Planning and Growth

cover of master plan
The 1972 Master Plan described the park well.
"The site is one of breathtaking majesty...
The seclusion of the site, the magnificent vistas,
the stretches of tidal beaches, the stands of
native trees, the meadowlands - all combine
to make this site one of surpassing beauty
and serenity. As a park site, its potential is
bounded only by the vision and resolution of
those into whose hand it is entrusted."
Document 2114, Seattle Municipal Archives

Discovery Park in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood is located on over 530 acres of wooded land and tidal beaches, with a majestic bluff overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. It includes the westernmost point in Seattle.

Indigenous Duwamish and other Coast Salish peoples have been living in this area since time immemorial. The original Duwamish name for West Point was PKa'dz Eltue (phonetically: pa-uq-dz-al-tsu) meaning "thrust far out." Large game such as elk and deer were abundant and hunted, and fish and marine mammals were caught and gathered off the shore. Stones were collected on the beach to be used for tools, as evidenced through archeological digs that have been conducted on the site.


Aerial of Fort Lawton
Aerial of Fort Lawton, 1968
Image 170383,
Seattle Municipal Archives

Fort Lawton occupied the property beginning in 1900, but efforts towards acquiring the land for a park started in 1964 when City officials formally requested the assistance of Washington's congressional delegation. Mayor Dorm Braman formed a Fort Lawton Planning Committee which was charged with exploring ways of financing the acquisition of the fort land, and devising a general plan for various possible uses. Petitions from local community groups and individuals were submitted to the city proposing potential uses for the land, with several calling for preserving the natural area as a regional park. Others suggested a golf course, a cemetery, a children's home, a shooting range, and an airport, while some advocated for making the land available for private development. Ultimately the decision was made to turn the land into a park.

The Mayor and City Council directed the Department of Parks and Recreation to proceed in the preparation of an overall plan of development in anticipation of Fort Lawton becoming available to the City. A scope of work statement issued in July of 1969 called for a design consultant to study elements such as neighborhood and traffic impacts, costs of maintenance and staffing, regional impact, and the long-term best use of the site for park purposes. "The Mayor, the City Council, and the Board of Park Commissioners are determined that the magnificent potential of this site must not be dissipated by fragmented or piecemeal planning and development," the scope reads. "We are willing to settle for nothing less than the finest park attainable."

In 1968, a Seattle Forward Thrust bond issue was approved, providing $3 million to purchase U.S. Army land surplused at Fort Lawton; however, legislation introduced by Senators Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson enabled Seattle to acquire the property at no cost. In 1971, the City of Seattle acquired 391 acres of land which included bluffs, meadows, forest and beaches. The Forward Thrust funds were freed up for first-phase design work which included permanent parking lots, a trail system, and a reforestation program.

In 1970, a coordinated effort by Native activists to peaceably occupy the decommissioned fort triggered years of negotiation with city officials to reclaim the land for use by Native peoples, ultimately resulting in the opening of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in 1977. (See our online exhibit to learn more.)

park map
Map in the 1972 Master Plan providing an
illustration of early development of the park.
Document 2114, Seattle Municipal Archives

Landscape architecture firm Dan Kiley and Partners was hired in December 1969 to design an initial park plan, and completed the Master Plan for Fort Lawton Park in February 1972. In the plan, the central purpose and role of the park was given as " provide an open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city – a sanctuary where they might escape the turmoil of the city and enjoy the rejuvenation which quiet and solitude and an intimate contact with nature can bring... It will best serve this city if it is permitted to serve one primary function and to serve that function well." This purpose would be tested many times over in the years to come.

The original 391 acres of Ft. Lawton land were released to the City on May 23, 1972. Sixteen acres was leased to the United Indians of All Tribes (UIAT) for a cultural center. Mayor Uhlman accepted the deed from GSA officials and Tricia Nixon Cox on September 1, 1972 at a ceremony held at Fort Lawton and attended by Senators Magnuson and Jackson.

The park was named Discovery Park in honor of British sloop HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver. In preparation for the opening of the park, the Parks Department transferred over 50 groundskeepers in 1972 to trim trees, fell dangerous trees, repair water system leaks, and remove wire.

Senator Jackson speaking at podium
Senator Jackson dedicated the park
on October 28, 1973.
Item 195979, Seattle Municipal Archives
Mayor Uhlman speaking at podium
Mayor Uhlman and Park Superintendent David
Towne were also on the program.
Item 195985, Seattle Municipal Archives
Large group walking on park path
A half-mile walk followed the program,
concluding on the site of the future
Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
Item 196019, Record Series 0207-01
invitation to park opening
Invitation to opening ceremonies
Box 17, Folder 24, Record Series
5804-05, Seattle Municipal Archives
park map
Map of Discovery Park on brochure handed
out at 1973 opening ceremony
Box 17, Folder 24, Record Series
5804-05, Seattle Municipal Archives

Park Improvements

The first trail at the park was completed in 1974 with $30,000 of Forward Thrust funds. The 2.8 mile trail consisted of two loops, one beginning and ending at the administration building and another in the north end of the park. The trail was added to the National Trails System as a national recreation trail on October 20, 1975.

