This evening the Office of Housing held a public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed affordable housing project at the old Fort Lawton site in Magnolia. It was a standing-room-only crowd, and the vast majority of speakers voiced their support for the project.
Here’s my prior post with background on the Fort Lawton project. In short: the U.S. Army owns the 34-acre property and is willing to give it to the City for free if it’s used for affordable housing. But the city has dithered and Magnolia residents have resisted, preferring that the city buy the property outright and use it to expand the adjacent Discovery Park. Nevertheless the city is moving forward, and issued a draft EIS last month. The city also signed a five-year lease with the Army as a bridge until it gets its act together. Under the terms of the lease, the city must issue the final EIS no later than March 31, 2018, and the City Council must approve the redevelopment plan no later than January 1, 2020. Tonight’s public hearing to gather feedback on the draft EIS is a legally required step in moving the project forward.
The “Preferred Alternative” in the draft EIS would build 238 units of affordable housing in a mix of formats. It would also dedicate 21 acres to park and open space.
A group of Magnolia neighborhood activists have made their opposition clear. Beyond their preference for expanding Discovery Park, they have argued that the Ft. Lawton site has insufficient transit and no local amenities such as a grocery store.
But tonight few of those objectors showed up. Nearly everyone who spoke — Magnolia residents, affordable housing activists, and other concerned citizens — spoke in favor of the project. In fact, egged on by a flyer circulated by Council member Kshama Sawant, many argued that 238 units is not nearly enough for the site and the city should instead build thousands of affordable units there.
There were a handful of commenters raising issues, including lack of transit and amenities. But those problems, to the extent they exist (several Magnolia residents claimed that there are already bus transit routes passing by Ft. Lawton) can easily be addressed: bus routes can be added and expanded, and potentially part of the property could be re-zoned “neighborhood commercial” to attract services and amenities.
A large number of the speakers were “Millennials.” That raises an interesting point, as voiced by one speaker who said “I grew up in Magnolia, but <laugh> I don’t live there anymore.” Given housing prices in Seattle and the predominantly single-family housing in Magnolia, building affordable housing at Fort Lawton would allow seniors and young adults to move back into the neighborhood and make it multi-generational again.
The public comment period extends until January 29th, at which point the city has two months to process the feedback, make changes in the EIS and issue the final version. Based on tonight’s feedback, it’s unlikely that the direction of the project will change dramatically. However, addressing concerns about transit and amenities and expanding the project to add more units of affordable housing will be a challenge in only two months.
It’s also possible that a larger number of Magnolia residents chose to submit their objections in writing rather than face a hostile crowd tonight. In the back of the room tonight, there were mumblings among a few Magnolia residents that the hearing was dominated by people who didn’t live in the neighborhood, and rumors that several Magnolia residents showed up just before the start of the meeting but left when they saw the size of the crowd.
Along with representatives of the Office of Housing, also present tonight were three City Council members: Teresa Mosqueda, whose committee oversees housing; Kshama Sawant, whose committee oversees “renter’s rights,” and Sally Bagshaw, whose district includes Magnolia. Both Mosqueda and Bagshaw expressed to me their support for adding more housing units to the redevelopment plan. Mosqueda released a statement on what she heard at tonight’s hearing:
I am excited about the prospect of bringing more affordable housing to Fort Lawton, and support Option 1 – and am looking into how many more housing units we can build on site. Within a few blocks of two transit lines, providing bus service every 15 minutes during peak hours, this is an ideal site for more housing. I am especially excited to work with Seattle Public Schools in partnership for additional education opportunities for the kiddos who will call Magnolia home when they move into the Fort Lawton site, and the ability for more small businesses to thrive as Magnolia welcomes more families of more diverse backgrounds. This is exactly the type of innovative housing options we should be creating across our city on developable parcels of public land. We must act now to address the crisis of homelessness and lack of affordable housing now.
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I wanted to ask you about the “egg(ing) on” by Kshama Sawant that you mentioned. I have not attended a City Council meeting in person (yet), but I did I watch the livestream of the council getting public input on the income tax last July. At that meeting, there was a very vocal and organized group waving placards with Socialist Alternative colors (which also had the city seal and Sawant’s name on them) who cheered quite loudly when people spoke in favor of the income tax and murmured when people would speak against it.
Later in the article, you mentioned that it’s “possible that a larger number of Magnolia residents chose to submit their objections in writing rather than face a hostile crowd tonight,” and “rumors that several Magnolia residents showed up just before the start of the meeting but left when they saw the size of the crowd.”
As a journalist who covers council meetings, are you seeing a pattern of intimidation on the part of the contingent that is “egged on” by Sawant against average citizens? At these contentious hearings, does the Socialist Alternative contingent pack the schedule in such a way that an average person can’t get on it? Or are they just better organized and show up?
Are alternative/ dissenting voices being heard or are they being drowned out, or, even worse, managed out so that the council appears to get support from the people when it is just a vocal minority telling them what they want to hear?
-B. in West Woodland
Hi B. Thanks for your question.
Sawant’s followers are very well organized. The Council and the city do a very good job of hearing everyone out; they rarely cut off public comment periods, preferring to let everyone speak. That means that in practice no one group can prevent another group from speaking. They can, however, dominate a public comment session by organizing to have lots of people speak (often saying the same thing, and sometimes scripted or at least sharing talking points).
Organized groups can, and sometimes do, create a hostile environment for those with differing opinions during public comment sessions. Sawant’s supporters (a broader group than just Socialist Alternative) will do this sometimes by booing, jeering, and less often shouting down speakers. But they are not the only group who does this; they are simply the best organized and most frequent at packing Council Chambers with like-minded people. The Council does its best to police bad behavior, with mixed results.
Alternative/dissenting voices are definitely being heard; that’s why the Council and city departments take input/feedback through multiple channels, including by mail and email. But the number of voices matters as well: Council members are swayed by overwhelming voices leaning in a particular direction. And most Council members understand that 100 people showing up for a City Council meeting don’t necessarily represent the majority views of 700,000 Seattle residents. But it’s hard not to be influenced when people show up in person and in large numbers.
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