Goodbye to grand plan for Seattle Center?
Without Mayor Mike McGinn's support, the $567 million Seattle Center master plan is fading away.
Seattle Times staff reporters
How many visitors?PROPONENTS say an exhibit hall devoted to glass artist Dale Chihuly would draw at least 400,000 visitors annually, based on a feasibility study they would not make public. If the numbers are accurate, here's how they stack up against some other local venues:
Museum of Glass in Tacoma: 175,333 visitors in the 2008-2009 fiscal year
Space Needle: about 1.5 million in 2009
Pacific Science Center: about 890,000 visitors in 2009
Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum: 511,540 visitors in 2009
What's nextSeattle Mayor Mike McGinn must sign off on the proposal to lease space at Seattle Center for a Dale Chihuly "glass house." The proposal would then be forwarded to the City Council for review. A final vote by the council is needed to move the project forward.
Seattle Center officials thought by the time they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair, they'd be well on their way to building a new Bubbleator.
A clear-plastic elevator fashioned after the 1962 World's Fair icon was among a half-billion dollars' worth of improvements envisioned in a 2008 master plan. Now, less than two years from the planned celebration, the Bubbleator, an ice-skating rink, outdoor amphitheater and other improvements are unfunded and have fallen off the city's list of priorities.
"I love Seattle Center. I use Seattle Center. I'm excited by their long-term plan. ... [But] I think given our budget situation, a really large levy for Seattle Center isn't one of the large priorities right now," said Mayor Mike McGinn.
Without his support of a levy, the Center's $567 million master plan is fading away, especially as the mayor eyes layoffs and higher utility rates. Because the Seattle Center relies heavily on city funding, its future rests with McGinn and the City Council. Without their support of a voter-approved levy, the Center has nowhere to look but the private sector.
Currently, the only proposal is a privately funded exhibit hall for glass artist Dale Chihuly, set at the base of the Space Needle. The concept, announced last week, garnered a mixed reaction at City Hall, with some council members wondering if it's the right project for the Center.
From McGinn's perspective, Chihuly's "glass house" spells revenue. He says that the $500,000 in annual lease payments could be enough to operate the city's libraries for a week, or to hire five police officers or seven crime-victim advocates.
The Center will pull in about $13 million from direct city funding this year. That's a little less than 40 percent of the facility's $34.6 million annual budget. The rest comes from 130 different sources, including vendor leases, sponsorship agreements, parking revenue and temporary rentals.
McGinn's position is entirely different from that of former Mayor Greg Nickels, who supported a grand revitalization of the center's 74-acre campus, funded, in part, by a future voter-approved levy.
In anticipation of asking voters for the money, a task force spent two years coming up with a plan for the revitalizing the center, holding 60 meetings and listening to 1,000 people. The council adopted that plan in 2008.
Local architect Dennis Forsyth, a member of the Century 21 Committee, said he's concerned about the depth of City Hall's commitment to the center.
"The original plan was to put it on a levy," he said. Nickels "talked about it in '08. Then he said, well, 2010. He's no longer with us, so the present mayor ... . It's an important facet of the Seattle place, [so he] has to be concerned about it. But he's also trying to balance budgets, so we'll see."
As for the Chihuly proposal, Forsyth said, while it doesn't fit the plan perfectly, it could meet its general goals.
The area that would be used for the Chihuly project was supposed to be green space and a "splash area" for kids during summer months. In winter, it would convert to a skating rink.
An even bigger change envisioned is knocking down Memorial Stadium and replacing it with a grassy amphitheater that can be used for concerts as well as high-school sports games. The city reached a deal with Seattle Public Schools, which owns the stadium, in December, but it hasn't been finalized or approved by the School Board or City Council.
"There was great momentum right up to the adoption of the [Center's] master plan," said City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. "Then things really came to a screeching halt."
With no big funding on the horizon, Seattle Center officials are eyeing low-budget improvements. They recently razed a meeting space to build a skatepark. They're considering basketball hoops and a straw maze for the north area of the former Fun Forest site.