A Revised Master Plan was created in 1974 by Dan Kiley and Partners. The goal of the Revised Plan was to incorporate new planning constraints or conditions and also to coordinate the planning work with the development of the Indian Cultural Center. The need for comfort stations, the need for a main entrance, and the possibility of an amphitheater were included. Existing buildings were to be used for park maintenance and police mounted patrol stables, both of which were originally intended to be located elsewhere in the park. Construction of the main access road was delayed.

Neighborhood resistance appeared that year when neighborhood activist Margaret Coughlin filed a complaint saying her property would be "adversely affected and diminished in value" as a result of the 1974 Master Plan and that it violated the state's Environmental Protection Act because no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had been completed. The Parks Superintendent ordered an EIS in 1977. When the draft EIS was published in 1978, an opinion piece by a member of United Indians of All Tribes commented that "The plan favors affluent citizens who can afford the luxury of the nature ethic." The piece argued that the emphasis on an urban wilderness discriminated against lower income, elderly, and handicapped, making it a playground for a narrow population of white upper middle-income users.

invitation to dedication consisting of text in a spiral
Invitation to the 1979 dedication of
127 additional acres in Discovery Park
Box 20, Folder 1, Record Series
5804-05, Seattle Municipal Archives

In February 1974, the US Army announced it would give up additional property when the fort closed in July 1975. This acreage included headquarters and housing units. The eventual 127 acres of land was not transferred until 1980. Included was a 2.5-acre former Coast Guard antenna site which the UIAT attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain for construction of a longhouse. A land transfer ceremony was held April 16, 1979, bringing the total acres in Discovery Park to 524. Senator Jackson released ring-necked pheasants to symbolize the open-space nature of the park, adding to the existing population in the park.

In 1978, the General Services Administration approved the City's purchase of an additional 1.8 acres, outbidding eleven religious organizations for the former Army chapel and associated property. With the additional 2.5 acres purchased from GSA in 1980, the City owned a total of 534 acres at Discovery Park by 1982. A viewpoint on a ridge was named the Henry M Jackson Viewpoint and dedicated on August 18, 1984.

In the southeast corner of the park, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 16, 1976, for a new playground, with tennis courts, basketball courts, and softball and soccer fields, as well as a play structure and picnic areas. The city's first parcours, a fitness trail with fifteen stations, was added in 1977.

The South Beach Trail was designed in 1982 to connect the Loop Trail and the South Beach and West Point areas. The North Beach trail was originally designed in 1977 but because of community resistance and a 1982 landslide was not completed until 1983; this trail provided public access to the North Beach down the North Bluff from the picnic area. The 1986 Development Plan would add a system of pedestrian trails radiating from the Loop Trail, providing access to the North and South Beaches, viewpoints, picnic areas, and park facilities and activity areas.


Work on a Discovery Park Development Plan began in 1982 and was approved in 1986. It adopted the 1972 Design and Development Objectives which declared that the most valuable use of the site was as open space. The plan envisioned a visitors center with interpretive exhibits to help communicate the purpose of the park, and indicated that the Fort Lawton Historic District should be managed as a special activity area. It also stipulated that private vehicles should be limited to the peripheries.

Olympic Mountains from park
Looking towards Olympic Mountains from
the South Bluff, 1984
Image 171104, Seattle Municipal Archives

All areas of the park were considered in the Development Plan. No development was to be allowed on the beaches except for access trails and limited signage. Vegetation was to be managed in order to preserve the views on the bluffs along the southern shore. Slopes were to be protected in order to prevent slides on the bluffs which expose a geologic record of more than 10,000 years, with trails, benches, and a limited number of picnic tables with log railings to mark the edges in the steepest areas. The major open meadow in the park was on the upper plateau above the south bluffs and the management of vegetation to protect wildlife habitat and maintain the meadow was a priority. The goals for the major forest areas in the northern half of the park were for wildlife habitat and for recreational walking and nature interpretation. The plan specified ongoing non-park uses which included the Metro West Point Treatment Plant, the U.S. Coast Guard West Point Lighthouse, and land occupied by the Army Reserve, the Army Cemetery, and military housing.

The protection of Discovery Park as an urban wilderness was clearly guiding decision-making and planning. By 1999, the park would include 534 acres, have seven miles of hiking trails, two miles of shoreline, and be known as a preeminent place for bird-watching with more than 230 resident or migratory species to be found.

An additional 24 acres was purchased in 2004 from the U.S. Navy. In 2005 the U.S. Army Reserve 70th Regional Support Command headquarters closed. A redevelopment and homeless assistance application was submitted to HUD in 2008 and approved in 2010. The State Court of Appeals, however, upheld a lower-court ruling saying that plans needed to undergo state environmental review. The Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council argued that the mixed-use subdivision threatened a colony of great blue herons and other wildlife and habitats next to the site.

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Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.