Thursday, September 6, 2007

Housing? What Housing? An Odyssey.

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 then no one seemed to notice or care?

This is the question I set out to answer when Wednesday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a City Council Parks Committee hearing was scheduled that afternoon to approve a move to do just that.

I was doing about ten things when I got this email from Bob Young at the Seattle Times. "I can't help but wonder: an impressive campaign is mounted to preserve affordable housing near a runway, why not preserve affordable housing in a large city park, with peace, quiet, lots of greenery and clean air? Am I missing something?"

Good question. I read the article, and then I read it 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 City Council Hearing that same afternoon without so much as a peep from anyone?

I spoke to Sharon Chan at the Seattle Times.

Yes, the idea of the city paying $11 million to tear down 66 units of family housing to create more greenspace in Magnolia's Discovery Park is incomprehensible, and, no, I hadn't heard anything before this morning, and no, it didn't seem to be on anyone's radar.

What the fuck?

I drove home at noon. Nobody was on the road. It was like a post Labor Day neutron bomb had gone off. My four year-old was home sick, and I'd gone into work at seven so my wife Carolyn could go in the afternoon. Downtown to Shoreline in twenty minutes. It was a new record. Mica had been to the Doctor this morning. He thought it might be pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics.

She was sitting on the couch getting nebulized with Albuterol when Carolyn and I switched off. I nuked half an omelet and some hash browns from yesterday's breakfast and started calling people who might know something. Mica and I shared the leftovers while I Googled around on my laptop and found this from a little over a year ago ...
Prime property to be available -- with great view

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 getting back. He'd talked to Sharon at the Times too. He didn't know much more than I did. He remembered something about LIHI putting in a proposal, but for some reason it went nowhere. He couldn't go to the hearing. Yep. It was fucked. 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. Not exactly our list of champions. I tried calling to see if there would be public testimony but no one at City Hall was picking up phones today.

I looked at Mica, who was happily taking bits of omelet off my fork as I fed her like she was a one-year-old. A sick kid is a good excuse to relive the baby years. "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. She looked genuinely excited at the prospect.

I-5 was dead. We took it to James, parked in the Municipal Building garage, and were at City Council Chambers by five minutes of two. There were maybe twenty people there, and most of them for something else. Only three other people signed up to speak about Discovery Park, and one of them meant to sign a different sheet. Dave Della was the only Council member there.

Mica and I sat down next to a nice lady who had seen the article in the paper 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 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 can't believe this," I said. "We have an affordable housing problem in this city. We have a workforce housing problem in this city. And we're talking about spending $11 million to tear down 66 units of perfectly good housing, and nobody is here to testify. No one even seems to know. And you're the only council member here."

Della stared.

"And we're tearing it down to create more green space? In Discovery Park? Like more green space is our most pressing problem? And 26 units of officers housing, sitting in Discovery Park overlooking the Sound is going to a private developer for $16 million? Who do you have to know to get that deal? And the City says they're not interested? Why not? Maybe no one's here now, 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 was looking positively chipper about the whole thing.

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 looked as though that may be true. 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 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. I got hold of Sharon Lee at LIHI and asked her what the fuck? She said they'd put in a proposal to build housing on decommissioned Fort Lawton land in a partnership with United Tribes and Archdiocesan Housing Authority, and that the City was basically not returning her calls. 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. What the fuck?"

"I don't know," she said. "I have to go."

I called Sharon Chan to see what she'd figured out and ranted for awhile as 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 the new preschool a few blocks away. When I got back, I sat glued to my laptop while the girls performed water volume experiments on the kitchen floor which involved some cups 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 are now living. They will continue to live there until 2009, when American Eagle Communities — the ginormously-huge company that has the contract, among many, many others, to manage all decommissioned military properties in Washington State — will tear down the housing and deliver an empty lot in exchange for Seattle's $11 million.

That's part of the deal. American Eagle does the tear down while the ownership is in their hands. Clever.

It was basically a done deal more than three years ago. The officers housing, also handled by American Eagle, is being sold to a private company who is getting a sweet deal on fine turn of the century homes with a sweeping view of the Cascades and the Sound. One of these appears at the top of this post. There are thirteen of these, and thirteen senior NCO houses made of brick.

The whole lot of 26 has been appraised for $16 million. Historic Seattle, according to my new friend Michael Ruby, is interested, but can't come within spitting range of that price. The private company can.

The city says they're completely uninterested in the property. Someone's going to make a shit load of money. No one cares. They're too busy beating up on Burien to notice when right here, under our noses, an upscale neighborhood gets an enhanced amenity and private capital makes a killing, while housing — yet more housing — disappears off the map.


Trevor said...

Great post.

Donna Pierce said...

AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!! I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! (and yes, I'm shouting). Wait a minute, yes, I can believe it, because it is indeed Bizarro world. Have you been able to find out if this really is a done deal? If the families don't vacate until 2009, it sounds like a campaign to save this housing could be mounted...

Donna Pierce said...

Bill Block didn't know anything about Discovery Park, hadn't researched it? This, from the 2006 article you linked to:

"Bill Block, project director for the Committee to End Homelessness, said the group recently learned about the available property and is trying to determine if it fits with the aims of the non-profit organization."

Bill said...

thanks for banging the drum on this, Tim. My own excuse pales opf course, on vacation the last three weeks. But curiously I am on all the city email alerts and saw no such message about this tear-down. The Parks committee must refer this to the full Council,... correct? In short, not too late to mount some response.

Tim Harris said...

Yes. It's supposed to go to the full council in a few weeks for final approval. My sense is that this has been under the radar for a reason, and that there is considerable institutional momentum behind this. But I think it's worth a try, particularly if CEHKC leadership was behind it. No one gives a shit what I think.

the paper noose said...

Indeed, a good piece.