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Originally published March 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 9, 2008 at 10:03 AM

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What would you do with Seattle Center?

Led by that committee, local officials are embarking on a redesign of Seattle Center. You can help.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The idea for the Space Needle began with a scribble on a cocktail napkin.

The crude sketch grew into a blueprint for the unmistakable landmark that has come to symbolize Seattle around the world. Yet nearly a half-century later, the 74 acres surrounding the Space Needle remain a curiosity — a treasured but ill-defined and underused urban resource.

Is Seattle Center a park? A campus for entertainment and the arts? A cultural attraction?

"When friends back in New York ask me what the Seattle Center is, I tell them it's a cross between Madison Square Garden, Central Park and Lincoln Center," said Regina Hall, a member of the Century 21 Committee.

Led by that committee, local officials are embarking on a redesign of Seattle Center.

Several designs have been proposed, but nothing firm. This summer, the Seattle City Council hopes to settle on a long-term vision for the Center and possibly ask voters in November to start paying for the changes.

This is where you come in.

Beginning today, The Seattle Times is inviting readers to design the Seattle Center of the next 20 years and beyond.

We're providing a map to help you get started.

But you can present your ideas on pretty much anything — even a cocktail napkin. You can submit a pen drawing, computer graphic, video, scale model or some simple paragraphs of text. We'll even accept a poem or song, as long as it expresses a vision of Seattle Center.

Show us. Tell us. Surprise us.

City officials say they will pay close attention to this exercise.

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"It will be good to get broad community comment on Seattle Center," City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said. "We want to get the best design, the best plan we possibly can get."

We'll gather your ideas and post a selection online at www.seattletimes.com, where we will invite comments from other readers, creating a dialogue on the Center's future.

There are some ground rules.

"You can't bulldoze the place and start over," said Rasmussen, who chairs the council's Parks and Seattle Center committee. "You have to start the redevelopment with a number of givens."

The Space Needle is untouchable. So are the Monorail, Pacific Science Center, McCaw Hall, Fisher Pavilion, Experience Music Project, International Fountain and a few other buildings. The city also has committed to a new skateboard park at Second Avenue North and Thomas Street.

But several major parts of the Center are in play — Fun Forest, Memorial Stadium, Center House — as well as other old standbys.

The goal is for Seattle Center to be a year-round, round-the-clock destination where locals and tourists assemble no matter the weather.

Any redesign also should be financially realistic. A comprehensive redevelopment, based on the early designs, is estimated to cost about $650 million. Voters would be asked to pay for some of those changes, although much of the funding could be private.

Done right, officials say, a redeveloped Seattle Center could energize the city, like Boston Common or Trafalgar Square.

Seattle Center's genesis

Seattle Center was built for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair, the Century 21 Exposition. The appropriately named Century 21 Committee, appointed in 2006 by Mayor Greg Nickels, has focused primarily on redeveloping the 5 acres of the Fun Forest, which shuts down after 2009, and Memorial Stadium, which is deeded to the Seattle School District.

The committee also proposes a major remodel of Center House in hopes of making it more inviting in summer.

We prefer readers focus on those three specific areas, but we're also soliciting ideas on KeyArena. The arena is a moving target in any redesign because the fate of the Seattle Sonics is in flux.

Last week, a group of businessmen proposed a public-private partnership that would plug $300 million into a KeyArena renovation and be a driver for a Center makeover.

The Century 21 Committee's preliminary redesign plans have KeyArena staying put — even if the Sonics don't — because city officials believe it can be a viable concert venue and major-events facility without the NBA.

Do you agree?

Other parts of Seattle Center open to redesign include the Mural Amphitheatre, a section of the Northwest Rooms and Mercer Garage.

We also invite you to consider that Seattle Center doesn't have a main entrance. Should it? If so, where? And what should it look like?

A Center redesign also could better showcase existing assets that have lost impact over time.

They are: the colorful Paul Horiuchi mosaic of Mural Amphitheatre; the concrete wall at Memorial Stadium that lists names of Seattle high-school students who died in World War II; and the "Purple Haze" facade of Experience Music Project that glows brilliantly in the light of the setting sun.

Various interests

A smart redesign will balance many interests.

About 12 million people visit Seattle Center each year, about half from outside King County.

Yet a redesign could be felt most by the Center's many tenants, including food vendors, museums, an arts-oriented public high school and numerous nonprofit dance, music and theater groups.

The grounds also play host to three of the Puget Sound area's most popular festivals — Bumbershoot, Northwest Folklife and Bite of Seattle. A series of weekend cultural events, Festál, draws people to the Center year-round.

Many of the Center's regular programs are designed for families with young children and senior citizens. Traditionally, many Center attractions and events are free or low-cost.

"I don't want Seattle Center to be gentrified," Councilman Nick Licata said. "I'd like it to remain a living room for anyone in Seattle."

Any changes also will affect those who live and work in the surrounding Lower Queen Anne / Uptown neighborhood. That neighborhood has become more residential, as have nearby Belltown and South Lake Union.

KCTS-TV operates out of a building on the Center grounds, and more workers are on the way with the gargantuan new headquarters for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation across the street.

What's next?

On March 17, the City Council will be briefed on the Century 21 Committee's recommended plan. Rasmussen said the council won't be tied to that recommendation — and you shouldn't be, either.

If a Seattle Center funding measure is to make it onto the November ballot, the council will need to finish its work in July.

Rasmussen said the ballot amount likely wouldn't top $150 million, enough for the first phase of redevelopment, possibly of the Fun Forest site.

Before diving into your redesign, ask yourself what you want the Center to be.

"I see Seattle Center as a haven and respite from the noise and chaos of city streets," Rasmussen said. "I'd like to see a master plan that integrates art, architecture and landscaping throughout."

County Executive Ron Sims, in calling for the city to unleash its imagination, has floated fanciful ideas: a giant grassy park with rain-activated sculptures, canals flowing with treated wastewater and stormwater, live-work lofts for artists, running trails and outdoor cafes.

Sims has said that too much of the Center feels like a beloved but worn-out relic of the 1960s — at worst, "a supersized, underutilized, government-owned tourist trap."

Now it's your turn

Your Seattle Center vision can feature more green space, which is the direction the city seems to be leaning, or something completely different.

You can submit a design that takes the various elements of the Center and fits them into a cohesive whole. Or you can submit a redesign of a singular asset — maybe Memorial Stadium or the Mural Amphitheatre.

The goal, according to Seattle Center director Robert Nellams, is to create "the nation's best gathering place."

But no pressure. Really.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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