When the Center asked for bids for the north section of the Fun Forest site, six proposals came in by the Jan. 11 deadline. Four of the six were proposals from current tenants, like Bite of Seattle and the Seattle Children's Museum. Several of the proposals were for temporary uses of the space. The Center is pursuing only one of the bids — Seattle Children's Museum's bid to put in a children's garden.
When it came to the south end of the Fun Forest, the Seattle Center did not seek any bids for that site. Instead, the director said he approached Jeff Wright, whose family owns the Space Needle and who co-chaired the Seattle Center's Century 21 task force.
"I've been recruiting him for a long time," Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams said. He said he asked Wright: "What do you want to do? What kind of footprint do you want to make here?"
When asked why he didn't solicit ideas from others, Nellams said, "People come to me with ideas all the time. They don't have a way of getting it done, [or] paying for it either now or in the future."
About a year ago, Wright hit on the idea of an exhibit space for Chihuly. Last fall, he presented plans to Nellams for a 44,000-square-foot exhibit hall that would make use of the Fun Forest building already on the site.
Negotiations for the space are nearly completed, and the city could collect about a half-million dollars annually in lease payments from the Wrights, Nellams said. That works about to about $11 a square foot. Nellams said he did not use a real-estate agent to help determine the value of the property.
Nellams said his previous experience with agents resulted in lease values at the Center that were far beyond what he eventually was able to charge. The Fun Forest paid the Center about $325,000 a year for the area that could be used for the Chihuly hall.
The project was announced last week to mixed public opinion — and some outright hostility — which Wright said left him "depressed."
Bill Block, chairman of the Center's advisory commission, said it would be a shame if Wright's proposal died while the city spent time looking for other offers.
"At some point, the choice is between Seattle process and opportunity," Block said. Based on his experience with the Center, Block said he was certain that a request for proposals would not produce a better project.
Idea for exhibit
While the Fun Forest covered about five acres, only about two acres would be taken up by the Chihuly project, Nellams said. The remaining site would be public space, he said.
"Everyone's in such an uproar about this project, and I, in my world, this is taking one commercial use to another and increasing open space by three acres," he said.
Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart said the idea for a Chihuly display hall came about as a result of questions from Space Needle visitors who spotted drawings signed by Chihuly and wanted to know where they could see glass art and more of his work.
"People do arrive here with an expectation of what they're going to experience in Seattle," Sevart said. "The man Chihuly and his glass art is something they find important."
If the city signs off on the project, Chihuly would have creative control over the space. Books and glass work produced and marketed by his publishing house would be sold at a 2,300-square-foot shop on the site.
A study commissioned for the project looked at attendance at a half-dozen, single-artist museums, as well as a series of shows Chihuly did at various botanical gardens in the United States.
At Seattle Center, "we're confident it's going to be north of 400,000 [visitors] a year," Sevart said.
But when asked for a copy of the feasibility study to check the accuracy of the estimate, Wright declined, citing the private nature of the project. Nellams said he, too, has not seen the study.
Reaction at City Hall remains muted. Councilmember Jean Godden said she likes the idea of a glass exhibit but thinks it should go somewhere else, like Pioneer Square. Seattle Center, she said, should have more free activities. "We like to think of the Center as being a big, free park."
Rasmussen said he supports the Chihuly proposal but says if the city wants to give the Center a makeover, it has to spend its own money, meaning some sort of public funding is needed. "We can't be grasping at any entrepreneurial activity that gets proposed to us," he said.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw envisions the Center as the city's "Central Park."
"The premier, coolest urban park in the nation," she said, and a gathering place that is the first choice of locals. "Right now, I don't think people feel that way."
The city should be careful about leasing public land to private groups, she said.
"Just because there's some tough times right now, we shouldn't ... lose sight of what this could be and that's the vision I want to keep in front of the people."
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