The Push and Pull of Proposed Uses

Letter from Rhododendron Society, 1975
Box 17, Folder 23, Record Series
5804-05, Seattle Municipal Archives

Many proposed uses for the park were suggested over the years. The Rhododendron Society proposed development of a rhododendron forest when the Master Plan was conceptualized and an agreement establishing the Rhododendron Forest was signed in 1977. The original 1975 agreement was terminated in 1983.

Golf Course

map of area
1975 map showing area of proposed golf
course. From "A Critical Review of Initiative
#4" flyer produced by Discovery Park
Campaign Committee.
Box 137, Folder 6, Record Series
5802-01, Seattle Municipal Archives

Developing a portion of the Fort Lawton land into a municipal golf course was proposed by golf enthusiasts as early as 1969, but the idea was ultimately rejected when the master plan was prepared and published in 1972. When the Army announced in 1974 that it would release another 151 acres of Fort Lawton, golf course proponents again proposed the idea of building a public golf course in the park. Two Magnolia residents, Norman Dabbert and Harry Watters, established the West Point Golf Association to promote and study the idea.

The proposal received both support and opposition. In a letter to the Superintendent of Parks, Mr. and Mrs. Claude Palmer argued that there was plenty of acreage in the park for both open, natural space and a golf course. They cited a need for more golf facilities in Seattle and claimed that a developed course would be safer and be more secure than open space. "We don't want Discovery Park to be another area where a person would be afraid to walk alone," they wrote. Resident Margorie W. Dudley wrote in opposition to the course, noting: "Tempting tho the location is, this would benefit only a small segment of park users, and would curtail the development of a beautiful, large, natural park dedicated to the use and enjoyment of all." She added a postscript that her husband, a golfer himself, agreed with her.

ad titled "Plenty of Room for Both"
Advertisement in favor of the golf course.
Seattle Times, November 3, 1975

The proposal was presented and discussed at the Parks and Public Grounds Committee meeting on June 18, 1974 where Dabbert spoke in favor of the plan, telling the committee that it would relieve congestion at the city's three other municipal courses. Magnolia resident John Teal also spoke in favor of the course, claiming that it would help curtail noise in the residential area. "There' only one place quieter than a golf course," he said, "and that's a cemetery." Those attending who were opposed to the course included Donald Vorhees (former chairman of the Fort Lawton Citizens Advisory Committee), Parks Superintendent David Towne, and architect John Morse, who helped prepare the Discovery Park master plan. Vorhees claimed that allowing a golf course would violate the basic concept of the master plan for open and natural space and would signal to other special interest groups that additional conflicting developments could be possible. The Parks Committee was against the idea of a golf course, as was Mayor Wes Uhlman.

Partly in response to the golf course proposal, the Friends of Discovery Park was formed in 1974 with the intention of advocating for keeping the park an open and natural space. The group was chaired by Magnolia Community Club member (and later chairman of the Seattle Park Board) Robert Kildall, who was described in the Post-Intelligencer as the person who would someday "be remembered as the man who defended Discovery Park against 100 development schemes."

The 1974 revised Master Plan rejected use of the land for a golf course or other specialized activities and continued to call for its preservation as an open space. In 1975, golf course proponents gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot. Initiative 4 was voted down by a margin of 2:1.

Historic District

On January 9, 1978, the Parks Board held a public hearing to discuss whether some of the original Fort Lawton buildings constructed between 1898 and 1908 should be preserved. The land and buildings were slated to be acquired by the city and become a part of Discovery Park later that year. The hearing also considered whether retaining the buildings might conflict with the Discovery Park master plan.

map of historic buildings
Fort Lawton historical building survey map, 1975
Image 202887, Seattle Municipal Archives

Federal law required that the Army consider the potential historical value of the buildings before they could be turned over to the city. In March of that year, Washington State agreed with the Army's recommendation that 25 Fort Lawton buildings be listed as historic landmarks.

In August, Fort Lawton was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. Although the designation did not legally require that all fort buildings be preserved and retained, it provided ammunition to local preservation advocates who wanted the city to retain the buildings as historical landmarks. Others, including the city's Parks Department, felt removing the buildings and allowing the land to revert to a more natural state was more in keeping with the intent of the master plan. There was some concern that the conflict would jeopardize the Army's pending transfer of 126 acres for the completion of Discovery Park.

