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Consternation over Discovery Park permits

April 22nd, 2014 · 34 Comments

By reporter Steven Smalley
A handful of email messages pour into the offices of Magnolia Voice designed to generate attention relating to permit applications made to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development regarding the historic officers’ homes in Discovery Park. Folks are upset.
Permits will request the separation of 22 historic homes, now privately owned, from their physical structures (duplexes +1 single unit) and legally attach them to the land on which they sit, according to spokesman from the City of Seattle.
Emailers want to draw attention to the perception that contractors will then attempt construction at some point on or near the historic area. Others say it will not happen. No construction will ever take place without permission from the Landmarks Preservation Board, they explain.
According to the City of Seattle, the purpose of the permits is to allow fee-simple ownership. Fee-simple is: “The highest form of estate (ownership). The property owner is entitled to full enjoyment of the property, limited only by zoning laws, deed or subdivision restrictions or covenants,” according to published legal definitions.
One park faction wants the public alerted to what they feel is an attempt by builders to begin the construction process. Others think construction is an impossibility, given constraints by the homes’ historic status.
The legal attachment of buildings to the land will give future homeowners a legal description of the property, as explained by the city’s spokesman. No new construction is proposed, he said.
In keeping with the vaunted Seattle Process, a disagreement has materialized – one fraught with bureaucratic minutia and journalistic land mines.
For the sake of brevity, the following are portions of correspondence on this issue. The initial submission to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray by Julia Allen, Board of Trustees for Friends of Discovery Park, whose letter entitled, “Privatization and Historic Guideline Process – Fort Lawton Historic District,” is excerpted. In rebuttal, Monica Wooten, past-president of the Magnolia Historical Society, and participant in the Fort Lawton Historic Guidelines process, states her opposing views.
Julia Allen: Discovery Park is the largest piece of parkland that the City owns…Within the center of Discovery Park is the 97 acre Fort Lawton Landmark District.  And within that, is 11.5 acres of private in-holdings with 26 homes….
Friends of Discovery Park has been concerned and involved with the transfer of the 11.5 acres of Navy property to private hands….
Monica Wooten: While the privatization of the historic homes at Fort Lawton was not the first choice for many of us during the long time-period [over 4 years...] that this was transpiring, it became abundantly clear: that though Friends hoped to change the course of this, they were unsuccessful. They were unable to pull together the parties and the money to stop the privatization….
Allen: …We sadly and reluctantly “accepted” that these homes and these 11.5 acres were going to be in some kind of private ownership. There was absolutely nothing we could do about it, so our next strategy was to try to mitigate the impact that the residents of these homes would have on the Park.
But in the end, all of our comments and requests went unheeded by the Department of Neighborhoods and the Landmarks Preservation Board.  They never even acknowledged the unique location of this Landmark District completely surrounded by City parkland, and they did nothing to protect the Park from adverse influences by the occupants of the private in-holdings. Instead they claimed there was no difference between the Harvard-Belmont Historic District on Capitol Hill and the Fort Lawton Historic District in Discovery Park.
Wooten: This is simply not true. Friends of Discovery Park were a consistent and outspoken partner in the process. Their suggestions were certainly heard, considered, and many were incorporated into the Final Guidelines. The Park was constantly on all of our minds throughout the process as was the intent to protect the Park from resident’s behaviors that would interfere with the Park’s Master Plan of quiet and solitude; and, preserve the history of these homes.
There have been residents living in the homes decades longer than the Park’s existence. There already existed a Historic District within the Park (that is not well-maintained and that remains a concern and an issue of the Magnolia Historical Society). And, you should rest assured: the Guidelines were fairly arrived at and represent a good set of restrictions that, in my mind, will not allow change to houses, the Park or its use in any significantly adverse way. The integrity of the Master Plan was upheld by the Guidelines.
Allen: Now the properties are going to be sold to a private developer who has plans to subdivide them into 22 individual lots. That will be 22 different owners with their 22 different ideas and interpretations and their 22 different adversarial attorneys. No one can seriously dismiss the detrimental impact this will have on Discovery Park.
Wooten: Again, this is untrue. The division comes as a natural part of setting up private residences. These private residences will be formed into a Home Owner’s Association in which the Guidelines will be part of the leading principles and conditions of living there; limiting litigation on issues and upholding the principles of the protections they set up.
It is my sincere hope that as we enter the reality of the privatization of the property the groups that have been involved and have interest in history, preservation and Discovery Park will continue to work together to make this a most positive collaboration that preserves history, respects the Master Plan of Discovery Park and ushers in a new era with grace.
Allen: Please consider this “last ditch 11.9th hour” request to ask that you, as Seattle Mayor, take the necessary steps to stop this impending sale, and to move to acquire ownership of these private in-holdings for the citizens of Seattle.  Only by doing so can we ensure that Discovery Park will remain the crown jewel of Seattle parks, now and in perpetuity.

