Who will protect the regions natural beauty like this empty parking lot?
Who will protect the region's natural beauty like this empty parking lot? HG

As expected, “neighborhood warrior” Elizabeth Campbell has launched an appeal to try to stop a city plan for affordable housing on an unused lot in Magnolia.

The city’s plan for the Army-owned site known as Fort Lawton would build 238 units of housing for low and middle income people, including some housing for formerly homeless seniors with services like counseling on site. The site has gone largely unused for a decade, since the city first proposed building housing there. Back then, Campbell appeal of the city’s environmental review of its proposal tied the thing up in court until the economy tanked and the city shelved the project. Now, the city’s plans are back and so is Campbell.

In March, the city’s Office of Housing released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) about the project. That 1,482-page EIS looks at the impacts of several possible courses of action for Fort Lawton. The alternatives are 1) to build affordable housing and park space at Fort Lawton, 2) to build market rate housing at Fort Lawton and affordable housing at another site known as Talaris, 3) to turn Fort Lawton into a park and build affordable housing at Talaris, or 4) to take no action. Given its goals of building affordable housing and the fact that the city could get a big chunk of the Fort Lawton site from the federal government for free, option one is the city’s pick. The 238 units would include 100 affordable rental row houses, 85 apartments for homeless seniors (plus one manager unit), and 52 row houses and townhomes for purchase built by Habitat for Humanity.

The nearby neighborhood is split. As heard in public comment and interviews, some residents welcome affordable housing, some fear monger about “allowing” formerly homeless people in the neighborhood, and others fall somewhere in the middle, claiming to only be worried about parking or wanting to preserve open space. (Fort Lawton is currently paved over with abandoned buildings on site. The nextdoor Discovery Park is already more than 500 acres of open space with sweeping views and hiking trails.)

The citys proposal for housing at Fort Lawton. Click to enlarge.
The city's proposal for housing at Fort Lawton. Click to enlarge. City of Seattle

Campbell refuses to talk much about the city's housing and homelessness crisis. Instead, she and a group she founded called the Discovery Park Community Alliance say Fort Lawton should become park land and possibly home to an environmental camp for kids. Campbell's appeal argues building housing will negatively impact the nearby Discovery Park. “Housing compounds of the scales and types proposed by the City of Seattle and its partners, Catholic Community Services and Habitat for Humanity and others at Fort Lawton location, be they market rate or otherwise, will severely impact the natural urban park experience at Discovery Park, not to mention will negatively impact the natural, social, cultural, and built environments, locally and citywide,” the appeal reads.

Campbell also challenges the city’s EIS on plenty of technical grounds. Campbell argues, essentially, that the EIS is based on a faulty premise. The EIS process requires governments like the city to review alternatives when they’re considering development like this. Campbell argues the city’s primary alternatives, which depend on building instead at the Talaris site, are not true alternatives. The 18-acre Talaris site is located in Laurelhurst. The city does not own it. The site is currently largely undeveloped, though a developer has now agreed to buy the land and build 63 single family homes on lots the Seattle Times reports could go for $2 million each. Neighborhood activists, meanwhile, have successfully gotten the site designated a landmark, which adds some new restrictions on how the land can be used. All of this, Campbell argues, indicates that using Talaris as an alternative “is simply rationalizing or justifying a decision already made by [the Seattle Office of] Housing to pursue...affordable housing at Fort Lawton.”

The Laurelhurst Community Club has also filed a similar appeal of the project. The group takes issue with the city’s consideration of Talaris as an alternative site because of a 1991 settlement agreement between the city, Laurelhurst Community Club, and the former owner of the site. The group argues that the inadequacies in the city’s review of Talaris are “sufficiently fundamental that the Talaris alternative is essentially a sham or straw man that does not serve the function SEPA intends. The alternative is neither reasonable nor realistic.”

Campbell’s appeal also argues that the city inadequately considered a long list of other factors about the Fort Lawton site including school overcrowding, police response, wildlife, landslides, noise, shadows, and “light spillage.” She argues the area's existing bus line can't handle 596 new residents and housing at Fort Lawton will worsen traffic and parking issues in the area. (The city's proposal includes 266 parking spaces.)

Near the end of her appeal, Campbell challenges the city’s characterization of the Fort Lawton project as diversifying a high-income neighborhood and furthering environmental justice (she puts the term in quotation marks). She casts doubt on the idea that scarcity of affordable housing is due to historic covenants and discrimination, saying the city has not provided sufficient evidence to show that. Instead, she implies the city’s current building boom is resulting in the “demolition of affordable housing,” for which she herself provides no evidence. Campbell seeks further environmental review and argues the city should restart its bidding process to find housing providers for the site.

The Office of Housing declined to comment on the claims made in the appeals. The city’s hearing examiner has combined the two appeals and will hold a prehearing conference on them May 15. Until then, the project is on hold.