Magnuson Park (Seattle)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 5/15/2000
  • Essay 2287

The deactivation of the Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington in Northeast Seattle set off a years-long, bitter debate over uses for the land. Eventually, 195.6 acres were transferred to the City of Seattle, and 100 acres became the Western Headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Squabbles continued over whether the City should maintain an airport for light aircraft on its portion. Despite several initiatives and long-running court battles, the City finally dismantled the airstrip and converted the land into a park for recreational uses. It opened as Warren G. Magnuson Park, named after the long-serving U.S. Senator, on May 29, 1977. Controversy flared again in the 1990s, when the Navy announced it was designating as surplus its remaining 151 acres at Sand Point. The City again began to plan for use of this significant portion of real estate, all or some of which was to be added to Magnuson Park. Before plans appeared to coalesce in 1999, the Muckleshoot Indians, dog owners, advocates for the homeless, and Sand Point neighbors all became involved in the struggle over control and land use. Despite all the controversy, Magnuson Park has continued to be a haven and playground for kite flyers, boaters, swimmers, picnickers, skateboarders, ball players, and artists, to name just a few.

Aviation vs. Recreation

The story of Magnuson Park is one of a tremendous gift to the public that became the target of a large number of interest groups. Soon after the Sand Point Naval Air Station was deactivated on June 30, 1970, the struggle began between aviation advocates, who wanted to maintain operation of the airport for light aircraft, and neighbors and elected officials, including U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) and Seattle City Councilwoman Jeanette Williams (1914-2008), who wanted it made into a park for recreational use. The aviation issue went to two public votes. It was first supported in a King Countywide advisory vote on September 17, 1974. This non-binding vote had little practical impact. It was then rejected in a Seattle vote on November 5 of the same year.

Despite continued legal action by the aviationists, plans for the park went ahead. While 100 acres of the naval property became Western Headquarters of NOAA, the remaining 195.6 acres was planned out as a city park. (Some 151 acres remained as a Naval support station.) In a driving rain on December 26, 1975, the park was dedicated as Sand Point Park. It was renamed Warren G. Magnuson Park -- an unusual move since Magnuson was still living -- and opened officially on May 29, 1977.

Kite Flyers, Artists, Teenagers

Over the next decade, the park became a respite from city life for those who enjoyed its water, picnic grounds, playfields, and trails. Improvements in the 1980s included a unique grassy knoll for kite flying and other uses. Arts installations also became a feature. The park became a scene for teenage activity in the mid-1980s, although that "scene" has since become less prominent.

On April 12, 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney recommended closure of the remaining naval base at Sand Point, once again setting off a land fight. Magnuson Park supporters aimed their attention at the entire 151 acres of land adjacent to the park, as opposed to a 36.5-acre parcel previously freed. An initial City plan, put forward in 1993, stirred further controversy with a proposal for housing for the low income and homeless. Some neighbors objected to this plan, while homeless advocates backed it.

The Muckleshoot Claim

A new element was introduced in March 1993, when the Muckleshoot Indian tribe put forward its own plan for control of the land. Their claim was partially based on ancestral treaty rights, which recognized Lake Washington as part of the tribe's traditional fishing grounds. The Muckleshoots employed Denny Miller, a former aide to the late Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, as a lobbyist. Miller identified a flaw in the Navy's plans, in that federal agencies were supposed to get priority over cities in surplus land transfers. The Muckleshoots persuaded the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put forth the tribe's claim. Under the tribe's plan, the land would become a cultural and education center, as well as open space.

During negotiations with the City of the Seattle, the tribe first cut its claim to 85 acres and then, in July 1995, reached tentative agreement with the City to drop its claim to Sand Point in exchange for help in acquiring some 80 acres of land near its reservation in Auburn, Washington.

Dog Controversy Unleashed

Meanwhile, controversy simmered on even after the Navy bid farewell to its base on September 28, 1995. Dog owners had long argued the need for off-leash areas in Seattle parks. The Parks Board had ruled against such areas in 1985, but pooch owners and their advocates carried on doggedly. Finally, in 1996, the City Council agreed to a year-long trial period for seven off-leash areas, including one in Magnuson Park. The first such area opened there with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 15, 1996, featuring Councilwoman Jan Drago, a chief Council advocate for the pet owners. The other six areas in other parks opened on the same day. The off-leash areas were later made permanent.

