.seattle. gov/neighborhoods/ fortlawton/brac/.
Today: Input on key issues, such as car access.
May 31: Input on key issues, such as traffic and open space.
June 21: Discuss three alternative approaches for the site.
July 19: Develop a draft reuse plan.
Source: Seattle Office of Housing
Many residents in Seattle's affluent Magnolia neighborhood are fuming over plans to house homeless people near Discovery Park at soon-to-be-closed Fort Lawton.
At one community meeting, some residents wondered whether homeless housing at the fort would attract wife-beaters, sex offenders and crack addicts. They rolled their eyes when city officials asserted that such housing increases property values. They worried about the impact on schools and scoffed at the idea of homeless people shopping at the closest grocery — which sells pheasant-and-rosemary pâté for $9.99 and ground coffee for up to $18 a pound.
"We're the ones who live here, and we want to have a nice, safe neighborhood to live in," Donald Raz, a King County deputy prosecutor and Magnolia resident, said later.
Like most affluent neighborhoods in Seattle, Magnolia doesn't have any housing for homeless people mainly because land is too expensive for social-service agencies to buy.
The transfer of Fort Lawton to the city offers a rare chance to shorten the months-long wait for homeless people seeking subsidized, permanent rental housing. Long-standing federal policy gives local agencies that house the homeless priority in getting military land at no cost, but recently Congress directed the military to recoup some cash from its land deals as well.
The city is striving to satisfy both federal aims as it negotiates to buy 31 acres. City officials envision a new mixed-income community of homeless housing, low-income housing and market-rate apartments. While the details aren't yet fleshed out, the site would include at least 66 units of housing for the homeless.
Controversy over how to redevelop Fort Lawton — one of the largest land transfers to the city in decades — will culminate in the fall when the City Council is expected to vote on a plan and submit it to the federal government.
People living next to Fort Lawton argue that the city's intentions, though noble, could cause traffic congestion, increase crime and isolate formerly homeless people from services. Conservationists are frustrated, too. Magnolia is home to the largest active colony of great blue herons in the city, and bird lovers hope to expand heron habitat in the area.
Christine Atkins has a view of the herons from her backyard. A former bond trader and homemaker who lives a few blocks from the base, Atkins says her neighbors want to minimize the density of housing there, especially homeless housing.
"The ultimate dream would be to turn it back to nature," she says. "Is Magnolia the best place [for homeless housing]?"
Advocates for homeless housing say residents' fears are overblown.
"What is it that makes homeless people different enough that they don't 'fit' in that neighborhood?" asks Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, a coalition of agencies, businesses and churches. "Affluent people become homeless."
Homeless-housing agencies say people renting the units will be screened carefully, monitored daily and required to pay rent. They add that the formerly homeless renters — single Native American elders or single mothers with children fleeing domestic violence, for example — will be graduating from transitional housing.
Closing Fort Lawton
When it was established in 1900, Fort Lawton spanned the entirety of Discovery Park and was chosen for its vantage point to defend Puget Sound from enemy ships. More than 1 million troops going overseas passed through the fort during and after World War II.
In the early 1970s, the bulk of Fort Lawton was turned over to the city and became Discovery Park, Seattle's largest park and a regional attraction.
In the past decade, the military has transferred other adjacent parcels to the city under federal rules that didn't require homeless housing. In 2000, as a result of a congressional earmark, the military gave Seattle the "500 Area," an 11-acre parcel where barracks once stood.
Last year, the City Council approved an $11.1 million deal with the Navy to acquire about 24 acres in the park known as the Capehart site, another former barracks. That land will become open park space. A private developer will renovate officers quarters nearby into market-rate homes.
Meanwhile, in 2005, what remains of Fort Lawton was selected as one of 24 major bases to be closed by the U.S. Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). The fort, which oversaw some 5,000 Army reservists in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, must close by 2011.
Nationwide, Fort Lawton is among the Army's most valuable surplus properties, officials say. King County has appraised the biggest portion, 34 acres zoned for commercial use, at nearly $28 million.
"Fundamentally they [federal officials] understand that with homeless housing, you can't have so much out there that you can't sell the fair-market value housing," said Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle's Office of Housing.
"We're trying to achieve that balance," she said.
Neighbors "in the dark"
When Atkins, 46, and her husband, Perry, bought their Magnolia home in 1992 on the edge of the ravine, they were one of the youngest couples in their area. Today, there are more children in the neighborhood and new residents paying $750,000 and up for views of Salmon Bay and the mountains.
Atkins has spent the past two years trying to get her neighbors to attend city workshops on housing at Fort Lawton.
"A lot of people are still in the dark," she said.
Most neighbors want to see the land returned to its natural state to create a "wildlife corridor" connecting Discovery Park with nearby Kiwanis Ravine. Besides herons, the ravine is home to coyotes, eagles, foxes and owls.
The city is taking the neighborhood's desires seriously, Atkins said. Two years ago, the city couldn't guarantee that Fort Lawton wouldn't become transitional housing for street people in crisis, she said. That idea now seems to be off the table, and the city favors setting aside land for open space and heron habitat.
"I don't feel it's adversarial now," Atkins said. "The neighborhood can team with the city to do something that everyone can feel comfortable with."
Some aren't so sure.
"The trees are in peril unless and until proven otherwise," said Duff Badgley, a board member of Heron Habitat Helpers, a Magnolia group with 800 members. He opposes cutting down any trees, but welcomes mixed-income housing.
Other neighbors are upset they have no way to limit who lives at Fort Lawton.
"I'm pissed," said Kevin Reynolds, whose children ride bikes nearby. The city's recent meeting with the community about homeless housing, he said, was really for residents to "learn what the program is going to be as opposed to really having an input in the program."
While anti-discrimination laws in housing prohibit preferential treatment, city officials have promised that severely mentally ill people will not be placed in the housing.
Quinn told Magnolia residents recently that the people living in the housing would have more supervision than the teenagers who today leave drug paraphernalia in Discovery Park, something residents have complained about.
Atkins said she took comfort in the fact that the neighborhood could secure a "community relations agreement," a document spelling out neighbors' expectations and social-service agencies' commitments.
Quinn says such agreements are rare in Seattle.
"There are very few communities that raise the type of concerns that have been raised by the Magnolia community," she said.
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or email@example.com
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