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  • Lynn

    Thanks for posting, I’ve only heard the Friends of Discovery Park viewpoint. Private ownership of the houses could be positive since the owners have incentive to keep their homes nice and the surrounding area – because they look at it everyday.

    • Park Supporter

      Pollyanna !

      • Still a Friend

        I’ve lived in several cities with preservation areas and in a historic home for several years in a designated area. It’s been my experience that buyers of these properties do so with a full knowledge of the restrictions involved and a commitment to preserving the integrity and historical significance of their homes.
        In their own words, the Friends of Discovery Park want the ability to control the “behavior of the residents.” But nowhere on their website do I see what those standards of behavior are or who gets to develop and enforce them.
        I live near the park and walk it weekly, but In my opinion, talk about controlling the behavior of others, especially by a small & private group is a slippery and dangerous slope. That is a big concern for me.

        • fran

          If even one person buys a house there and decides to have parties during the night, the wildlife will be affected. Of course we cannot go in and control other people’s behavior…that is why this is not a place for people to own houses. Wildlife are trying to survive in that space…birds try to mate and raise young there. If the people who live in the houses are “eco friendly” they will respect that, but if not..and who can possibly screen for “eco-friendly” or should have the right to…, well they will do as they please. The military people had their focus on their work, not their lifestyle there. It will be a polluted area in the park, if not by trash, then by noise, light, or other human encroachments on the wildlife there.

          • ??

            Do you want to see the houses torn down then or sit empty? I’m having a hard time figuring out what alternatives posters want out of this situation, not just what they are against. Thanks.

          • fran

            I cannot speak for anyone else, but I would like one buyer who obeys the rules and rents out to people who have to follow those rules or be evicted. You ask…what rules? I would like the rules clearly designated and agreed upon by the public and the city. I agree with the poster above that at one time the park was busy with many human impositions, but then half of Seattle wasn’t built up with houses at that time. Right now the park is a sanctuary in a totally built up area. The schoolhouse on 28th sits empty because the city cannot decide what to do about the asbestos in it/sell it/keep it. So it just sits because there is no clear plan what to do next. I would rather see nothing built up in the park rather than the wrong thing…so I guess the correct response to your post and to the issue…is a clear list of what is allowed and what is not allowed..but whatever the public/city agree upon… it is difficult and expensive to implement with separate buyers, easier to implement with one.

          • ??

            Have you read the Fort Lawton Landmark District Guidelines? There are very explicit and specific rules in effect that cover everything from parking, to building structure and materials, signage, paint color, landscaping, & even the placement of wind chimes. These guidelines are binding on any buyer or resident of the property. I don’t understand the confusion about what isn’t and isn’t allowed on the property because those rules have already been developed and are available in the public domain. There is also a link to the guidelines from the Friends of Discovery Park website. Hope that helps.

          • Benjamin Lukoff
          • ??

            Also, the guidelines expressly prohibit additions or changes to the exterior or structure of these houses, so no developer is going to come in and make changes to the existing homes. It’s important to know that is not an issue here.

