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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Seattle wavers on Fort Lawton housing as years pass, cost estimate soars

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SEATTLE — Four and a half years after Seattle approved a roughly $90 million plan to convert surplus military land at Fort Lawton into affordable housing and park space, the project has yet to break ground, the cost estimate has passed $160 million and the city is rethinking how to proceed, if at all.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which must sign off on the transfer of the property for housing, is anxious to make a determination on the city’s application and has raised concerns about the development timeline for the homes. After multiple extensions, HUD has given Mayor Bruce Harrell a late-December deadline to sort things out.

Harrell recently commissioned a major reassessment of the Fort Lawton plan in place since mid-2019, asking for “a range of development and structural alternatives” at the 34-acre site. With that report now in hand, the mayor intends to make a decision in the coming weeks, a spokesperson said.

In other words, one of Seattle’s most prominent civic projects is up in the air.

The uncertainty may cause consternation among advocates who want to see affordable options built in affluent Magnolia and it may stir hope among those who say the windswept site by Discovery Park should be reforested. Those views have clashed before at the abandoned U.S. Army installation, where housing plans have emerged and collapsed more than once.

The site was retained by the military when the rest of Fort Lawton became Discovery Park in 1973 and was vacated by the Army Reserve in 2012.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents Magnolia and supports the construction of affordable housing at Fort Lawton, suggested last week the city should consider boosting the number of homes in the plan, in order to make the infrastructure work required at the site more cost-effective.

“The city has engaged with a consultant team to evaluate additional redevelopment options, infrastructure estimates and market analysis,” Nona Raybern, spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Housing, said this month. “The results of this assessment are currently under review.”

The debate was supposed to be settled in 2019, but things haven’t quite clicked since then-Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed almost 240 units of nonprofit housing, plus grassy and wooded spaces and new athletic fields.

When Durkan submitted Seattle’s application to HUD with the City Council’s blessing, the expectation was that federal agencies would transfer the property in 2020, allowing construction to start as soon as 2021. The plan called for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, Catholic Housing Services and Habitat for Humanity to build 85 studios for formerly homeless older adults, 100 affordable rental apartments and 52 affordable for-sale homes.

But the COVID-19 pandemic caused chaos in 2020 and Durkan left office at the end of 2021. HUD has repeatedly raised questions about the city’s ability to get the units built in a timely manner and Harrell has kept the project in a holding pattern, citing infrastructure costs not accounted for in 2019.

HUD was set to accept or reject Seattle’s application in summer 2022, then granted an extension until summer 2023 after the city revised the project’s cost estimate to $145 million and requested more time to find funding.

The estimate subsequently grew to $162 million, when a consultant’s report led the city to conclude that the site’s infrastructure work alone (road, water, stormwater, wastewater and electrical upgrades) could cost $122 million, according to a letter from Harrell to HUD early this year.

“Well beyond infrastructure ‘improvements,’” the mayor wrote. “It involves building new infrastructure on unimproved land.”

In his letter, Harrell called the Fort Lawton project unusually challenging.

“The average cost to the city … is estimated at $683,000 per unit, which is triple the city’s anticipated per-unit contribution” across other upcoming projects, Harrell added, telling HUD the city needed to prioritize less-expensive strategies, in light of Seattle’s urgent need for housing.

A year ago, United Indians Executive Director Michael Tulee said the project had already been delayed “too long” and urged the city to make progress.

Harrell asked HUD for another extension this summer, however, saying the city had hired more consultants to “evaluate alternatives” to the 2019 Fort Lawton plan, while considering “the housing crisis, economic and racial equity, neighborhood growth, and community engagement,” along with design opportunities and constraints and economic factors.

The city directed the consultants “to help us understand the opportunities, challenges, and barriers to updating the current plan,” Harrell wrote to HUD in July about the $200,000 report now sitting on his desk, saying the report would allow his administration to choose “the best course of action for Fort Lawton.”

HUD agreed to extend Seattle’s deadline again, until Dec. 27, “for a decision on whether to proceed with redevelopment,” a HUD spokesperson said.

Friends of Discovery Park, a group opposed to the 2019 plan, has seized on the escalating cost estimates in arguing the city should scrap the project, incorporate the entire 34 acres into Discovery Park and develop the affordable housing at a lower price elsewhere. In a guest editorial for Queen Anne & Magnolia News in May, Friends President Phil Vogelzang highlighted the site’s inadequate drainage, noting that heavy rains have sent stormwater gushing downhill from Fort Lawton into nearby streets, yards and homes.

Demolishing the military base and reforesting the site would cost much less and “would allow rainwater to percolate, not run off,” Vogelzang wrote.

District 7 Councilmember Lewis, who was unseated by retired U.S. Navy officer Bob Kettle in this month’s election, said a version of the existing plan should move ahead. Federal laws prioritize homeless housing at shuttered military bases, Lewis pointed out, expressing doubt the Army would give away the property for use only as green space.

“It would be a shame if some kind of housing development does not occur at this location, given the process, the promises to the community and the clear consensus” among council members in 2019, Lewis said in an interview.

“The nature and amount of the housing is something we should continue to discuss … but we shouldn’t pass on this opportunity,” he said. “If part of making it pencil is having more units, I think that has to be on the table.”

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