Fort Lawton's future worries neighbors

Some defenders of Seattle's Discovery Park already are fretting over what might become of the neighboring Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center, targeted for closure in the national plan the Pentagon released yesterday.

The next occupants of the 38-acre property could disturb the big, semiwild park more than the military does, several say.

"There'll be a great demand for the use of those [Army Reserve] buildings," said Bob Kildall, a longtime member of the board of Friends of Discovery Park. "Once you put in uses, you get noise, you get cars ...

"I wouldn't mind if the Army kept it for a while."

Paul Thompson, the group's president, said: "If it could be turned into green space, that would be fantastic. But that's probably unrealistic."

The Army Reserve Center is the last remnant of Fort Lawton, established in the 1890s to guard Puget Sound from naval attack. The base once covered 700 acres at the westernmost tip of Magnolia Bluff.

The Army transferred most of the property to the city in 1972 and it became Discovery Park, at 550 acres the city's largest. It is a popular "urban wilderness" of forests, meadows, trails, seaside bluffs, beaches and carefully preserved historic Army buildings.

The reserve center hugs the park's northeastern boundary. Its entry road passes through the park. The Army property has views north to Shilshole Bay, but it is far from wild.

Three big office buildings dominate the site; the largest is about five years old, said Maj. Hillary Luton, the center's public-affairs officer. The other two were built in the 1960s.

The most historic structure may be a brick smokestack. Col. Mike Pierce, who is stationed at Fort Lawton, said it's all that's left of an incinerator where the Army once burned mule carcasses.

More than 250 people, military and civilian, work at the center, Luton said. The Pentagon's base-closure plan says the 70th Regional Readiness Command, headquartered at the center, would be "disestablished," its subordinate units relocated to Fort Lewis.

Seattle would lose 53 military and 54 civilian jobs.

The center's employees weren't panicking at yesterday's news, Luton said. "They know Fort Lawton's on the list; that's all they know ... We can't be getting scared of what possibly happens."

Pierce, a reservist from Ephrata, Grant County, said he wasn't surprised the center is a closure target. The Reserves have been restructuring for several years and looking at consolidation, he said.

If the recommendation goes through, it could take up to two years before closure begins, Luton said, and up to six years before it's finished.

What becomes of the property then? "Who knows what they're going to do with it," she said.

George Behan, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said the Pentagon hasn't reached the point of looking at future uses for the site. Others are starting to.

Mayor Greg Nickels' spokeswoman, Marianne Bichsel, said Nickels has asked the city's intergovernmental-relations staff to look into options for the center property.

"He would be interested in seeing it as some kind of public asset," Bichsel said, "but it may not be possible. The cost may be too much."

The military no longer gives land to local governments as it did in 1972, she said.

But Victor Barry, president of the Magnolia Community Club, said a transfer shouldn't be ruled out. The property should be added to Discovery Park, he said, a step the park's original master plan envisioned.

Kildall, of Friends of Discovery Park, agreed. But he believes it's unlikely the city would tear down the buildings on the site and let it revert to nature.

The city should acquire the property anyway, Thompson said: "If it was in private hands, you'd have no control over what happened there." The site could become the headquarters for the city parks department, he said, or perhaps a regional headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard.

But even public-sector uses may intrude more on Discovery Park's quiet, natural setting than the Army does, Kildall said.

Last December the city agreed to pay $9 million and give up other property it owned in return for 23 acres inside the park, called the Capehart property, that still is used for Navy housing. The agreement headed off a Navy plan to sell the property to developers.

Magnolia leaders and Discovery Park defenders fought that plan. Lindsay Brown, past president of the Magnolia Community Club, said the worst possible future for the Army Reserve Center would be "what we just avoided with the Capehart property ... more built-up stuff, more people and traffic."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or