          • fran

            People act like people, and 22 owners will do what they choose, no matter what explicit rules are in effect…unless there is a price to be paid for infractions. The city doesn’t have the money or time to do that kind of overseeing. Even if nothing is changed in the homes and the rules are drawn out in blood…22 owners will be unchecked in their behavior without being culpable to anyone. No one will stop infractions. Those of us against the individual sales could be convinced if we knew who exactly would oversee infractions of all those carefully drawn up rules and regulations. Friends of the Park? You? No one entity has the power to stop infractions cold…except the city, and they don’t want to be involved.

          • Stay Calm

            The houses and residents have been there continuously for 114 years. There is MORE wildlife in the park/fort than has ever existed during those 114 years. Have you ever seen period photos from the 1940s through the 1970s of the hundreds of buildings, barracks, cars, trucks, roads, paths, warehouses, radar antenna dishes, etc.? The wildlife will continue to do fine, as we have seen by the coyotes, mountain lions, bears, mountain beavers, raccoons, pheasants, and numerous other species that continue to live and pass through the park on a regular basis. Way too much fear mongering here….

    • Will Morgan

      The houses are privately owned now. As it is the city has one contact to maintain and work with to enforce the historical covenants and address problems. Supporting individual ownership multiplies the cost of that interface, and in my opinion the problems, by twenty two.

  • smac2

    Thanks for this posting. We received a ‘revised notice of application’ in the mail, advising us to email prc@nullseattle.gov by April 30th if we wanted to publicly comment. After reading the one page document, we certainly did. Three separate projects comprise the 22 ‘unit lots’. The project at 901 Montana circle (#3016942), which will be sub-divided into nine unit lots, is of most concern as its described as an environmentally critical area. We are leary of this development and would certainly like to know more about the environmental impact before moving forward.

    Also, regarding Home Owner’s Associations and Guidelines, it’s not all rosy. While there are conscientious homeowners, there are also those who do what they want and apologize afterward.

    • Park Supporter

      The concept of a Homeowners Association no longer applies – that was if the houses were to be sold as condominiums with the grounds being kept as common area. But they are not – with these permits, they will be sold as individual houses with individual lots.

      NOTHING in the Guidelines addresses the behavior or the activities of the people living there. The Guidelines address the historic appearance of the structures themselves.

      Last summer one tenant actually roto-tilled up a portion of the Park for their own personal garden. It took the Park Department 6 months to get them to vacate the encroachment because they fought it all the way. This is just the beginning…..

    • Will Morgan

      Yay writing in!! I wrote and asked for an extension today, the public comment period should now last until at least May 14. The Kiro news story said the city would hold a public hearing.. From how many people are joining the the facebook group I created https://www.facebook.com/SubdivideDiscoveryPark the people of Seattle are just starting to wake up to this threat to our largest park.

      • e.c.

        Wonderful work… keep it in the public eye and keep builders and individual buyers out. Builders have the ear of the city… except if there is enormous protest. Only then does the city not cave to builders.

  • Celia

    My concern is not that the 22 units will be privately owned. I understand that there were not enough funds available to make some kind of city-ownership possible. My concern is that 1: there will be insufficient covenants to protect the visual and auditory quiet of the park, both for citizens who support the park with their taxes, and for the fauna that live in the park. 2: If there are such covenants, there will not be the civic will or monetary support to enforce them. Will park users be the main way that violations are noted? Will there be unpleasant confrontations? I know that I will be upset when I see things happen that I think go against appropriate park use. The city needs to address this before the permits are issued, not after. A public meeting should be held for the people to speak their concerns and for the city to respond.

    I have left phone messages with the Department of Land Use asking what goes into the permitting process, and have received no response.

    Celia Bowker

    • Park Supporter

      Let’s be clear – Forest City (current owner) is NOT putting any covenants on the property for the benefit of the Park. Doing so would make the houses less desirable, and therefore less valuable to a buyer = the seller gets less money.

