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.
The Fin Project: From Swords Into Plowshares, sculpture by John T. Young, 1998. Photo by Otto Greule
Encompassing about 350 acres, today Magnuson Park can seem like its own little city; it includes a mile of shoreline, restored natural areas, a historic district, roads, transit, businesses, housing, and the headquarters of 24 nonprofits. That is why, despite decades of ongoing public funding challenges and ugly political scuffles, there is reason to remain energized by a promising future for Magnuson Park that will benefit generations.
The potential of Magnuson Park hooked me at first sight. In 2000 I had recently returned from the Bay Area and was delighted to learn of Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit formed to ensure the arts had a place in the park. I joined as a board member, intending to help preserve buildings and enliven the park with diverse arts offerings. The opportunity to bring an entire district of publicly owned buildings into service for the community seemed like important work, particularly in ever-growing Seattle and especially using the arts as a catalyst.
Though it’s owned by the city, much of Magnuson Park’s current amenities, programs, and services have come to be as a direct result of citizen involvement. From an arts perspective, I categorize the park’s recent development process into four stages, beginning with a fun and rollicking introduction (1994–2000). Anything and everything was possible from a creative standpoint—until the city’s permitting department read what was in the stacks of grant-funded feasibility studies for the various historic buildings. That’s when stark reality and disillusionment set in (2001–2006), along with the displacement of arts organizations when buildings were determined to not meet code. A turning point occurred in 2010 when the parks department formed the Magnuson Park Advisory Committee (MPAC), bringing representatives from the park’s various stakeholders together to problem solve and advise. I was appointed to a leadership position representing arts and cultural interests; serving on MPAC transformed my understanding of the park’s complexity and how leveraging assets with community input makes things work, even as it means pushing hard against governmental inertia and commercial interests. In this way, persistence and political advocacy (2007–2010) led to our current breakthroughs and accomplishments (2011–present).
Magnuson Park Field, circa 1984. Seattle Public Library Historical Photograph Collection. Courtesy of The Seattle Public Library [spl_shp_40301]
We have seen the park in its most bedraggled condition, including dilapidated buildings populating the core of the park, serving no one and slowly demolishing in place. We persevered when the parks department and city hall seemed too willing to give up on the whole thing. Now, through what seems like sheer will on the part of various organizations and community members, there is much to laud, including continued progress on rehabilitating and activating the buildings, resulting in amenities like a high school, an art gallery, a theater stage, a radio station, and now a brewpub right out on the lake.
We’ve gotten where we are now collectively, in fits and starts, following no real comprehensive plan for development from the city. We have new sidewalks that don’t really lead anywhere because they only serve the buildings for which they were constructed. In 2019, there will be approximately 1,000 people living in the park, though there is no grocery within walking distance other than a 7-Eleven. The community center sits next door to housing for formerly homeless families, yet the gym is rarely open except on a pay-to-play basis, and the art gallery is cloistered in a nearly invisible location. Without funded buy-in from the city regarding its own property, visionary strategic plans have gathered dust, and long-term lease agreements have been committed to without public benefits adequately defined. No funded maintenance plan is in place, resulting in the delayed restoration of the remaining historic buildings, which sit in eternal limbo, while costs increase exponentially.
Thanks to the community who watches and pushes for it, progress is always possible. Victory belongs to those who can partner, collaborate, and leverage on behalf of the public good. As we face our current challenges, my fervent hope and intention is that the city and its citizens will see Magnuson Park for what it truly is: a shining urban asset designed for and built by diverse groups whose combined strengths provide healthful recreation and effectively address difficult issues like poverty, the environment, and access.
The park is already a place to work, live, and play. With better and more coordinated efforts between the parks department, park tenants, city government, philanthropy, and business, it will become a highly functional environment where the core values espoused by Seattle are on full display.