Art Skolnik, architect and chairman of the Urban Conservation Committee of Allied Arts, proposed to provide low-cost housing for around 200 qualifying artists in Fort Lawton's former barracks, using them as a residential center for dramatic, musical, and literary arts. Magnolia residents protested putting low-income housing in the park and claimed that the cost of renovating the buildings would be too high. They and other opponents also pointed to the original plan for the park as an open and natural area.

Fort Lawton guard house
Fort Lawton Guard House (Building 759), 1972.
The building still stands in Discovery Park.
Image 202889, Seattle Municipal Archives

In October, the city signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Department of the Interior, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The MOA outlined a specific planning and decision process for the Historic District, including stipulations intended to "mitigate adverse impacts on the property."

In December 1978, the Landmarks Preservation Board proposed establishing a Fort Lawton Landmark District. However, it was not until 1985, after a compromise reached by a mayoral task force (comprised of members from both the city's Board of Parks Commissioners and the Landmarks Preservation Board) that a plan was approved for the historic district. Resolution 27329, passed in December of that year, called for retaining just two of the twelve city-owned buildings and demolishing the rest.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation filed a federal lawsuit in 1987 challenging the demolition plan. In February 1988, a federal judge ordered a stay of demolition and required the city to further consult with preservation authorities, giving a deadline of June 13 that year to resolve the dispute out of court. Resolution 27751 was passed in February, approving the reconsideration of resolutions 27329 and 27399 and calling for consultation with the state's historic preservation officer and more public hearings to consider the issue. A compromise plan was reached which called for saving six historic buildings: the Administration Building, the Post Exchange/Gym Building, the Band and Barracks Building, the Civil Employee’s Quarters, the Guard House, and the Quartermasters Stables. On June 13, the day of the deadline, Ordinance 114011 was passed establishing the Fort Lawton Landmark District.


Metro built a sewage treatment plant in the 1960s at West Point, in what later became park property. After Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, discussions lasted through the 1970s as to where to put the secondary treatment plant; options included Alki Point and Richmond Beach. After nearly a decade of hearing and court cases, in 1991 the courts agreed the plant could be built at its existing location with strict environmental provisions in place to protect Discovery Park. Some of those against the plant included Friends of Discovery Park, Puget Sound Water Quality Defense Fund, Legal Advocates, and Magnolia Community Council.

The plant was completed in 1996 and met federal deadlines. Metro was required to give the city $25 million to mitigate loss of public use of shoreline. Beach programs at Discovery Park were closed for the summer in 1991 due to construction. By 1999, Seattle and King County needed an expanded secondary treatment facility. Because of the 1991 environmental agreement, the expansion did not take place at West Point. Metro chose a 1114-acre site in Snohomish County, and the new Brightwater facility began operation in 2011.

Mayor Rice at groundbreaking
Mayor Rice in attendance at the
groundbreaking for the secondary sewage
treatment plant in 1991.
Image 77381, Seattle Municipal Archives
archeological site
During construction Indian artifacts found at a
"waste depository" included mammal and fish
bones between 2,500 and 3,000 years old.
West Point Archeological Site, March 1992
Image 206194, Seattle Municipal Archives

The plant opened in 1996 and by 2009 cleaned an average of 130 million gallons of wastewater a day for Seattle and several other cities and sewer districts. The plant has not been without its mishaps; it flooded in 2017 and again in 2019 after failures led to sewage spilling into the water, closing both the North and South beaches for a period of time.

People's Lodge

Part of the original plan for an Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park was the People's Lodge, designed as a large multipurpose arena with a planned capacity of up to 5,000 people. It was intended to host indoor sports and recreational events, concerts, lectures, educational programs, and conferences. Although plans were in motion to build the lodge in 1976, intense neighborhood resistance involving legal challenges and negative publicity eventually caused federal funding to be denied.