      The buyer also wants to make money. Period. Anything that restricts or limits their ability to resell the houses for maximum profit (which is what covenants do – they are “restrictions” of some kind) is a detriment to the buyer.

    • Will Morgan

      Celia here is how to register your concern with the city over email:

      If you are on facebook you can find more info and community on
      https://www.facebook.com/SubdivideDiscoveryPark

      Email the planning department mentioning the permit numbers and why you support or object to the applications to subdivide the three lots into 22.. for example

      SAMPLE EMAIL, please modify per your beliefs, say you believe the property should be returned to nature, or managed by a single commercial property developer like McMenemins etc..

      =======

      To prc@nullseattle.gov
      cc ed.murray@nullseattle.gov

      Dear City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development

      I am writing to voice my strong objection to the applications to subdivide the historic Fort Lawton lots within Discovery Park listed below:

      3016939 “640 Washington Ave”
      3016941 “670 Washington Ave”
      3016942 “901 Montana Circle”

      I ask that you refuse these permits because they

      - Endanger the historical nature of the properties by allowing them to be sold to many individual buyers.

      - Endanger Discovery Park itself by encouraging development of the properties within the park.

      - Would make eventual purchase of these lots by the City for inclusion into the Park under city stewardship or other public entity difficult and more expensive.

      - This property is such an important part of our city located as it is at the high ground of our city’s largest park that a public hearing is certainly in order should this or any other radical changes to the property be considered.

      Sincerely Yours,

      =======

      The City of Seattle’s commenting process is written up here:
      http://www.seattle.gov/…/commentonaproject/default.htm

      You can look the applications up by number and also see the comments in individual PDF form by entering the application numbers at
      http://web6.seattle.gov/dpd/edms/

      Be aware that your name, email address, and any other information you provide will be a part of that public record. Stand up!

  • Valentijn

    What a bunch of ridiculous fear-mongering. The status of the properties as one combined lot or individual lots makes zero difference regarding permits to do anything else to the property.

    If it’s not converted into fee simple, they’ll be unlikely to be bought by anyone, since 1) there’s no guarantee that serious complications won’t arise and 2) banks don’t like to give mortgages for properties where there is no simple attachment to the land.

    Basically it either gets split into parcels, or it’s going to be a bunch of renters living there with little or no investment in the homes, park, or community.

    • Park Supporter

      “They’ll be unlikely to be bought by anyone…” That would be the best outcome !!!

      Then the City and the public would have the opportunity to own the property and manage it WITH covenants and “rules” to protect the Park.

      • Valentijn

        If they aren’t bought, you get renters instead. Which would you prefer? I’d be thrilled to see some low-income housing in the Park, but somehow I doubt most of the people objecting to the current proposal feel the same way.

        • Will Morgan

          The lots are already ‘bought’, the question is whether we should allow them to be owned by twenty two individual people instead of the current three at most. Low income housing, or any development aside from maintenance, would mean more people living within the park, this is contrary to what makes Discovery such a vital part of our city.

      • Benjamin Lukoff

        No one is going to give the property to the city for free, though. Where do you propose we get the money from?

        • heidi

          No one has the money to buy it and save the land as part of the park, perhaps, but it can hopefully be tied up in litigation while the fact that individual private property in the middle of the park is detrimental to the parks integrity and a danger to its wildlife is argued. In the end, this is how negotiations work themselves out. No one “wins” totally, but the people who don’t want part of the park sold to 22 private owners will be a part of that negotiation. Perhaps you will be one of the people who stand in front of the tank…er backhoe, for what you believe? I will.

          • Benjamin Lukoff

            I just hope the city doesn’t get sued for diminishing the value of the property.

    • Park Supporter

      These houses have always been rentals – since they were built. A good landlord (like the military always was) makes the biggest difference in the impacts of the tenants on the Park. And one landlord for the Park to interact with is way simpler than 22 owners will be.

