Discovery Park is prized for its quiet, reserved space and views of the Puget Sound.

For some, the idea of changing the park is absurd. As the largest city park in Seattle, it was designed to be a natural outdoor space and a "respite from city life," according to its master plan.

But times are changing, and a few residents and local leaders in Magnolia see a need to make a few changes in order to preserve the park's historic district and make more people aware of the resources the park provides.

Maya Leites has a vision for the park that other Magnolia residents share with her. Leites is an architect and a history lover who hopes to combine those passions to bring new life into Discovery Park's historic district through a revitalization of its eight historic Fort Lawton buildings. These are not the same buildings that would be removed by the city and nonprofit partners for a planned affordable housing redevelopment.

“Historic preservation is the most sustainable way for us to use buildings,” Leites said. “It makes more sense to restore buildings, even if they are un-updated, and to allow the communities to use those existing buildings. You can look at it as a sustainable act. Instead of continuing to build new buildings, why not use the ones that you have?”

Leites founded the nonprofit group Discover Arts in the Park in 2018. Before that, she helped organize a concert event — Discover Music in the Park — at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in 2017.

The nonprofit's mission is to find a way to bring more art, education and community to the Discovery Park. The main focus is on finding a way to renovate the inside of the eight buildings located in Discovery Park's historic district, have a historic preservation group or nonprofit take over management of the buildings, and bring potential community centers to the park. Some ideas include museums, music concert halls and studio space.

The debate over whether adding more activity to Discovery Park has been a contentious discussion for more than 30 years, when the park and its master plan was established by the city in the 1980s.

“Why we love the park is it’s a place of peace a solitude,” said Friends of Discovery Park president Philip Vogelzang. “That’s why people go there. We have urbanization everywhere else. Our environment is entirely urban. We don’t need to bring it to the center of the park.”

The Discovery Park Advisory Council members did not provide official comment on the issue, but board member Garrett Esperum provided historical references and a quote from the parks master plan which reads: “In the years to come there will be almost irresistible pressures to carve out areas of the park in order to provide sites for various civic structures, space for special activities … There will in the future be projects and activities without number for which, it will be contended, this park can provide an ‘ideal site’ at no cost. The pressures for those sites may constitute the greatest single threat to the park. They must be resisted with resolution. If they are not, the park will be so fragmented that it can no longer serve its central purpose to provide an open space of quiet and tranquility.”

Resistance to change

Leites first became interested in Discovery Park while studying for her master's degree in architecture at the University of Washington. In 2014 she wrote a proposal for her senior thesis that would, hypothetically, create an underground music concert space. Her thesis was purely academic, she said, but during her research she found a love for the park's local history.

“I began looking at other examples around the country of military bases that were turned into civic centers, and we don’t have to look far. We have Fort Warden in Port Townsend,” Leites said. “They have the same buildings there that became a beautiful environmental and arts center."

Before hosting the 2017 concert at Daybreak Star Cultural Center, Leites was granted permission to walk the inside of the historic buildings along with other Magnolia residents. The interiors of the buildings were damaged and suffering from age, she said. SHKS prepared the report pro-bono.

“(SHKS) looked at each building and their diagnosis was that they are in bad shape but they are restorable,” Leites said. “We are talking about around $30 million for restoration for the whole site.”

According to SHKS's proposal, the actual cost was estimated at $22.26 million.

“The eight structures in question are generally in fair condition,” SHKS's study states. “The structures are all likely seismically deficient. The interior spaces will likely need hazardous material removal and overall restoration. The exterior will need repair of existing siding, roof, and overall building upgrades to make the buildings compliant with current codes and regulations.”

“The city has kept its bargain,” Vogelzang said. “Most recently they painted building 417, in 2017. There are several buildings that need repairs, the city is aware, and they said they will do it.”

Leites said she has tried to propose these ideas to the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, Friends of Discovery Park and the Discovery Park Advisory Council, mostly to resistance.

“We can make decisions about this park that won’t harm it,” she said. “We just need to get to the table and change their minds. Things evolve or, if it doesn’t, it’ll snap at some point.”

Leites also argued that the buildings are at risk for earthquakes and natural decay if the insides are not treated.

Vogelzang calls this alarmist.

“I see that as a trope, I really do,” he said. “These buildings are structurally fine. I challenge you to find a structural engineer that would say these are unsound. They are built well, they have solid roofs on them.”

Magnolia Community Council member Janis Traven has worked closely with Leites at her events. Traven said when they advertised for their concert in 2017, she was amazed at how many Seattle residents had no idea the park existed or about the history of the buildings.

“Many are locked in to the position that Discovery Park is a nature preserve and there are such a few places in the city where you can see nature undisturbed,” Traven said. “But there was an astonishing number of people who had no idea it was a military base. They had walked there, noticed the buildings, but didn’t understand why they were all boarded up. And if you threw out the idea of having the buildings rehabbed and used for gallery, rehearsal or studio space, and the people we talked to were really jazzed.”

The Magnolia Chamber of Commerce supported Leites’ previous concerts, said chamber director Jason Thibeaux.

“We wrote a letter to the city in the past in support of her events,” Thibeaux said. “We do not have an official stance on her larger proposal. We would want more information.”

The Magnolia Community Council also has no official stance on the issue.

Leites and Traven said being able to use the historic buildings would cost money up front but bring more people into Magnolia, which would generate revenue.

“Magnolia wants to bring new families, wants a stronger business core,” Leites said. “Magnolia is the park's sitter, so it can do that.”

“They are building a footbridge from Pike Place Market to the waterfront that’s two blocks,” Traven said. “It’s not a bus or car bridge like the Magnolia Bridge. It’s for tourists. The price on that is $100 million. It’ll probably be beautiful. But $30 million sounds cheap in comparison when you’re restoring a few historic buildings that can be put to use and maybe generate revenue.”

Vogelzang said the possibility of generating revenue doesn't excuse the fact that the master plan calls for the buildings to remain empty and the park quiet.

“There are good arguments made for all that stuff, but the decision was made and we stand by it,” Vogelzang said. “My question is why the park? Why the most peaceful, tranquil place that we go to find solace in the city? Why build such a facility? It violates the master plan, and we don’t think it needs to be changed. This is an effort by folks to change it, so they can get what they want, and they want to build this thing there. I disagree with that. I think there is a lot of egos involved, and I don’t think the park is the place for that.”

“That’s like the creationist debate,” Traven said. “Like that with the Old Testament and the Constitution. There need to be interpretations. For the city, there were more places for nature, museums and art, but a lot have been turned into apartment buildings. I think a master plan is great for zoning. But master plans should be revisited. They amend city codes and legislation all the time.”

For now, Leites is still volunteering a majority of her time to her nonprofit, while also homeschooling one of her three children. She is working on hosting another concert event at the Daybreak Star this summer to invite more people to Discovery Park and inform them about the group's goals. For more information about Discover Arts in the Park, visit www.discoverarts.org.