Native activist Bernie Whitebear, who was instrumental in the creation of Daybreak Star, was determined to make the People's Lodge a reality and continued leading efforts to make it happen. The UIATF applied for a Master Use Permit to construct a new proposed People's Lodge in Discovery Park in early 1993. Smaller than the originally envisioned lodge, the proposal called for a two-story, 148,000 square foot building that would include a performing arts center, a large indoor gathering space, multi-use rooms, a Hall of Ancestors exhibit space, an educational resource center, and a 550-car parking lot. Although there was some community support for the proposal, there was also continuing resistance from nearby Magnolia residents who opposed the scale and size of the development, citing potential traffic problems and impact on the natural environment of the park.

drawing of People's Lodge
Front view of the proposed People's Lodge, 1999
Document 4932, Seattle Municipal Archives
drawing of People's Lodge
Interior view of the Hall of Ancestors
in the proposed People's Lodge, 1999
Document 4932, Seattle Municipal Archives

Friends of Discovery Park mobilized in opposition, and a new group called Coalition to Save Discovery Park formed in protest to the proposal. In a letter to Mayor Schell in May 1999, Bernie Whitebear defended the project against the coalition's "exaggerated rhetoric that has almost no factual basis." He outlined how the lodge was consistent with the original 1972 lease and agreement and approved by the city and author of the park's master plan, Dan Kiley. He also spoke to the frequent claim that to build the lodge would irrevocably disrupt the natural state of the park. "It is sadly ironic that some people claim that the Native American People's Lodge is going to harm the 'wilderness.' The wilderness left the beautiful bluffs of Magnolia 100 years ago and cannot possibly return in the middle of our urban metropolis. Discovery Park is no more pristine in Magnolia than Carkeek, Lincoln, or Seward Parks are in their neighborhoods." He further emphasized that open, tranquil space and a center for preserving, practicing, and learning about Native cultures "can easily exist side by side."

On June 24, 1999, the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) released the draft EIS on the People's Lodge proposal. The City received comments regarding the proposal, both for and against. Several letters claimed the development went against the master plan and were opposed to the size and scale of the building complex and parking lot. A Master Use Permit was granted for the proposed lodge, and neighborhood groups immediately appealed to the Hearing Examiner.

letter in support of People's Lodge
Letter in Support of the UIATF People's
Lodge from the Children's Alliance,
August 11, 1999
Box 50, Folder 6, Record
Series 4684-02, Seattle Municipal Archives
letter opposing People's Lodge
Letter against the UIATF People's
Lodge from Robert Lester and Joyce
Winter, August 12, 1999
Box 50, Folder 6, Record
Series 4684-02, Seattle Municipal Archives

Hearing Examiner Meredith Getches claimed in her ruling that building such a center would violate city zoning laws and that the DCLU director was wrong in finding that the proposed center was consistent with "community center" use, since the structure would function most as a museum, which is not permitted in the park. Getches wrote, "It is astonishing that during the 25 years since the idea for an Indian Cultural-Educational Center on this site was conceived, steps have not been taken to resolve the conflict between the uses envisioned and the zoning designation."

UIATF master plan map
United Indians of All Tribes Foundation
Master Plan for Discovery Park, 2005
Box 7, Folder 8, Record
Series 4631-02, Seattle Municipal Archives

Although the UIATF appealed the decision in Superior Court, ultimately UIATF and the community groups agreed to settle out of court and, with the help of a mediator, an agreement was reached in 2003. Ground was scheduled to be broken in 2006 after a planned capital campaign to fund the project.

After discussions and negotiations with neighborhood groups, in 2006, a further scaled down People's Lodge proposal was submitted by UIATF and considered by DCLU. A draft environmental impact statement was produced. "But two provisions in the plan would require approval by the Seattle City Council, and public debate over the project has been heated." The building was now planned to be much smaller and part of a complex including Daybreak Star. The lodge project was put on hold indefinitely in early 2006 due to lack of funding.