      Individual owners tend to think “me first” – my house, my land, I will do what I want. I did not spend mega bucks on this house and this (publicly provided) view to have park-huggers tell me what I can and cannot do here.

      Maybe they could be low-impact business rentals like offices for non-profits, or professional services like attorneys or architects etc. Non-retail with low traffic flow that would be vacant nights and weekends. This would certainly decrease the impacts on the Park.

      • e.s.

        Absolutely agree. I have lived on private beachfront and when people walked by my house (which I considered my beach, which it was, out a few hundred feet to the low tide line) I resented it. I resented their garbage from picnics…and felt it was my property, since I’d bought the place. That is how the owners will feel…that park users are coming into their yard….I have been on both sides of this, so I can comment expressing both sides. If you have individual owners they will act like owners and will do worse than a vegetable garden. Conversely (as with my beachfront), dogs off leash will come on the owner’s property and leave a pile on their deck and there will be confrontations. Whether it is a low scale business or any other option…giving people a million dollar view will encourage them to act just like all people do with million dollar views…hoard them. This is a public park and a treasure for all of us. The military restricted how the tenants used the properties. Private ownership? I sure hope not.

        • Benjamin Lukoff

          The thing is, these parcels are already in private ownership, and have never been part of the park. I don’t like it, but it’s a fact. Before Fort Lawton was built, the land was privately owned. It was then turned over to the federal government, who owned those parcels even after the rest of the fort was turned into Discovery Park. They sold it to a private owner, because they weren’t allowed to give it back to the city (even though the city had given it to them for free in the first place), and I suppose the city didn’t want to pay whatever it was they were asking.

          So even though these are in the middle of the park they are not part of the park.

          I don’t like this either, but I’m not sure what can be done about it. If the city doesn’t want to buy the properties, then the only way I see to get what you want is for a group of people to come up with the money themselves.

          It’s sad, isn’t it, what million-dollar views will do to people?

          • heidi

            And the land you are sitting on was once owned by the Indians. The issue is that it is in a parkland today, and we must deal with saving the park from 22 lots today. See below.

          • Benjamin Lukoff

            Speaking of the Indians, I wonder how people would react today if Daybreak Star weren’t there, and one of the tribes had bought these parcels…

    • Will Morgan

      Keeping the lots to one owner, or three owners maximum as is allowed at present, provides for purchasing the property on behalf of the city either twenty-one, or seven times easier down the road. Monica said planning has gone on for four years, yet, the shock people are expressing make it clear the public was never brought into the loop for this ‘planning.’ Four years is a drop in the bucket compared to how long the buildings have been around.

  • A Different Friend

    I haven’t been involved with Friends of Discovery Park before but I’ve gotten a couple of “Action Alerts” plus a Notice of Application from the Seattle DPD, and decide to learn more about the issue. What I found on their website was a bunch of hysteria about inflatable X-mas Snoopy dogs and goats. I’ve talked with friends and contacted the organization and I still have no idea what they want to do with the property, other than have the city buy it and turn it over to them so they decide who can live there. Really – a panel of neighbors deciding which residents and what behavior is “acceptable”?
    Clearly they don’t trust the city and the Landmarks Preservation Board to enforce their already stringent and specific guidelines for use of the property. How do they propose to do the same?
    What I found most disturbing though was the statement that, “We need to control the property in order to moderate the behavior of the residents.” According to whose standards? I would normally be inclined to support this effort, but if I find it offensive and creepy, it’s not a surprise to hear they haven’t found a way to work with the city in a collaborative and constructive way.

  • Jenna

    I adore those buildings. The bluff is the most magnificent part of the park for me. Yet I would be pleased that some lucky people got to enjoy those houses, to use them and to create depth of place in Discovery Park. It wont be me living there, and some changes could occur, but I would rather the buildings didn’t go empty and wasted. What a place to call home for a few families. I wouldn’t grudge someone that experience.