STANDING 65 FEET high, 400 feet wide, and measuring 148,000 square feet, it's one big building. Proponent Bernie Whitebear sees it as "the Taj Mahal of Indian country." But critics liken the proposed People's Lodge to a Costco warehouse, and say it could ruin the idyllic wilderness feel of Discovery Park.
City land use reviewers are currently vetting the People's Lodge proposal (a draft environmental impact statement will be published next month). But two provisions in the plan would require approval by the Seattle City Council, and public debate over the project has been heated.
Whitebear's United Indians of All Tribes Foundation leases 20 acres in the 535-acre Magnolia park, the current site of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. When the nonprofit organization took control of the land in the early 1970s, several buildings were planned for the site, although only Daybreak Star was built. The People's Lodge would combine the functions of the remaining proposed structures, including a 400-seat theater, an Indian museum, and meeting and banquet rooms. Whitebear says he prefers a single, large building now because it would be cheaper to build and maintain. "It also permits us to preserve a greenbelt area that separates us and the Lawtonwood community," he adds. (Lawtonwood is directly north of the park.) But neighbors and supporters of Discovery Park are panicked by UIATF estimates of 200,000 visitors per year using the lodge.
"They're not all coming at once," says Tom Keefe, a former Seattle politico in town last week to serve as spokesperson for the UIATF. Keefe, currently an Idaho resident, is married to Indian activist Jo Ann Kauffman; his sister-in-law, Claudia, works with Whitebear at Daybreak Star. Keefe says the building's functions dictate its size—for example, the museum portion of the building must be 65 feet tall to allow the display of large totem poles—and that even the tallest portion of the building will be about 10 feet lower than the Discovery Park tree line.
Although the project will bring parking and traffic impacts, Keefe argues they are hardly unexpected—the city approved the cultural center concept almost 30 years ago. "It's a regional park—it's not an adjunct of the Magnolia neighborhood," he says.
Bob Kildall, a founder and former president of Friends of Discovery Park, replies that the dispute isn't a neighborhood squabble, but an issue of importance to all Seattle residents. Discovery Park, which encompasses a large portion of the former Fort Lawton, is the jewel of Seattle's park system, he argues. It's a place to get away from the city, "where maybe you can just be by yourself and watch grass grow. And this city needs it."
Both Whitebear and Kildall have a significant history with the park. Whitebear was a protest leader when Native American activists occupied Fort Lawton in 1970. Kildall hasn't forgotten, however, that he and other activists had already blocked Army plans to construct an ABM missile facility, and negotiations were well under way to acquire Fort Lawton as a city park by the time the Indian activists arrived on the scene. But Kildall backed the compromise of leasing a portion of the park to the UIATF. "We supported the lease with the city, we believed and do believe the Indian Cultural Center would be an asset to the park," he says.
But members of the Coalition to Save Discovery Park—which includes the Friends of Discovery Park and neighborhood groups from Magnolia and Lawtonwood—object to the scale of the building and to plans to rent the facility for functions unrelated to the cultural center. Valerie Cholvin, current Friends co-president, argues that renting the facility to outside users violates the terms of the city's lease.
Whitebear says he wants to share the People's Lodge with the community. "We find that the people that visit the center then become more interested in what the center displays," he notes. Outside groups have used the existing UIATF facility for many years. Keefe points out that many prominent Seattle politicians have rented Daybreak Star for events, as has the Seattle Parks Department.
ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL ELEMENT of the proposal is parking: The UIATF proposes that an existing lot in Discovery Park be expanded to accommodate another 550 autos. Any expansion of the parking would require an amendment to the park's master plan, which would face Seattle City Council review. Whitebear says joint-use parking in city-park lots has long been promised for the Indian Cultural Center. Although project critics say there is no written record of such a promise, city officials support the UIATF's claim. Says a skeptical Cholvin: "We have been trying to track down who made that promise. I hardly think that's legal."
The debate over the People's Lodge has gotten sidetracked on several issues, most notably the fears of some critics that UIATF has plans to convert the cultural center into a gambling casino. Not likely, says Amy Patjens, spokesperson for the state Gambling Commission. Tribal casinos are run by federally recognized tribes (which UIATF isn't) on tribal land (which Discovery Park isn't). Whitebear says the project's opponents know better, but are using the gambling issue to stir up concerns.
Particularly controversial is a schematic, prepared by Whitebear in 1993 in response to then-Mayor Norm Rice's Urban Village proposals, which shows Indian community facilities on about a third of Discovery Park's acreage. "We offered that up as an approach for the city to look at," says Whitebear. "It really didn't go anyplace, it's still sitting on some city bureaucrat's shelf, I'm sure." But park supporters see this as an indicator of future UIATF hopes to annex more park property. Kildall is concerned that as the US Army decommissions the few military areas remaining within the park's boundaries, the UIATF may compete with the city to obtain the surplus federal property.
Whitebear notes that the People's Lodge is just a small part of his organization's effort to serve the 25,000 urban Indian residents in the Seattle area. The UIATF provides a range of social service programs at seven facilities throughout the city. But the People's Lodge is an attempt to create a Seattle Native American landmark on par with the Space Needle or the International District, he says. "We expect that the People's Lodge and the Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park will join that list of areas and facilities that make Seattle a great city."