In 1986, the Discovery Park Long Range Development Plan called for the eventual acquisition of existing military housing areas within the park. These areas comprising approximately 33 acres were the Capehart housing area, consisting of 24 acres and improved with 66 housing units; Montana Circle, a 3.5 acre parcel with 13 housing units; and the Washington Avenue parcel (Officer's Row), consisting of 5.6 acres with 13 officer's quarters. The Montana Circle and Washington Avenue properties were part of the Fort Lawton Historic District and therefore under specific conditions in terms of future use and development. The Capehart housing area, located outside of the historic district, was mentioned in both the Master Plan and the Discovery Park Plan as an area that should be acquired and restored to a natural, open space.

map showing housing area
Map showing Capehart housing
location in Discovery Park, 2004
Box 7, Folder 8, Record
Series 4631-02, Seattle Municipal Archives

Originally constructed during the 1950s, Capehart housed military families until the early 2000s. In early 2004, the Navy announced plans to sell and potentially privatize the land, leaving it open for residential development. By March of that year, City Council passed Resolution 30658, expressing the desire to keep the Capehart housing land as a part of the park's open space. Letters opposing the plan were sent to the Secretary of the Navy from city officials, members of congress and state senators, and numerous community groups. A letter from the League of Women Voters of Seattle protested, "It's an affront to the citizenry, to all who have worked so hard to establish and maintain this park, to sell its core to a housing developer."

In June, the Navy announced plans to sell the Capehart property to a commercial developer, American Eagle, who intended to create luxury housing on the land. "Can you imagine luxury homes built in the heart of Discovery Park?" asked the Friends of Discovery Park in protest. "If the Navy no longer deems the Capehart housing useful to house military personnel the property must rightfully be returned to the City of Seattle for permanent inclusion in Discovery Park." The City was joined by members of the State legislature in protesting the sale of the housing property.

After months of negotiations, in December the city announced that an agreement had been reached with the federal government and American Eagle to purchase the 23-acre Capehart housing site, demolish the housing, and turn it into open space. As part of the agreement, the developers acquired 26 historic homes in the park that were to be sold for private use. Developed into The Homes at Fort Lawton, the first of the renovated historic houses was sold in 2015 for $1.05 million ($51,000 over the listed price).

Negotiations continued, and in August and September of 2007 the City held a series of public hearings to discuss the Capehart acquisition. Councilmembers voted to approve the sale and demolition of the Capehart houses on September 24, 2007, marking the first time the City would have to pay for Fort Lawton land. The sale would be completed in 2010 and a forest restoration project on the site was initiated. The Capehart forest and trails opened in May 2019.

As part of the legislation authorizing the sale and demolition of the Capehart housing site, the council noted its intention to buy the Fort Lawton Army Reserve property, which had been targeted for closure in 2005, and build at least 66 units of low and moderate income housing on that site. Those plans were soon challenged by nearby Magnolia residents, who opposed any homeless or low-income housing in the park. Opponents again cited the original master plan's focus on open, natural space vs. development, as well as the relative isolation of Magnolia from social services. In September 2008, City Council approved a redevelopment plan which called for building a mix of housing units which would include market-rate homes and housing for those experiencing homelessness. The following month, the Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council filed suit against the City to halt the plans, claiming that the development was in opposition to the Master Plan and that the City did not conduct an environmental review as required under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The City argued that a SEPA review was not necessary since the plan would be approved at the federal level, after which it would undergo an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2009, King County Superior Court ruled in favor of the neighborhood council, and an appeals court upheld this decision in March the following year.

The planned land acquisition and housing project stalled for several years. In January 2017, the city signed a five-year lease with the federal government to maintain the property site. By June, the city had proposed a new plan that revived its former attempts to build a mix of affordable housing units on part of the property while retaining 15 acres for open park land. A series of public hearings were held and an environmental impact study was scheduled to be conducted.

The Magnolia Community Council supported the proposal, but a Magnolia resident filed an appeal against the project. After several months of hearings and filings, in November 2018 the Hearing Examiner ruled in favor of the City. In June 2019 the City Council, with support from Mayor Jenny Durkan, unanimously passed legislation approving purchase of the land and authorizing construction of low-income housing and two athletic fields on the site. The expectation was that the site would be conveyed in 2020 and construction was planned to begin in 2021; however, delays persisted as legal challenges continued, including a lawsuit brought by the Friends of Discovery Park claiming the project would disturb a nearby colony of great blue herons.

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