The Battle for a Great Urban Park

Paddleboarders at Magnuson Park, August 2018. Photo by Zach Hooker

By Lynn Ferguson

This article is part of the ARCADE Issue 36.2 feature, “Seattle’s Ethos: Changes in our Shared Space,” in which members of the Magnuson Park and Central Area communities share their thoughts about what has happened and is happening in their neighborhoods. Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

In the early 1900s, the US Navy acquired park and farming property on Sand Point for Seattle’s first airport and naval air station. The Navy closed the base in the early 1970s, returning 350 acres of land, with a mile of Lake Washington waterfront, to the city and county.

This was a priceless gift to the people. But which people and with what development ideas? Would the area become a small airport or a park? Ball fields or wetlands? Would it include lit fields or dark skies? Would it support homeless or market-rate housing; off-leash dogs or bird-watchers; for profit or nonprofit businesses; pay-for-play or free public programming; historic structures or new buildings on old footprints?

An aerial view of the Sand Point Housing Project
Aerial of Sand Point Housing Project site looking east, Seattle, 1940. Photographer: Seattle Post-Intelligencer staff photographer. Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved.

I have lived for 40 years within a block of Magnuson Park and participated in its planning process. The park is evolving in a balanced, Seattle-centric way because of a few outstanding community advocates, politicians, designers, preservationists, and environmentalists who had the Seattle ethos deep in their souls.

Warren Magnuson standing at a lectern
Warren G. Magnuson at Pacific Science Center, circa October 21, 1962. Photographer: George Gulacsik, 1923–2010. Collection: George Gulacsik Space Needle Photograph. Courtesy of The Seattle Public Library.

First, former Senator Warren G. Magnuson and City Councilmember Jeanette Williams led the battle opposing the airfield, thus creating the park. Bob Hull, Michael Sullivan, and Eugenia Woo led the architectural assessment of the historic district. Ilze Jones, Rich Haag, and later, Guy Michaelsen, designed master plans. Mayor Charles Royer led a planning group that provided the vision to put the land and restored wetlands first. Ann Lennartz, a quiet urban-nature lover, began the renovation using her own wealth to promote the inclusion of native plants and good design. I remember standing with Ann on an open field at Sand Point when we were trying to get the parks department to recognize the area’s existing wetlands. I said, “If I had a million dollars, I would hire someone to do a wetlands assessment.” Ann said, “I do, and I will.” That is the Seattle ethos. Cindy Brettler showed it, too, giving not only money but time to support low-income families. Carol Valdrighi, a newcomer to Seattle, reminded us of issues of inequality and the needs of the small community center and its low-income users.

The parks department’s Christopher Williams listened when mowers cut up ground on which baby pheasants were nesting, and Magnuson became the first park to ban mowing during bird-nesting season. Tom Kelly, a neighborhood volunteer, planted hundreds of trees. Soccer promoters wanted to make Magnuson the “best all-year sports complex west of the Mississippi.” Fortunately, neighbors were concerned about traffic and lights, and the Starfire group ended up at Fort Dent. City Councilmembers Tom Rasmussen and Sally Bagshaw curbed the commercial development push for the reuse of historic structures; the Friends of Sand Point Magnuson Park Historic District made the Sand Point Naval Air Station Historic District a reality, bringing the buildings under city historic preservation laws and public process, and Frank Chopp insisted that the housing be low-income, not market rate.

People with vision and the Seattle ethos helped make this great urban park.

Lynn Ferguson is a neighborhood advocate for the “great urban park” envisioned by Warren G. Magnuson in the early 1970s. She is the recipient of the Seattle parks department’s Denny Award, Audubon’s Conservation Award, and Historic Seattle’s Community Advocacy Award and is the current president of Friends of Sand Point Magnuson Park Historic District.