Seattle’s Angry White Elephant in the Room: Magnuson Park


The line for the book sale at Building 30 at Magnuson Park (Photo: MvB)

In the mid-1970s, Seattle got a magnificent gift. Over the past three decades, a long list of city councils, mayors, and local citizens have seemingly done their level best to systematically destroy that gift’s value. Our current city council may have just finished this gift off for good. It’s now no longer a gift; it’s a crushing liability.

I’m talking about Naval Air Station Puget Sound, now known as Magnuson Park, but also commonly called by its nickname: Sand Point. (The base was never called Sand Point Naval Air Station, a name often heard but which is dead wrong.)

The story starts long ago. In the early 1920s, the United States Navy decided the land was a good place for an airfield. The Navy bought up farms and began to build an airstrip. In 1924, The Army Air Corps launch an historic around-the-world flight that left from Sand  Point. The airfield was enlarged in 1925.

Throughout the late ’20s and through the depression of the 1930s, the airstrip was improved and auxiliary buildings were constructed, many through the efforts of the WPA. As World War II approached, the base grew and was a center of training and airplane maintenance. Anti-sub patrols also flew out of NAS Puget Sound.

After the war, and through the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, the Navy found the property less and less valuable as a base. The airstrip could not launch jets and there were larger, more convenient bases on Whidbey and at Bremerton.

In the mid-1970s, the Navy gave the majority of the lakeshore areas to Seattle City Parks, which created a beach area. It was always exciting and mysterious to drive to the park on a side road near the base. There was still some activity, with guardhouses and many officers and enlisted men around.

In the early 1980s, the Navy gave the base up entirely and gifted it to the City of Seattle and, in part, the University of Washington. The deal that created Magnuson Park was largely negotiated by, you got it, Warren Magnuson, our great former senator.

And this is where our story really starts, because it wasn’t really a perfect gift to the City of Seattle. First of all, the city had to share the buildings with the University of Washington, the Navy insisting that “historical” buildings had to be preserved. (You could remodel, but you had to preserve the historical nature of the buildings.)

And there’s the rub. In the early 1980s, Seattle didn’t have the money to do that. So the UW was brought in because the university needed additional room and, back then, had the money needed to update and renovate several of the buildings.

Things got messy after that, for many reasons. One major problem was that, in the preceding decades, the Navy hadn’t really upgraded the buildings. In fact, the poor condition of the buildings was a factor in giving the base up. And when the Navy moved out, they moved out fast. Even to this day you can see rooms they just got up and left. Many rooms have full ash trays, furniture, spare parts…there’s even a vintage deck of playing cards in one.

The city devised a contentious plan to develop the park, but plans to turn it into a small-plane airport died fast. The city tore up the airstrip, but the proposal to build much-needed ball fields was met with anger from neighbors in View Ridge and Windermere who feared lights glaring long into the night.

Then a bombshell dropped. The Federal Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority decided to turn four major buildings, and six smaller ones, into low-income housing. The neighbors loved that–no, they didn’t, to be clear–but there was no turning back.

So to sum up, for the past 20 years, the park has been at the center of a firestorm between what the city can pay for, what park-goers want and need, and what neighboring communities are willing to tolerate.

But as warring parties continued their constant bickering, the buildings on the old base, the ones the Navy said we had to maintain, have been falling apart as the result of neglect and Seattle’s notoriously unforgiving weather.

And that brings us to this year and this week.

It turns out that, over the years, the City council and City Parks have deferred major maintenance. And now there isn’t money to catch up.

Building 30 is a good example of Seattle’s frustrating relationship with Magnuson Park. The building has been in near constant use since the 1980s. You’ve probably been in there. It’s a large hanger that has hosted antique fairs, the Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sales, flea markets, parties, tennis, sports, movies, plays, graduations and on and on.

That building makes money for the city. It’s an engine of commerce. But in all the years it’s been in the black, practically none of the revenue has been returned to the building in the form of maintenance.  For a decade, the Seattle Fire Department has told the Parks department to upgrade the fire suppression and seismic strength of the building. The money went elsewhere and now the Fire Department is shutting down a major percentage of the activity allowed in that building. Now, we not only have a revenue shortfall, but we also have destroyed the ability to earn revenue through rents in this building.

Park officials must have seen this coming. For the past few years they have been negotiating contracts with private enterprise for use of the buildings in the park in exchange for lease monies. Private leaseholders then rehab the buildings. Problem solved. The buildings are being used, the city’s park assets are being maintained, and citizens have access to more services.

A great example is the recent opening of an old seaplane hanger close to the shoreline at the north end of the park as a fitness club and a sports complex.

This week however, the city council voted, 8-1 to “modify” a similar contract with a development company to convert Building 11 into a day care, a restaurant and coffee house, and office space. “Modify” is putting it charitably. They changed the contract terms to such an extent that the developer couldn’t possibly hope to create a profitable environment. A lawsuit is underway.

The city council, walking back over its own deal with the developer, has now turned our gift from the Navy, which has become a burden on its own, into a greater loss of money by reneging on a deal that would have generated money for city parks, the city itself, and repaired a building that has been vacant and falling apart for more than 30 years.

There is much to be said on both sides of this little dust-up. The developer might have overreached; the neighbors might be hopelessly uninformed. The real problem is that a much larger issue is at play here.

As Seattle grows, the result is more pressure on our city parks. Sports enthusiasts loudly call for more fields, dog owners want more dog parks, bike enthusiasts and skate boarders want more specific features for their use. People who wish spaces for silent contemplation push for a status quo.

Residents on the borders of parks want less noise and light, shorter hours, and more gates and fences. The question is, in an era where finances to maintain parks is shrinking, how are we going to protect, improve or, frankly, save our parks from special interests for the betterment of all.

The front lines of that battle are now in Magnuson Park, and the battle is heating up. Later this year, or early next, the University of Washington will give up its possession of the large, massive building that backs up to Sand Point Way. The university has estimated that repair and renovation of that building, which is in a beautiful Georgian-revival style, is too expensive for their shrinking budgets. So the building will go over to the city, which hasn’t got the money to fix it, either.

The building, the largest on the property, will go over to the Seattle Housing Authority, which will use federal dollars to create more low-income housing. I wonder what the neighbors that didn’t want a coffee house in Building 11 will think about that.

One thought on “Seattle’s Angry White Elephant in the Room: Magnuson Park

  1. I really hate Seattle’s NIMBY culture. They’ve managed to kill a lot of great things. I know that they’ve also saved a lot of great things, but more often than I care for, they really fuck the duck.

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