a photo of construction in Seattle
As construction transforms Seattle, officials are studying how to redevelop a large tract of land in a way that "maximizes public benefit." Elaine Thompson/AP

Faced with an unusual chance to build a brand-new neighborhood on a tract of state-owned land, Seattle leaders don’t intend to just sell it off to the highest bidder.

As apartment high-rises and office skyscrapers have filled and reshaped Seattle, there’s one long, thin strip of relatively untouched land that stands in sharp contrast to all the development around it.

The 25-acre plot of land next to the Queen Anne neighborhood and near the shore of Elliott Bay—surrounded by a golf course, rail yard, and chain stores—has been used as a military outpost for more than eight decades. In the early 1970s, it became the Washington Army National Guard facility, equipped with a readiness center and field maintenance shop. Today, the property is filled with military vehicles and staffed by more than 600 people.

But it appears Seattle’s persistent traffic problems may have become too much even for the National Guard. In a military relocation report published in July, the agency announced that it needs to move off the property and find a new home in another part of King County. The idea is to find a place where traffic won’t impede daily business or emergency work, and also a place that’s less vulnerable to flooding and earthquake damage.

In a city experiencing a building boom alongside a housing shortage, where undeveloped space is in high demand, these 25 acres of state-owned land represent an unusual opportunity to build a brand-new neighborhood. And while a variety of interests are jockeying to shape the area’s future, state leaders don’t intend to just sell it off to the highest bidder.

Last year, the state legislature and governor put together a seven-member advisory committee for what’s known as the Interbay property, which includes state lawmakers and Washington’s former governor, Gary Locke. The group has been asked to explore ideas for how the property could be redesigned so that it “maximizes public benefit.” In September, the committee presented some of the broad potential future uses for the property, including making it an industrial-only space or a mixed commercial and residential space. A complete report, with recommendations, will be presented to the legislature in November.

In the past year, the armory site committee has held eight committee meetings and four public open houses, in which dozens of people from the area were given the opportunity to learn about the project and offer suggestions. While some of the ideas seem more plausible than others, in the midst of both a housing and homelessness crisis, each one offers a glimpse into the key issues plaguing the city.

One suggestion is to use the area for an assortment of affordable housing options, and some have recommended small structures to provide emergency shelter for the homeless, said Sean Ardussi, Interbay Project Manager for the state’s Department of Commerce. Locals have highlighted the need for a public school or community recreation center in the area, while others have suggested making the space open to shelter dogs, since they currently use the armory’s parking lot for walks and training. Some people at these meetings didn’t bring a specific idea, but urged the committee to consider the area’s climate impacts and reduce its carbon footprint.

“It’s really encouraging that the public is coming out with a lot of great ideas for the property,” said Ardussi.

It’s important to understand that this plot of land is far from ideal. For one thing, it’s in a traffic-heavy part of the city, and has no direct access to the highway. It’s also vulnerable to two of Seattle’s largest-looming natural hazards. The low-lying area was once a wetland, prone to both flooding from sea-level rise and liquefaction during an earthquake, said Daniel Abramson, associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington.

“Just because it happens to be land that’s available for development and the city has a hot market for housing, those are all very short-term considerations,” he said. “Over time this area would probably not be a great location, or it would be a location where you’d have to do an awful lot of mitigation to prevent disaster.”

Officials have conducted environmental assessments at the site—testing the soil and examining liquefaction risks—to better understand what could feasibly go there. According to the committee’s findings adopted last month, they have found that the “soil and groundwater environmental conditions pose no significant impediments for redevelopment.”

The traffic problem, meanwhile, may be simple to address. Although it could take more than a decade, the Interbay property is expected to get new light rail stations that would offer residents a quick way to get across the city. Bus routes and bikeshare programs could also provide quick, car-free access to neighboring areas.

Seattle is not the first place to tackle a project like this. Abramson gave the example of False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, which was transformed from an industrial area into a series of sustainable neighborhoods with everything from affordable housing to a revamped transportation system. In a different part of Seattle, officials transformed hundreds of acres of a naval station into a large park, and in 2017 they started adding low-income housing to the site. And in Montreal, Quebec, a storied brewery’s relocation presents a “remarkable” chance to build a new neighborhood with subsidized and below-market-rate housing.

Still, despite the interest and effort in revamping the armory site, there remain several unknowns when it comes to relocation. Ardussi said it could cost $104.5 million to fund the design and construction of the new space. In this year’s budget, Washington put $6.6 million toward acquiring a new property for the National Guard. There are still many questions about where the rest of the funding would come from.

If the plans do go forward, Abramson has said it could be a great opportunity to support those displaced by Seattle’s boom. But he said he hopes the committee will think about what’s needed long-term when making recommendations.

“Luxury housing and high-rises—the stuff that is attracting a lot of investment right now—is not necessarily going to be the thing that’s going to work next year or in the next 10 years,” he said.

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