This didn't terminate the controversy however. In 1999, Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) put forth a proposal for a revised use plan at Sand Point. The plan made environmental protection and restoration a priority. It called for eliminating off-leash access to Lake Washington and building a small lake inside the off-leash area. This elicited howls from dog owners. When the City Council revised the revised plan, it changed the priority to "active use," maintained off-leash access to the lake, and added ball fields. The Council passed its plan on November 1, 1999. In 1999, the City also acquired the Sand Point Historic District, including the buildings originally constructed by the U.S. Navy.

On September 20, 2004, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels presided over a ceremony to rededicate Magnuson Park as expanded to include the entire Sand Point Historic District. The ceremony recognized the expansion and the naming of the entire enlarged park after the late Senator Warren G. Magnuson.

Outdoor Art

Meanwhile, the park has maintained its recreational mission while expanding its arts focus. Horsehead, a playful exhibition of temporary, outdoor art installations curated by Seattle artist Matthew Lennon, mounted shows at Sand Point in 1998 and 1999. Gracing the park grounds have been such sculptures as Carol E. Bolt's Vend-a-Henge, a white obelisk that vends answers, poems, and drawings, and John Young's Fin Project: From Swords to Plowshares, which features 22 fins from old nuclear submarines buried in the ground on the Lake Washington shore.

Whether viewing art, playing ball, flying kites, or just taking in the view, visitors to Magnuson Park continue to find a pleasant oasis and getaway from the urban life that ends at its gates. Viewing the lake from the grassy mound, it's easy to forget the political controversy that has swirled around the park's creation and development.


Al Watts, "Sand Pt. Park Takes Off," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 27, 1975, p. A-1; "Sand Point: A 5-Year Battle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 27, 1975, p. A-12; "Sand Point: A 5-Year Battle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 27, 1975, p. A-12; Svein Gilje, "Sand Point: Advisory-vote Impact Due," The Seattle Times, September 15, 1974, p. D-1; Svein Gilje "The Issue: Best Use," The Seattle Times, September 15, 1974, p. D-1; Svein Gilje, "Airporters Gain Edge in Sand Point Issue," The Seattle Times, September 18, 1974, p. A-10; Svein Gilje, "Aviation Use Turned Down," The Seattle Times, November 6, 1974, p. A-19; Byron Johnsrud, "City OK's NOAA's Sand Point Site; Residents Object," The Seattle Times, February 23, 1975, p. B-2; John O'Ryan, "Warren Magnuson Park Dedicated at Sand Point," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30, 1977, p. A-1; Dick Lilly, "Magnuson Park's archery range should be moved, says Parks Board," The Seattle Times, February 2, 1990, p. C-3; "Improvements Set for Magnuson Park," The Seattle Times, February 7, 1989, p. C-3; Joni Blater and David Schaefer, "Dogs Denied a Roam of Their Own," The Seattle Times, November 8, 1985, p. C-1; Charles E. Brown, "Teen-age Crowds Shift from Carkeek to Magnuson Park," The Seattle Times, June 26, 1984, p. B-1; "Sand Point Airport Backer Loses Again," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1980, p. A-15; "Station's Closure May Spur Land Fight," The Seattle Times, April 13, 1991, p. A-1; City of Seattle Planning Department, City of Seattle Community Preferred Reuse Plan for Sand Point, November 1993; Robert T. Nelson, "Tribe May Win Sand Point Claim," The Seattle Times, July 16, 1993, A-1; Tyrone Beason, " Tribe Offers To Give Up Sand Point Claim: Final Accord is Near in Land Deal with City," The Seattle Times, July 12, 1995, p. B-3; Tyrone Beason, "Sand Point Ends Its Navy Duty" Seattle Prepares to Convert Base to Other Uses," The Seattle Times, July 12, 1995, p. B-3; Kyle R. Wood, "Dogs Sniff Out Off Leash Territories," The Seattle Times, June 10, 1996, p. B-1; "Free to Roam" (Photo), The Seattle Times, June 17, 1996, p. B-2.; Eli Sanders, "Magnuson Park Plan for Redesign Gets Council's Final OK," The Seattle Times, November 2, 1999; "Seattle Artist's Fin Sculpture Sinks in Tucson," The Seattle Times, August 20, 1998; Robin Updike, "It's Art, It's a Workout, It's Horsehead," The Seattle Times, July 19, 1999; Cynthia Rose, "Get Answers Cheap at Magnuson Park," The Seattle Times, August 12, 1999; "Mayor Nickels Leads Rededication of Magnuson Park on Sept. 20," Seattle Parks and Recreation News Release, September 17, 2004..

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